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Thoughts on Google+ by Chris Messina


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I remember the primordial days of Emerald Sea (the codename for Google+). Its original name was Google Me (at least untilKevin Rose leaked the name and a new name needed to be chosen). I loved the name, not because it was a good name, but because of what it implied: “Just google me and I’ll be there”. Google Me was necessary to improve Google’s profile and social graph to make search more personalized and humane. It was like Google was saying, “We’re going to be your trusted partner in cyberspace, and we’ll help you surface the right information to the people you choose, at the right time.” It was a functional search-oriented value proposition, rather than a social networking one.

Thus, for me, when I searched for my mom’s phone number on Google, I actually find it — because it would be on her profile and she would have shared it with me. Suddenly a query like“mom phone number” would work.

“Google is where I search for things and I should be able to find useful information about my friends if they’ve shared it with me.”

But when the name to Google+(cue terrifying echos of Microsoft Plus!), the focus shifted. Now, not only was Google+ fast-following Facebook, but the name of the product was a hedge against another Buzz-like debacle. If for some reason the product failed (and lots of Buzz veterans actively worried about this), Google could just drop the “+” and pretend the “project” never existed. Genius.

Go on. 

I remember the primordial days of Emerald Sea (the codename for Google+). Its original name was Google Me (at least untilKevin Rose leaked the name and a new name needed to be chosen). I loved the name, not because it was a good name, but because of what it implied: “Just google me and I’ll be there”. Google Me was necessary to improve Google’s profile and social graph to make search more personalized and humane. It was like Google was saying, “We’re going to be your trusted partner in cyberspace, and we’ll help you surface the right information to the people you choose, at the right time.” It was a functional search-oriented value proposition, rather than a social networking one.

Thus, for me, when I searched for my mom’s phone number on Google, I actually find it — because it would be on her profile and she would have shared it with me. Suddenly a query like“mom phone number” would work.

“Google is where I search for things and I should be able to find useful information about my friends if they’ve shared it with me.”

But when the name to Google+(cue terrifying echos of Microsoft Plus!), the focus shifted. Now, not only was Google+ fast-following Facebook, but the name of the product was a hedge against another Buzz-like debacle. If for some reason the product failed (and lots of Buzz veterans actively worried about this), Google could just drop the “+” and pretend the “project” never existed. Genius.

sad robot is sad meme imgur

Sad robot was sad.

But this was all wrong. By starting off on a defensive footing, Google+ didn’t defiantly stand for something special in the world. Instead it defined itself by what it wasn’t — i.e. Facebook — though it was positioned internally as chasing after their success. And while Facebook executed a bold, ambitious (and uncomfortable) plan to create a “more open and connected world”, Google+ confusingly claimed to be rethinking real-life sharing on the web, with “nuance and richness”, even though we clearly hadn’t figured it out. Indeed, our solution (Circles(read: “lists”) put the onus on the user to manually curate groups of people — a great concept in theory, but too arduous and awkward in practice.

Now, it’d be one thing if Circles and “better privacy” (there’s that word again!) were merely a launch ploy to drum up interest (it’s worked for others in the past). Instead, Google+ continued to throw its weight behind this narrative long after Facebook overhauled its privacy features, and “grew up”. To this day, I still don’t know what Google+ is for, let alone better at than Facebook. Some might argue it’s “cleaner” and has fewer ads, but even that won’t be a lasting competitive advantage.

What’s sad to me is that the promise of Google Me could be found in launch post: “We want to make Google better by including you, your relationships, and your interests.”

Yes! Yes!

But by launching a conventional social network, Google missed the pivotal opportunity to establish a data-positive paradigm for sharing, individual control, and personalization that set itself apart from Facebook. Ultimately it offered too little, too late.

Seriously, this is very compelling:

“We want to make Google better by including you, your relationships, and your interests.”

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