Google+: The Charge Of The Like Brigade

A recent post by a defecting Googler (at his new and previous home, Microsoft) suggests that a fundamental reordering of Google’s priorities has made it far less than the company it once was. A sudden comprehension of the danger posed by Facebook’s ever-expanding platform caused the company to enter a sort of berserker state, focusing solely on reinventing social while neglecting or amputating anything that didn’t fit into its new mission. Or so the tale goes.
There have been times recently when I’ve felt the need to deflect a few of the slings and arrows trained on Google. This time, however, they are well-deserved. Google’s big bet was based on bad instincts, jealousy, and hubris — not the curiosity, experimentation, and agility that have characterized them theretofore.
Could Google+ ever have been anything but a failure?
Just as a caveat: the problem with criticizing Google+ is that it’s a good product. It’s not for everybody, and there are problems with how it models social networks, but the only real problem it has is that there’s no one engaging with it. There are, of course, some people on it, but it’s hardly at a level that would make it what Google obviously intended it to be.
That said, Google should never have thought of it that way in the first place. The concept, as well-represented as it is in the product, was wrong to begin with. The whole project is a failure to understand their strengths and their competitors’ weaknesses.
Looking for clues in how Google’s products have improved or differentiated themselves previously (whether they flew or crashed) isn’t much help. You can’t dissect Google+ by proxy in Wave or Gmail. It’s better to look at their intentions.
It seems that Sun Tzu has much to offer Google respecting their approach to social. Nietzsche, too.
“Those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him.”
“Sharing is broken.” There’s a hell of a place to start. To make such a statement about a sector with so much diversity and velocity is a red flag to begin with. First, because it isn’t broken, it’s a work in progress. And second, even if it were broken, Google has never fixed anything before.
Google never said “What you’re doing is broken. Use our thing instead.” They always said “Did you know you we can do that too, for free?” Did they say Excel was broken when they let you make spreadsheets in Docs? Did they break down email to its bare bones and remake it for Gmail? Of course not. Google was about ubiquity, diversity, and a few memorable little quirks or improvements that set them out from the crowd.
To attempt to build something new, a la Apple, with the assurance that company likes to make (“This is the best way, which is why we made it the only way”) is not a Google strength. They just aren’t good at making new things. Never have been. Making existing things easier, faster, more accessible — sure. But inventing them? Not so much. So the idea that they were going to invent a new way to share should have rung alarm bells to begin with.
Sharing was never broken; Google merely found that they were losing a battle they had not even prepared for. Their declaration of war was a declaration of defeat.
“When torrential water tosses boulders, it is because of momentum. When the strike of a hawk breaks the body of its prey, it is because of timing.”
Google is neither small nor weak. It is immense, established, technically proficient, and, to an extent, trusted. Within the confines of non-monopolistic actions, it holds search like a gun. By rewarding those sites and services that agreed with its planned trajectory for search, they cast a shadow on the others, too light to be called punishment but still keenly felt. They are a household word, so closely identified with their service that they have become a global euphemism for searching on the internet.
They are a company of momentum — some would say inertia, but inertia in tech is soon eroded by more energetic competitors. No, Google has momentum, and their force has grown large enough that, like two gunmen in the old west, the town wasn’t big enough for them and Facebook. The conflict was inevitable. Which is why it’s so strange that instead of choosing to be the mighty river, they opted to strike as the hawk.
What was Google+? A single product, made to compete with an entire ecosystem. A product, moreover, lacking the single most important ingredient: users. Now, unless you are sure that your product is far, far better than what’s out there, you are not the hawk. Steve Jobs knew he was the hawk in 2007, and he knew that what he was doing would break its prey. The look on his face while he describes the competition is one of sheer predatory glee.
Is Google+ the iPhone to Facebook’s Palm Pilot? Surely not. Who judged that it was? That person is incompetent.
“The great fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy.”
Google was, against all reason, impatient to get into social. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to build a social network, of course. There are many kinds and many approaches, from niche to meta, from creative to filtrative. The Internet is a community of communities, and it is natural, even admirable, to want to create a new one. But Google decided that instead of creating a new one, a new space for itself, it would instead attempt to unseat the largest and most stable of them all. Hubris!
Facebook, of course, is not unassailable. It too will pass away. It is after all only the latest in a series of improvements on the general social network model. It has proven to be more flexible and resilient than its predecessors, but it isn’t immortal; even now there is a hum of discontent among users, low in frequency but just audible. Trust is an issue; ads are an issue; filtering is an issue. Will these issues destroy Facebook in the next year? Of course not. But as another saying goes, if you wait long enough by the river, you will see the bodies of your enemies float by.
Who can wait longer by the river? Facebook, a transitory model for connecting people that may or may not reflect the zeitgeist of social communication in five years? Or Google, which indexes and tracks the entire visible internet and whatever it can digitize from the analog world? I feel sure that, barring disaster, it would be Google on the shore watching Facebook go down the river.
Google always played a long game, but failed to in social. Why didn’t they bide their time, refining their ideas, pretending total disinterest? Making Facebook seem like the only game in town has many benefits. People distrust monopolies. If people feel they are choosing to be on Facebook, they will justify that choice. If the choice is made for them, they will find a reason to resent it. Google must know this, because they experience it every day.
So why did they jump the gun? The data! That beautiful, plentiful, personal data! Google is a datavore; its reason to exist is to organize all the world’s data, using ads to fund its habit. And on the table before them, a feast unprecedented in depth and variety! Imagine the amount of data produced by a single day of Facebook’s operations. But, like Tantalus, Google is prohibited from reaching and and taking it even though it’s right… there.
Why did Google launch a social network? The same reason a child snatches a cookie from the cookie jar. They simply couldn’t resist.