The product that became Google+ developed over a lengthy gestation period. Key to its evolution was a model known as circles, which was popularized internally by Paul Adams and in a never published book called Social Circles. The idea as eventually implemented was simple: allow users to define how they relate to people by putting their contacts into different groups. That way, you could choose how you wanted your content to be shared, and complicate the limited sharing options offered by competitors like Facebook and Twitter.
In many key ways, Google+ was ahead of its time. Its internal product focus was on choice and privacy, which Google felt was the competitive advantage needed to beat the incumbents. It was reaching out to a demographic of users who had been turned off by the news about personal information leaking on Facebook, yet who were still interested in engaging socially online. The product leadership correctly predicted the trend in social that has made 2014 a banner for ephemeral communication.
What few understood, though, is that Google itself was part of the problem.
People’s fears about data collection by large Internet companies was already palpable in 2011, and would become widespread over the last year with the disclosures around the NSA leaks. Google needed data from its social network at the precise time there was a real strategic opportunity from a social network that saved no data. Snapchat, Whisper and Secret hit that moment right in the center.
It completely eluded Google. The fight over real names, which was a constant area of discussion for the company during my time there, is a case in point. Google’s desire for privacy and choice was in direct contradiction to its need for real names to get the data it wanted. Google+ was not the only social network that required real names, but it was the hardest to avoid thanks to its integration across Google’s product portfolios. Frankly, the issue always got more publicity than it should have (really, there were so few people who actually cared about this issue based on user feedback), but it was a telling issue that Google just couldn’t think outside of its voracious appetite for data.
Phi Beta Iota: Google started with CIA money and the theft of Yahoo’s search engine. It also benefited from Hewlett Packard killing Alta Vista. Along the way Google has done some extraordinary things, including new advances in computational mathematics and massive storage, but it still does not help make sense of big data or illuminate true costs of anything. Google has muffed Orkut, Halevy, Wave, and Google Plus along with hundreds of other lesser rans. After 14 years Google has one revenue stream based on declining desktop search and legacy storage solutions that become prohibitively expensive each passing day. One can only speculate as to the potential of Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle coming together to launch a clean-sheet World Brain.