Whatever Google and its acolytes may claim, the simple fact is that Google+ has failed. Don’t take my word for it: that’s the judgment of a former Google developer and designer specializing in user interface, Chris Messina, whose lengthy critique of Google+ and its management went viral over the weekend. My super-reductive summary of Messina’s argument: Google+ set out to be a rival to Facebook, and measured by this lofty ambition, was pretty much a face plant.
Now I must duly note all the usual objections. First of all, Google+ isn’t a social network and indeed was never intended to be one -- or as Hugo Barra, Google's head of mobile product development averred somewhat mystically back in 2010, “We're not working on a social network platform that's just going to be another social network platform.” No, instead it is a “social layer” that connects all of Google’s various other products, I suppose rather like the layer of cherry syrup that nobody actually wants in a piece of Black Forest cake.
Okay, so it’s a social layer, not a social network: but does anyone use it? Of course when it comes to these sorts of questions Google is famously close-lipped, either saying they’re “very pleased” with its growth or citing statistics that are ambiguous at best. According to Google there are 1.15 billion registered users, but of these only about a third, 343 million, are “active monthly users,” and the average time spent on the network -- sorry, layer -- is just seven minutes per month.
Meanwhile other indicators aren’t good: Google social chief Vic Gundotra left the company in April of this year, and in September Google stopped requiring new users to create Google+ accounts, suggesting the search giant’s commitment to its social whatever may be wavering.
Anyhoo, Messina certainly has some strong opinions about Google+. First of all, whatever they said about being a layer on top of a platform, Google+ was indeed intended to take on Facebook, according to Messina, who believes that “the future of digital identity should not be determined by one company (namely, Facebook)… And Google still remains one of the few companies (besides Apple, perhaps) that stands a chance to take on Facebook in this arena--but Google+, as I see it, has lost its way.”
Messina is up front about the fact that good social applications ideally succeed by gathering lots of data about their users, which they use to create value in their lives with useful functions and features, while (hopefully) maintaining a very high degree of data security and user control. Indeed, Messina observes: “As it stands, Facebook, Apple, and Google (and to some degree Amazon) are in a battle to know you better than you do.”
This is where Google+’s failings became evident. A big part of its promise, to hear Messina tell it, was its potential to serve as a universal “backbone” for the Web, not just offering an alternative to Facebook’s “social graph” but also creating a “locus of control and access” for all your personal data, allowing you to review all the information relating to your online activity, delete it, or perhaps “[grant] access to some other trusted party of your choosing.” In short, Messina seems to call for a set of tools that empower users to control their online identities, rather than leaving them largely clueless, passive participants to be experimented on with ever-refined behavioral algorithms (like you-know-who -- this is my interpretation of his words, at least). Ultimately empowering users would encourage them to share more information, enabling ever more creative and useful social applications.
Instead, Messina notes, “most people would likely describe Google+ as a newsfeed, a kind of Facebook-lite. Sure, it’s got neat photo and video chat apps hanging off of it… But few it any would say that it’s where they go to understand the data that Google holds about them, or where they go to adjust their preferences, or to adjust how people see and find them online.” In short, “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.”