Well, it’s official: Google+ is a failure. At least, it’s been declared one by the influential blog TechCrunch.
“Could Google+ ever have been anything but a failure?” asks writer Devin Coldewey. Coldewey says that he considers Plus a good product, but “There’s no one engaging with it. There are, of course, some people on it, but it’s hardly at a level that would make it what Google obviously intended it to be.”
Or, as a friend of mine put it to me earlier this week, “no-one goes on there except for you, Rav, Google programmers and the Dalai Lama.”
I think this is a crying shame. Sure, Google+ never had a rat in hell’s chance of being the new Facebook. But it could have been something potentially more important: the new Twitter.
And Twitter really needs to be replaced.
The new public square
Endless column inches have been devoted, deservedly, to Facebook and its impact on the world. And as a tool for helping people connect and organise, it’s without parallel - witness its role in helping kick off Egypt’s Tahrir Square protests.
But on a day-to-day basis it’s on Twitter, not Facebook, that serious civic engagement and discussion happens online. Most journalists and public intellectuals are active on Twitter and barely visible, at least publicly, on Facebook.
A vast public conversation, with serious minds and ordinary Joe’s taking part, all with equal status? That sounds remarkably like the online incarnation of Jurgen Habermas’ ideal of the public sphere. The potential for such a vivid, rapid-fire and radically open conversation is immense. My personal Twitter feed is packed with friends, thinkers and people of note from all over the world. I should be frothing with excitement every day at the thought of logging on and seeing what’s being talked about.
But I’m not. Instead, reading through Twitter seems a complete chore, because it means decoding bizarre IRL-speak, looking at ugly visible web links, and generally feeling like you’re in a late-90s bulletin board.
To pick a random example I noticed this morning: John Kerry. The Twitter feed of a veteran senator and former presidential candidate ought to be fascinating, and he’s certainly engaged with it. But instead I read things like this:
great start to day with prezHS and @iaffnewsdesk brothers, FF loyal in IA/NH/’04 straight thru today
Anyone want to take a turn at translating that?
Of course, some people are better than others at dealing with Twitter’s increasingly tiresome 140-character limit. But the strictures of the medium, rather than simply creating brevity as the founders hoped, have created inaccessible code. It’s no wonder Twitter has a terrible problem with users signing up and never logging in again - it’s just not human-friendly.
A lovely, empty place
Compared to that, visiting Google+ is like moving from a noisy Tower of Babel to a friendly bar where everyone speaks your language. People use sentences. They post links, and you can see a neat preview of the page they’ve linked to. People can comment on your posts easily, and you can easily see what they’ve said.
None of this is unique, of course - Google+ is a Facebook clone to a remarkable extent. But while Facebook is dominant in the field of social - as in, people communicating with their real-life contacts - Google+ could have brought this human-friendly functionality to the public square.
Why has it failed? In part, I suspect, because Google simply didn’t market it the right way. Much of Google’s promotion of Plus presented it as a social tool - for example, users are automatically given ‘Circles’ for ‘Friends’ and ‘Family’, while Twitter encourages you to ‘Follow Your Interests.’ Google even risked the rage of the internet by demanding users sign up with their real names, just like Facebook.
But we didn’t need a new social service - Facebook has this wrapped up. What the web desperately needed was a new public-square service, one which used the same asymmetrical, open model of Twitter but with content that ordinary humans could make sense of. One which managed to combine the speed and vivacity of Twitter with a richer standard of writing closer to that of the blogosphere.
Why didn’t Google promote Plus that way? Sadly, because owning the leading online discussion forum wouldn’t provide it with the vital data it wanted from social. Google created Plus in large part to obtain the kind of data on social connections - who we’re friends with, who we listen to - that Facebook has in spades. That meant encouraging Google+ users to connect to their real-life contacts. Google doesn’t need me to follow a bunch of tech journalists on Google+ to know I’m interested in technology - they already know my search results.
Can Google+ be revived? I fear not. The tech-heavy audience using the service looks all too like the crowd that populated Buzz and Wave, Google’s previous ill-fated social projects, both now cancelled. For the time being, the new public square remains reliant on Twitter, albeit with blogs (like this one) resorted to anytime anyone wants to say anything in more than 140 characters.