Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Farewell, Google Plus. You Deserved Better

It took a serious security bug to do it, but seven years after its launch, Google is shutting down Google+, its social network.

A software glitch caused Google to expose the personal-profile data of hundreds of thousands of Google+ users. Even worse, the company chose to not go public with the information after the bug was fixed in March 2018.

After the WSJ broke the story, Google announced on October 8 that they would be sunsetting the consumer version of Google+, citing low usage as justification to forego trying to make the social network more secure going forward.

Google+ launched in 2011 as a competitor to Facebook. It copied Facebook's main features such as news feeds and status updates, but was actually superior to Facebook in several ways.

Users could organize their friends into groups called Circles, giving them granular control over exactly which friends could see what -- before Facebook made Friend Lists a feature. They could also change on the fly what was visible in their stream, making it easy to focus on whatever their interest was at the moment.

Developers assigned to Google+ obviously understood that the visual aspect of social media was the future, and the platform very early on offered features that were light years ahead of anything found on Facebook.

Users had the ability to broadcast live video directly to their news feed for their friends' consumption. Numerous people could even video-chat together in real time using the Hangouts feature. Photo sharing allowed users to overlay captions directly on uploaded digital images, perform basic editing and touchup functions in real time, and organize the photos into albums -- with fine control over who could see them.

Despite these and other advantages over Facebook, the social platform struggled to win new users after the initial burst of enthusiasm. It was at this point that Google began a series of blunders that probably doomed Google+ long before the security flaw was discovered.

To drive adoption, Google began to throw around the idea of Google+ being a "social layer" that would unite a user's profile and preferences across all of Google's applications from Gmail to YouTube. It became a requirement to login via a Google+ profile in order to use any of Google's other services.

When this measure failed to boost engagement, Google tried a different tack, aiming to simplify Google+ by focusing on Communities, its answer to discussion forums and Facebook groups; Photos, which was the most popular element of the platform; and Collections, a new way to organize posts, photos, or a mixture of both, based around a particular topic or interest.

Despite the company's best efforts, however, Google+ remained the underdog of social networks. While millions used it daily, it was still dwarfed by Facebook, and then by upstarts such as Snapchat and Instagram.

When Google made the decision to break out Hangouts and Photos as stand-alone offerings, it was an indication the end might be near for Google+. By this time, smartphones were eclipsing the traditional computer as the primary means by which people accessed the Internet, and these two services were perfect as mobile apps.

Google did made one last push for the stream aspect of Google+ with a revamped desktop browser-based experience and a redesigned app. Neither made much of a blip on the social landscape.

For years Google declined to provide internal numbers regarding the use of Google+, although pundits had long claimed it had become a graveyard. When announcing the shutdown of the platform on October 8, however, Google finally backed what the experts had been saying when it admitted that 90 percent of Google+ user sessions lasted less than 5 seconds.

Once the hope of many who desired an advertisement-free social media experience where they also had total control over what they saw, read and heard, Google+ for consumers will die on August 31, 2019, although the enterprise version will live on. Google promises users will be able to download their assets such as photos and videos before the coffin lid closes.

It's very doubtful that anyone really believes the data breach excuse is anything more than a smokescreen behind which Google can finally kill off what it and others once proclaimed to be the future of social networking.

So, what went wrong? How could a social platform that was a better Facebook than Facebook in nearly every way end up a failure?

Some cite Google's failure to effectively monetize the platform. "No ads" drew people in, but it also barred what constitutes the biggest moneymaker for Google.

The push to make Google+ a wrapper for all of Google's products and services confused and angered people who were already turned off by Facebook's desire to know anything and everything about its own users.

The failure to control spam in Communities or effectively police the thousands of fake accounts created to post said spam, resulted in many of those who had stuck out the numerous changes over the years fleeing Google+ in disgust.

Whatever the reasons, Google+ will soon join the very long list of failed social networks. It's actually Google's fourth attempt at a social network, although most people have already forgotten Orkut, Buzz and Wave.

It's a shame, actually. I was one of the relative few chosen to beta-test Google+ and after public launch I did my best to stay on the platform and away from Facebook. I had over a thousand people I followed, carefully grouped into Circles.

Millions of interesting photos were being shared. The Communities I belonged to were lively and interesting, as were the Collections I followed. It truly was better than Facebook, until Google's interest in its creation began to wane and the spam got out of control.

A lot has changed since 2011.  The rough and tumble world of social networking has pretty much settled. Aside from a few niche networks like Ello and Vero, the social experience revolves around Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter (and LinkedIn for business professionals). People have found their platform of choice and are largely sticking with it.

Because of this, I don't believe we will see Google take another stab at a social network. Four previous failed attempts are a bitter pill to swallow for any company no matter how large it might be.

No one outside the company really knows how many millions of dollars Google poured into Google+. I'd venture it was an enormous sum, given that at one time the project had its own building and a team of over 1,000 people.

When the lights go out next August, I will remember fondly the many hundreds of interesting people I met there, and the countless hours of always interesting and informative discussions I was a part of. The people who were attracted to Google+ weren't the type to post memes and what they ate for lunch -- they were there to engage and to learn.

Farewell, G+. You will be missed by the many who still used you through thick and thin.

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