Life among the last Google+ users


This week, Google announced that the product consumers know as Google Plus — its attempt to best Facebook and Twitter at social networking — will go quietly into that good night next August. (A corporate version will still exist.) A data breach on the platform, The New York Times reported, was bad enough that the company’s engineers decided it wasn’t worth it to keep Plus alive. While the breach affected only half a million users, and while Google says it didn’t expose any vulnerable data, in the company’s official blog post, Google vice president of engineering Ben Smith writes that “the consumer version of Google+ currently has low usage and engagement: 90 percent of Google+ user sessions are less than five seconds.”

So it goes. In the eyes of competitors, Google Plus was dead on its arrival in the summer of 2011: it was the company’s fourth (fourth!) foray into social networking, was hard to use and understand, and it didn’t seem to have a purpose beyond Google laying claim to even more space online. (Case in point: In 2014, The New York Times reported that Plus had 540 million monthly active users, but nearly half didn’t even visit the site.) Over the past seven years, the service has morphed into something entirely different than it was at the start — Hangouts, Streams, and Photos were split into separate products in 2015 — before becoming the digital ghost town that is its current incarnation.

But to some, it was home.

“I’ll be sad to see it go,” Dan Woods, who works at Mentally Friendly, a design agency located in Sydney and Canberra, tells The Verge in an email. He loved Plus initially because its mobile app for photos was good: “It had non-destructive editing, fuzzy search, and most of the features that ended up in Photos all the way back in 2013,” he says.

Another draw: Plus’ Circles, the way the product grouped people together. “I also liked sharing to a pretty broad group of folk (friends of friends) without it being public by default,” Woods continues. “The circles metaphor that g+ launched with felt to me like an overly complex solution to a very real problem that no other social site has since managed to solve (how do you broadcast meaningfully to very different audiences without different accounts?).”

Plus was seemingly designed to solve that context collapse problem: the circles Woods mentions grouped different types of relationships together (vaguely reminiscent of the spheres, or “spaces of coexistence,” described in the late ’90s and early ’00s by philosopher Peter Sloterdijk). One circle might contain your closest friends, while another might be for your relatives; Google Plus made it easy to broadcast different messages to each group. “Now that the service has been largely forgotten, the people that continue to post on g+ mostly do so with little communities (e.g. trey or wayne or paul ford shitposting),” Woods continues. “As far as I can see, it’s mostly troll-free, and the conversations tend to be slower and broader than their twitter counterparts.”

Other users aren’t willing to give up without a fight, either. A few users have started Change.org petitions; one has even received, as of this writing, more than 22,800 signatures. Lizzy, the woman who started that petition, writes that she created it in order not to lose the friends she met on Plus. “I spend most of my time on Google Plus and I don’t know what I would do without it,” she continues. Many of the other people gave similar reasons for signing the petition. “I have been on this site since 2k13. google + is a home to me and i cant imagine myself without g+. i have made some amazing friends here [sic],” wrote user # swaggin out. “It’s the only social media platform that I enjoy,” said user Mike Kuzmitsky. “It might not be an amazing site but IT DAMN sure feels like it. So why should I move?” asked user Buruburedo Boudreaux.

Music writer Gary Suarez saw Plus as a tool to boost his Google search rank and get more visibility for the stories he publishes. He started experimenting with it while working in book publishing, an industry that has been eager to try new products that might help get the word out more widely about their books.

“We were establishing Twitter presences, and using Facebook, and starting to figure out video content,” Suarez tells The Verge. “[Then] Google Plus suddenly shows up.” They didn’t know anything about it, but it seemed to be important — after all, it was Google, and it might help with search.

“More than anything else, we [were] getting the impression that if we [used] Google Plus [we’d] be rewarded in some way on google.com” in search rankings, he says, likening it to how Facebook boosts the ranking of Facebook links on its platform. (Technically, in its prime, Google+ was frequently used by businesses, authors, and bloggers to help boost their SEO.)

“I want to stress that I really never [used] Google Plus as a social media platform,” says Suarez. “It felt very much like a place to sort of just share content to drive somebody elsewhere.” While he says he never really saw Plus doing anything for the stories he promoted there, he was superstitious, and he still uses the service today, more out of paranoia than anything. “You know, like people have little habits — they only go through the same turnstile every day going to work, and if they change their habit in some way, maybe that might alter things negatively for them.” Nevertheless, he adds: “I don’t think I’m going to miss it.”

After Facebook grew into its domination of the social internet in the late 2000s, it became much harder to launch new social media services because most people’s urges to network had already been satisfied (and shaped) by Facebook. Anyone who wanted to compete would have to distinguish themselves, and then fight against Facebook’s relentless acquisitions and its aggressive product team. One by one, new startups launched and were then summarily shot out of the sky — by acquisition, by nonexistent user bases, by too-slow growth. Peach, MySpace, and even Twitter’s Vine went out this way; R.I.P., all you fallen soldiers.

And this is the way social networking services end: somewhere between a bang and a whimper. In many of the other comments under Lizzy’s Change.org petition, people repeatedly said Google Plus was superior to Facebook — because it lacked the drama of the larger platform, because they didn’t want to move to Facebook, or, more simply, because Plus was where their friends were.

Scrolling through the thousands of comments is strange, because it shows that even social communities neglected by engineers and administrators can thrive — but it’s instructive, too, because that same scrolling also reveals the purpose of a social network in the first place: a space for people to connect. That’s more important to users than rounds of funding, or monthly active user numbers, or growth. Google Plus’ remaining communities might even be healthier than their Facebook and Twitter counterparts — well, healthier aside from their inevitable racists, who are at least relatively cordoned off by Plus’ small, focused, stable circles. As we’ve seen on other platforms, connecting the entire world might not have been such a great goal, after all.

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