Google+ Could Have Been a Contender
It’s all over the tech news. I’ll link to Ars Technica’s article, but any outlet you pick is going to link to and quote the Wall Street Journal, which reported on Monday that Google leaked personal data for over 500,000 Google+ users between 2015 and March 2018. They fixed the leak back in March, and then hid it until now to avoid having a regulatory hammer dropped on them.
This goes all the way to the top, according to the WSJ. CEO Sundar Pinchai himself knew about the breach and the cover-up. According to randos on Hacker News, the WSJ’s coverage is part of a long-running beef between Google and the conservative establishment.
I don’t get paid enough to care either way, so ordinarily I’d be content to make some popcorn and enjoy the schadenfreude. But there’s one little complication.
You see, I’ve been on Google+ since the beta in 2011. I might not have written a single line of code, but every post I shared and every comment I submitted on other people’s posts represents dozens – perhaps hundreds – of unpaid hours I spent making Google+ something more than just some Googler’s Friday afternoon side project. I expended all of that effort, as did tens of thousands of others.
Google laid the foundation, but we made something out of Google+. We made it something with which neither Facebook nor Twitter could compete. We made it something tech journalists didn’t understand. Twitter was and is the bathroom wall of the internet. Facebook started out as a never-ending high school reunion, and became everybody’s weird aunts and uncles making a cacophony of craziness.
I remember what it was like. Techies clamored for beta invites like they were Golden Tickets in a Wonka bar. We invited people we thought might be interesting, and we talked about things that interested us.
We made art and shared it. We made music and shared it. We wrote stories and shared them. People got jobs because of Google+. They made friends. They found love. They found publishers and fans. When Occupy Wall Street went down, we watched and did what we could to help from a distance. President Obama used Google Hangouts to talk to us.
Google+ could have been a contender. It could have been the social network for smart, creative people – the social network for authors, artists, hackers, scientists, academics, etc.
But Google screwed it up.
- They did a half-assed job with their public API. It was useless compared to what Twitter and Facebook were offering.
- They promised that you could embed Google+ in your blog for seamless sharing and commenting, but only delivered such functionality for Blogger users.
- They tried to force everybody to use their “real names”, by which they meant the name on your government-issued ID.
- They tried to compete with Facebook head-on, not realizing that the people they were attracting to Google+ were the very people for whom Facebook had no real appeal.
- They tried to forcibly integrate Google+ with YouTube by making everybody on YouTube have a Google+ account. Now, if you’ve ever tried reading the comments on the average YouTube video, you would not need me to explain why this was a terrible idea.
- They began privileging pictures and video over text, even though they had a social network where people would regularly belt out five-hundred word essays as comments on somebody else’s three-thousand word post.
They did all of this, and by the time the clock ticked over to 2014 the damage was done. Google+ was a shell of what it could have been. Many of us tried to keep the faith. We surveyed the wreckage, realized that Google no longer cared about us, and resolved to keep using Google+ our way as long as Google was content to keep the servers running.
But our revels now are ended. If Google needed an excuse to shut down Google+, this breach will surely do. Now we have ten months to bid farewell to the network we built with our posts, comments, and reshares when we could have been building our own blogs on the open Web.
Now we have ten months to find a new home on the network. Hopefully we’ll find one where we can more firmly control our own destiny, instead of hoping that a corporation’s interests will align with our own. Lacking that, maybe we’ll find ways to help those without domains and websites of their own become full citizens of the network.
Now, while I wrote this, I had two songs playing. In one, Jefferson Starship told me “we built this city on rock ‘n roll”. In another, the Protomen told me, “don’t turn your back on the city”.
Google+ isn’t the city. It’s just a bunch of buildings on a plot of land. We the people are the city. We made Google+ what it was in its heyday. We kept the flame alive when Google tried to take what we made and turn it into the weapon with which it would strike down Facebook. And even when Google left Google+ in ruins, we remained.
Thanks for the memories, you guys. I’ll see you around the network. I don’t know where yet. Maybe I’ll see you on Pluspora. Maybe I’ll see you on Mastodon. Maybe I’ll see you on the open web or get an email from you. But know this: I mean to spend the next ten months going through my circles. I’m going to compile whatever contact information I can from your profiles, and I’m going to do what I can to make sure we don’t lose touch.
I won’t turn my back on the city.
Artwork by Angelo Olson