Reaching for an analogy to describe how Google launched Google+, its suite of social networking tools, for some reason I am drawn to the realm of child-rearing. Or rather, neglect, now that Google+ is open to the public: after keeping their kid tied up in a darkened basement for three or four months, it's like the parents have suddenly hauled their atrophied offspring outside, urging "Now go, be free! Make friends! Experience the whole wide wonderful world!" Then they give the kid a gentle nudge and he falls over.
I never understood what the point of the limited, invitation-only roll-out for Google+ was supposed to be. There's the economic theory of supply-and-demand, which dictates that if a good is scarce, people will pay more for it -- but they have to want it in the first place, and anyway it's irrelevant when the product is free. Then there's social prestige: by excluding people who didn't have invitations, Google+ made the ones who did feel hip and part of some in-crowd -- but making a select group of users feel cool doesn't really benefit Google+ so much as those users, and the flip side is this approach annoyed everyone who couldn't get an invitation.
And the downside to this approach, in my humble op-ed, was enormous: by failing to bulk up the community, Google+ limited the number of potential connections for new users, decreasing the utility and interest of the service. This failure was well-summarized in a much-cited post on PBS MediaShift by journalism professor Dan Reimold: "As it stands, my Circles are sparse. The stream of updates has basically run dry -- reduced to one buddy who regularly writes. My initial excitement about signing on and inviting people to join me has waned."
Of course, one anecdote does not a trend make, but there is some quantitative evidence supporting the notion that Google+ is failing to gain traction. In the September 20 issue of Wedbush's informative "Second Internet" report on social media, social media analyst Lou Kerner notes that "Google+ stagnates," pointing to data showing that the daily number of public posts per account has declined from about 1.4 per day in mid-July to less than 0.3 per day in mid-September. Meanwhile according to Kerner the number of followers added by popular figures on Google+ (including Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Vic Gundotra, and Pete Cashmore) has declined by an aggregate 62.6% from the first half of August to the first half of September, from 150,000 to 56,000.
Still, Kerner cautions that it's too soon to write off Google+: "While these Google+ stats must be disappointing for Google, we note that the service is only a few months old, and its battle for relevancy is just beginning. With Google's +1 button now available across more than one million websites, and viewed more than four billion times a day, certain aspects of Google's social strategy are scaling rapidly."