Few were shocked when Google announced that it was pulling the plug on Google+ this October. The future it promised — a viable alternative to Facebook, albeit one owned by another tech giant — never quite materialized, hobbled by turnover within the team at Google as well as muddled design directives from both users and developers.
At the time of its launch, Google+ might’ve had a handful of vital features that Facebook lacked, including superior photo integration. But as time has shown, users will stick to the platform their friends spend time on. The moribund social network is now reminiscent of a hollowed-out ghost town, where everyone has a slice of property, but nobody actually visits.
“Nothing has done nearly so much as Google+ to kill trust in Google itself.”
Still, Google+ isn’t without its long-term devotees, who now find themselves searching for a new home. Hardcore fans of games like Shadow of the Demon Lord have built a dedicated community on Google+, as have “proxy” junkies who replace the official art on Magic: The Gathering cards, and any number of other niche groups. Smaller social networks like MeWe or the open-source Diaspora are now jockeying for what will soon be thousands of displaced users.
For these Google+ enthusiasts, the process of digital relocation has become a very serious endeavor. Just ask John Lewis, the software developer who built a 3,500-member group on Google+ that’s dedicated to finding a replacement for these uprooted users, dubbed the “Mass Migration” community. A cursory scroll reveals intense discussions about what social media platform the users will flock to next, with debates that dwell on the relative strengths and weaknesses of individual platforms. Lewis and his raft of dedicated moderators have even organized Reddit-style AMAs for the CEOs of these sites to essentially pitch themselves to the skeptical community.
As a developer himself, Lewis fell in love with the theoretical possibilities offered by social media, but he found early sites like Friendster and Myspace lacking in terms of privacy and customization. Google+’s core conceit of social “Circles” allowed him to fine-tune which of his friend groups would see his posts, a feature that he found essential to an enjoyable browsing experience.
“It had existed in some form in other sites, especially on LiveJournal,” he says. “But it was the first one to put it so front and center, and that to me was the killer feature that kept me going.”
Still, Lewis wasn’t surprised to hear that Google+ would be shut down. He points to the helter-skelter removal and reintegration of features as evidence of Google’s lack of direction for the platform. For example, Lewis woke up one day to find that the developers had added a rudimentary meme template to Google+, a feature that he hadn’t yet seen on any other social media site. A few days later, it suddenly disappeared without explanation, as mysteriously as it had come.
“We want something that will last for a while, that won’t be shut down by some exec.”
“At a certain point, we weren’t getting new features. Past that, they were even removing some of the ones they didn’t want to maintain,” he says. “When there’s no thought leadership, no vision for a platform like Google+, that’s basically the beginning of the end right there.”
The replacement social networks that Lewis and his comrades are considering are a startup soup. While they vary wildly in size and feature-set, they tend away from closed-source, profit-focused data-crunching and toward the siloed community approach epitomized by Reddit and popular voice chat service Discord, where users populate distinct servers organized by individual administrators. While Discord remains ubiquitous, its ephemeral style of communication resembles a chat room rather than a message board, which is the same criticism that some Google+ users affix to the “siloed Twitter” design of Mastodon, perhaps the most notable of the sites in contention.
“Some are going to platforms similar to Facebook like MeWe, some are going to open-source sites like different Diaspora pods,” he says. “I think people are a bit wary of the big companies, after seeing what the rest of Google did to Google+. With their divided attention, Facebook was able to take all of their cool features and cannibalize them. I think we want something that will last for a while, that won’t be shut down by some exec.”
“Nothing has done nearly so much as Google+ to kill trust in Google itself, from its management, staffing, projects, products, and general capabilities standpoints,” says one of the moderators of the migration community, a self-described “old-school ‘Netter” who goes by the online pseudonym Dr. Edward Morbius. “I’d once admired the company. I now treat it with strong distrust.”
“Ideally, I want to plug in my .json file into whatever this new network is and just continue like Google+ never went down”
Though the Google+ platform will fade away in April 2019, wary users like Lewis and Morbius can use tools that allow them to archive their posts and comments, and feed them to blogging sites like Wordpress. Exactly what you do with your content once you shunt it onto another other platform remains to be seen, but for passionate users like Lewis, this pseudo-continuity is vital.
“Ideally, I want to plug in my .json file into whatever this new network is and just continue like Google+ never went down. Speaking to the same people, posting the same kind of content,” Lewis says. “More than anything, though, I don’t want to have to move again.”
For now, Lewis is simply waiting to see where his friends go — just like everybody else in the community, including me. As a fan of Shadow of the Demon Lord and other niche role-playing games, I find myself browsing Google+ in my off-hours, hoping for a hint about where the community will move next. After all, I don’t have much of a choice: If I want a passionate discussion over these games, I have to follow the Google+ fans, wherever they go.