I’m writing not to bury Google+ but to praise it.
Actually, no. I want to both praise and bury Google+. It was a crummy service but there are compelling reasons to love it. Moreover, it went out like a champ.
This week, Google announced they were shutting down its little-loved social media network after a privacy scandal. Due to a bug in Google+’s design, user data including names, email addresses, occupations and gender and age information was exposed to about 450 app developers. Google stressed that personal messages weren’t exposed and that there wasn’t any evidence that developers exploited the bug to access user information.
The privacy scandal was small-scale for what we’ve come to expect from tech giants. A vulnerability in Google+ allowed third-party developers to access private data from around 500,000 users, a tiny blip compared to the 87 million Facebook users whose personal data was exposed during the Cambridge Analytica data breach.
We can reasonably assume that the small number of victims reflects the small number of people using Google+. After all, even Google admitted that people weren’t into it. When they said they were pulling the plug on Google+, they were brutally honest about its lack of popularity. “The consumer version of Google+ currently has low usage and engagement: 90 percent of Google+ user sessions are less than five seconds,” the company said in a press statement. It’s not surprising. Five seconds is exactly as much time as a person needs to confirm the continued existence of Google+ and to realize that there’s still no reason to use it.
When Google+ launched in 2011 in reaction to the explosive popularity of Facebook, it seemed poised to conquer the social media space. Between search and gmail, a broad swath was on Google already. By importing some of Facebook’s functions and features over to their platforms, it seemed almost too easy for them to take over social media.
Despite their acumen with search, Google turned out to have a tin ear for social media. Even though people became Google+ users by default when they signed up for a gmail account, it never caught fire. The search engine giant claimed it had a better understanding of human relationships than Facebook. On Facebook, people connect as friends or don’t connect at all. Google+ let users define relationships through “circles,” like close friends and family. “We’d like to bring the nuance and richness of real-life sharing to software,” they wrote on Google’s official blog. “We want to make Google better by including you, your relationships, and your interests. And so begins the Google+ project.”
Google+ circles were a solution to a problem no one had. There’s no reason to digitize your relationships. Relationship statuses are easy to keep in our head but stressful to think critically about. My experience with circles, adding my brother to “family” and then deciding there wasn’t any point in it, was probably universal.
Its charm really lies in its failure. It’s refreshing to a tech behemoth like Google can fall on its face. And they have lots of money and success. It’s OK to find pleasure in their miscalculation.
Google shut down Google+ the way a cool drunk person changes music at a party after seeing that no one was on the dance floor. They don’t dwell on the time they spend crafting a playlist or insist that Insane Clown Posse deep cuts will eventually win over the crowd. They say fuck it, this shit’s not working. Time to shut it down.
We can all learn a lesson from that.