Thoughts on Google+

I fucked up. So has Google.

It’s been over a year since I left Google. Over 450 days, actually. During that time, I joined and left a startup; traveled to Paris (twice). I got divorced. I started a new relationship, moved, and became a bonus dad. Now I’m on the cusp of starting a new company (I think, details pending).

Any of these changes could be significant on their own, but I bring them up merely for comparison’s sake. I’m one person and these things happened to me over the course of a year. If there are roughly 3000 people working on Google+, what have they been doing during the same period?

While this post touches on the recent-past, present, and future, I’m going to start with a stupid mistake I made earlier this week.

I fucked up

I need to make a retraction. I fucked up. Publicly.

I cast aspersions where none were warranted. I called out Google+ on Twitter (in front of 68K followers no less) for a bug that — I argued — proved that they’d stopped doing QA (an essential step in the launch of any product at Google) and must have therefore and finally abandoned its social network:

But I was wrong.

The problem — as diagnosed by Googler Melissa Chang —was interference from Jesse Middleton’s Better BCC extension. Once I disabled it, the problem went away. (He tells me that he’s updated his extension to address this.)

Egg on my face. My bad. And apologies to my Googler friends Ade and Paul, in particular, for pointing out my mistake.

So what the fuck is Google+ for anyway?

When I thought about what motivated me to lob this snarkbomb, I realized I was looking for a reaction. I wanted some kind of defiant response to questions that’ve recently bugged me — What’s going on with Google+? Where is it headed? What the fuck is it for, anyway?

David Besbris in a sea of balls

The last time David Besbris (Vic Gundotra’s successor and top exec on Google+) was interviewed by Recode, he said nothing. Literally.

No vision. No insight. Just pollyannaish platitudes: “We’re … very happy with the progress of Google+.”

The most salient thing he said was, “[The Google+ audience sees] Google+ as a social network for their interests.”, which at least suggests how the team must be thinking about the network internally. But if they’re more worried about Facebook, Snapchat, or Pinterest — I can’t tell. And if they have a plan and a vision for creating something new and wonderful in the world, I certainly can’t deduce it from their Oct 9 feature release: Polls (a feature I contributed to over a year and a half ago when I was a UX designer on the team).

Google+’s most recent significant feature release: Polls

Furthermore, if you simply look at the velocity of iOS releases across the most popular social apps over 2014, you’ll see that Google+ and Hangouts lag significantly behind (WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook this year, which likely explains their lack of updates):

Why do I care about Google+?

Dear reader, I wouldn’t fault you if you’re wondering why I give a shit. It’s not like I work there anymore. Sure, I have a few friends who do but most rolled off to work on other projects at Google, left, or started new companies. And yes, I run a popular mixology community, but it’s not like it’s blowing up or anything.

So why do I care?

Simple: for the same reason that motivated me to join Google in 2010— that the future of digital identity should not be determined by one company (namely, Facebook). I still believe that competition in this space is better for consumers, for startups, and for the industry. 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.

(Or maybe never found its way. I dunno.)

It matters to me because there’s a lot at stake here — way more than the success of a mere social network. What’s at stake is how individuals participate in the web ecosystem, and whether one company will determine how we get online, gain access, connect and communicate through the increasing number of apps, devices, and digital experiences that we rely upon.

If you take the long view, you’ll understand why this moment in time is important: the companies and apps that solidify their position in our lives today will likely live on far into the future. Google is one of those companies that has already done this. I believe Facebook will too. So the fundamental problem that I have with Google+ is that I just don’t understand it. And what I don’t understand makes me nervous — and should make you nervous too.

Digital identity, circa 2014

I’ll be the first (well, maybe the second) to admit that we’re no longer living in the golden era of social networking. We’ve migrated away from the mouse and keyboard era of computing and replaced them with glossy, touchable surfaces that we carry around in our pockets and alert us to all of our friends’ most recent doings. We have access to our contacts, to information, and to superpowers that we’ve never had before. And not only are we starting to take this all for granted — there’s a younger generation growing up without any conception of a time Before Siri, and are living Post Browser.

All this is perfectly normal to them. Things are exactly as they should be, and always have been.

So why does the competition for control of digital identity matter anymore? Frankly, because as I’ve long held, identity is the platform — the killer app of networked personal computing devices (even more so as we increasingly depend on more than one authenticated device at a time!).

Digital identity unlocks universal personalization (i.e. better ads), payments and commerce (i.e. Snapcash), environmental adaptation (i.e. an Uber that plays your Spotify music), communications (i.e. Path Talk), and access (i.e. Sosh Concierge). Today’s most exciting apps are barely scratching the surface of what will be possible when there are years of preferences data stored up on each of us, that we can leverage at a moments notice, in any context.

Privacy is a four-letter word

But before you go get your pitchfork and scream bloody murder about the loss of individual “privacy”, stop for a second.

This word, privacy ?— it’s a problem.

It’s one of those words that puts a stop to useful conversations and prevents us from actually engaging with what’s going on in our digital lives. It obscures and glosses over.

WAKE UP!

Maintaining your privacy doesn’t strictly mean keeping people from having data or information about you. Certainly not preventing yourself from having access to data about yourself. Privacy is about the ability to be left alone, or about not being watched, if you don’t want to be. Which is fine. Turn on Do Not Disturb. There — you’ve got a bit of your privacy back. But that has nothing to do with the huge amounts of data you’re still producing and is being tracked.

So, given that expectations of privacy are changing (or being changed), I challenge you: what if you want to be watched? What if you were offered an outsize amount of value in exchange for allowing someone else to watch you? What would you do? Who would you want to watch over you? Who would you want to look after you and your best interests? Who would you trust? Do you feel like you have reasonable choices in today’s marketplace?

This, my friends, is the dilemma presented and the opportunity omitted by an overused term like “privacy”.

Taking the data-positive perspective, it seems completely reasonable to me that companies would vie to become my lifelong “data bank”. Ultimately I do want companies to know more about me and to use more data about me in exchange for better, faster, easier, and cheaper experiences. But I also want to be treated like an adult when talking about my data. Watery terms like “cloud” or “dropbox” or “backup” sound utilitarian but mask the true aspirations of these service providers. They should just come out and say it: they want all this information to establish a competitive advantage in delivering more personalized services to me and people like me. Backing up my files is absolutely not the long game (but it’s a convenient lock-in strategy in the meantime).

Seizing your data capital

Here’s the thing: you and me, we’re being tracked whether we like it or not. Use a web browser, use apps —and there’s a company or companies out there amassing huge amounts of data about every click, tap, photo, notification, or icon in your digital life. Sometimes they anonymize it so that your preferences or behavioral data can’t be easily tracked back to you, but then you have no way of auditing that information, accessing it, or perhaps granting access to some other trusted party of your choosing. This may reassure you that your data won’t be that valuable if its leaked when there’s another breach, but this also means that you’re leaving a ton of value on the table. And frankly, most of these companies (especially the ad-driven ones) don’t really care about your data specifically. They can target you just as effectively through other means. And frankly, most would rather anonymize it to avoid embarrassing moments than do the heavy lifting to make your data accessible to you in more useful formats.

Taken at the individual level, you’re just a rounding error at the millionth decimal. And yet this data could be hugely valuable to you if you collect and let it accrue for long enough. This is why I’ve called this kind of information exhaust “data capital”. If you think of this data as your money being burned, maybe you’ll rethink what “privacy” is all about, and what stake you should claim in the data being captured about you.

So what about Google+?

So what does this have to do with Google+?

As it stands, Facebook, Apple, and Google (and to some degree Amazon) are in a battle to know you better than you do. Facebook is pretty clear about what they’re doing, and do a fair job explaining it — and have improved over the years. Apple recently came out aggressively about their own commitment to user privacy (but they make money from hardware, rather than ads). Google’s efforts, meanwhile, seem disjointed and confused, despite significant improvements to their settings and security features. If Google+ was intended to serve as Google’s “social backbone”, it should be the locus of control and access over the kind of information I’ve described above. And yet… it’s not. Far from it, in fact.

To my point, 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. And die-hard users would call out the interest-based communities as the reason they return, as Bez did. But few if 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. And maybe that’s intentional and maybe that’s the point — but if so, then I don’t get it. Why did the world need another Facebook, unless to benefit Google by making their ad targeting more effective? Why wasn’t Google+ one of Google’s famous moonshots, intended to improve personal social networking by 10x? Why did they take a conventional approach to social networking rather than think about what controls people might need in the next 5–10 years in their digital lives? Moreover, how does Google+ help deliver better, richer, more interesting, and more personalized experiences, to motivate people to store more information with Google? I mean, why did Google hitch their digital identity strategy to 2004-era social networking trends?

And damnit all, why am I so disappointed?!

When it comes right down to it, maybe I just don’t want to admit that I spent 3½ years working on something that will become irrelevant. Even if Google+ regains focus and simplifies its mission, I want to believe that we were working on something significant and that had an opinion about what the world should look like. Lately, I just feel like Google+ is confused and adrift at sea. It’s so far behind, how can it possibly catch up? I mean, Facebook launched a polling ad unit in 2009; five years later, Google+ launched their own. Is mentions really a differentiator? (Nope, Facebook has a dedicated app for that, and it’s been baked into Twitter for how long?) Is this kind of slow-following going to win the future?

I’m disappointed because I expect better from Google. Like, self-driving cars better, or hot-air balloon internet access better. I don’t want excuses. I don’t want to hear about how competitive or political the internal environment is. Larry is a strong leader. Sundar is too. And I know that they’re getting a ton of mileage (and cash) out of ads, Chrome, and Android —there are plenty of resources. Leaving internet identity in Facebook’s hands would be a massive fail. At least Twitter is making a go at it with Digits. But how does Google[+] fit into this picture? Will it ever? (And no, Google+ Sign In isn’t enough.)

Is there any hope that Google+ will find a compelling reason to continue to exist, and perhaps deliver on the data-positive vision I’ve outlined above?

The missed opportunity

I remember the primordial days of Emerald Sea (the codename for Google+). Its original name was Google Me (at least until Kevin Rose leaked the name and a new name needed to be chosen). I loved the name, not because it was a good name, but because of what it implied: “Just google me and I’ll be there”. Google Me was necessary to improve Google’s profile and social graph to make search more personalized and humane. It was like Google was saying, “We’re going to be your trusted partner in cyberspace, and we’ll help you surface the right information to the people you choose, at the right time.” The value proposition was search oriented, rather than social.

So, if I searched for my mom’s phone number on Google, I could find it — because it‘d be on her profile and she would have shared it with me. An obvious query like “mom’s phone number” would work.

“Google is where I search for things and I should be able to find useful information about my friends if they’ve shared it with me.”

But when the name to Google+ (cue terrifying echos of Microsoft Plus!), the focus shifted. Now, not only was Google+ fast-following Facebook, but the name of the product was a hedge against another Buzz-like debacle. If for some reason the product failed (and lots of Buzz veterans actively worried about this), Google could just drop the “+” and pretend the “project” never existed. Genius.

Sad robot was sad.

But this was all wrong. By starting off on a defensive footing, Google+ didn’t defiantly stand for something special in the world. Instead it defined itself by what it wasn’t — i.e. Facebook — though it was positioned internally as chasing after their success. And while Facebook executed a bold, ambitious (and uncomfortable) plan to create a “more open and connected world”, Google+ confusingly claimed to be rethinking real-life sharing on the web, with “nuance and richness”, even though we clearly hadn’t figured it out. Indeed, our solution (Circles (read: “lists”) put the onus on the user to manually curate groups of people — a great concept in theory, but too arduous and awkward in practice.

Now, it’d be one thing if Circles and “better privacy” (there’s that word again!) were merely a launch ploy to drum up interest (it’s worked for others in the past). Instead, Google+ continued to throw its weight behind this narrative long after Facebook overhauled its privacy features, and “grew up”. To this day, I still don’t know what Google+ is for, let alone better at than Facebook. Some might argue it’s “cleaner” and has fewer ads, but even those won’t be lasting competitive advantages.

What’s sad to me is that the promise of Google Me could be found in launch post: “We want to make Google better by including you, your relationships, and your interests.”

Yes! Yes!

But 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.

Google gets better with a Google+ profile

More recently, the Google+ marketing team came back to the message of personalization— at least for Google’s own apps. Instead, Google+ was about uniting Google products with one user account —something that should have been inevitable after Eric Schmidt’s tenure ended anyway.

So now what?

I read this passage from the launch post for Google+ and I get excited, to this day. The sentiment here echoes Ello’s claims upon their launch. The difference is that I actually believe Google to make good on these promises.

You and over a billion others trust Google, and we don’t take this lightly. In fact we’ve focused on the user for over a decade: liberating data, working for an open Internet, and respecting people’s freedom to be who they want to be. We realize, however, that Google+ is a different kind of project, requiring a different kind of focus — on you. That’s why we’re giving you more ways to stay private or go public; more meaningful choices around your friends and your data; and more ways to let us know how we’re doing. All across Google.

Yes! Yes!

But now what? Google’s work here is far from over.

The Google+ feed does nothing towards addressing the issues I’ve raised about data capital and privacy. Sure, Google gives you controls to set your ads preferences, but this framing is all wrong. Whereas Pinterest helps you express your aspirational self, Google pigeonholes you into what you already are, based on your previous search activity. This is where improving the data that Google has about you — in turn trusting Google as a steward of that datachanges the nature of the conversation by making it less about “privacy” and more about empowerment. While some people will freak out (as they always do), this would be a bold, productive, future-forward direction to take. Hell, we’re living in this reality already—but few give straight talk about what’s going on, and how their data is, or could be, used for their benefit. If Google took the approach I’ve suggested here — becoming more user-centric — I’d finally understand why what they’re doing is different. And then I could evaluate Google on being a steward of my data, and acting as my universal user agent in my digital life.

But until that happens, [object Object] makes just as much sense to me as their strategy.


Addenda:

Watch this Google+ Hangout with Yifat Cohen where I expand and clarify my thoughts:

For the record, Dear CNN, I was never an engineer on Google+ (though I was both a developer advocate and UX designer). Facts, meh.

Then, CNN had me on to talk about digital identity with Kristie Lu Stout:

For additional thoughtful expansion on this subject, see Gideon Rosenblatt’s thoughts.

You may also want to review Janrain’s Social Login Trends Across the Web for Q3 2014 research and Leo Mirani’s post on Quartz: How Facebook and Google are taking over your online identity.

This article has been submitted to Hacker News and ended up on Techmeme. Slow news day?