Google+ Made Us Better


This article is part of an series celebrating the contributions of Google+. For more articles, see “Let’s Have a Proper Wake for Google+ . . . Let’s Celebrate,” “Google+ . . . The Big Idea Before Its Time,” “On the Shoulders of Google+,” or “Google+ Helped Us Grow.” You may also be interested in our podcast episode, “Thank You, Google+,” or our three-video series, “Video: An Open Letter to Google+,” “Video: Hey Google+,” and “Video: Google+ for All of Us.”

Google+ did something for us—something we couldn’t do for ourselves.

There is a kind of chemical reaction that occurs when we come into contact with people who take an interest in us. When someone identifies with our interests and supports us in what we are trying to do, we unfold, we develop, we blossom. In short, we become more of who we are and who we want to be.

Brenda Ueland, a keen observer of the human condition, unpacks this powerful idea as it relates to the simple act of listening:

“When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life. You know how if a person laughs at your jokes you become funnier and funnier, and if he does not, every tiny little joke in you weakens up and dies. Well, that is the principle of it. It makes people happy and free when they are listened to.”

As a platform, Google+ couldn’t listen to us. But it could put us in contact with people who would be interested in us and what we have to say. And that’s exactly what happened. By introducing groups, circles, and (ultimately) communities, Google+ bucked the prevailing trend to erase social boundaries (a misguided attempt to liberate us from social constraints). And instead, it honored the real boundaries of social order that make true freedom possible—the freedom to understand, respect, communicate, help, and support the people we encounter in the digital space.

That was a huge innovation. It’s not just that Google+’s community pages simplified and clarified the mayhem of an open social media feed. It’s that they gave us exposure to people who were interested in the things we cared about. And interacting with those people, we were more responsible and responsive ourselves.

As a result, we—and they—were much more likely to genuinely listen, respond, encourage, and affirm one another. That doesn’t happen in a topic-neutral network of friends, and friends of friends. It does happen when we gather around a shared topic, talent, interest, or purpose.

Innovators of future technologies and applications will profitably take note. The founder of one rising social media platform (a platform now trying to entice departing Google+ users) recently explained how he is carefully listening to Google+ aficionados for clues about the platform’s success. If he’s listening well, he’ll discover that groups, circles, and communities were a key to the popularity of Google+ in its heyday. And he’ll find a way to follow the principles of those structures, if not replicate them precisely.

He’ll also discover that beneath those structures is an even more fundamental principle. Simply put, it’s not necessarily the most brilliant, famous, funny, or well-followed users that have the greatest influence in a true social order. It’s the people who take an interest in us. Interacting in the Google+ universe, that interest was quickly perceived. Really listening and responding to others equaled real influence, energy, and excitement.

Ueland captured this point in an unforgettable way:

“When we listen to people there is an alternating current that recharges us so we never get tired of each other. We are constantly being re-created. Now, there are brilliant people who cannot listen much. They have no ingoing wires on their apparatus. They are entertaining, but exhausting, too. I think it is because these lecturers, these brilliant performers, by not giving us a chance to talk, do not let this little creative fountain inside us begin to spring and cast up new thoughts and unexpected laughter and wisdom. . . . Now this little creative fountain is in us all. It is the spirit, or the intelligence, or the imagination—whatever you want to call it.”

In reality, there was actually a vibe, an ethos, a spirit about Google+. The communities weren’t perfect. They weren’t even consistently good. But in and through Google+, there was a feeling of “we’re-here-to-support-each-other,” and that got our creative fountains flowing. Perhaps that’s what we’ll miss most of all: being listened to and unfolding in a way that made us more interesting, creative, open, confident, and truly connected.

In that connection, Google+ did for us what we could not do for ourselves. Interacting in its communities, our best selves blossomed. We became more of who we are and more of who we want to be.