Google+ Helped Us Grow


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+ Made Us Better.” 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.”

To grasp how Google+ helped us grow, think about where it came from. What does it mean that Google+ was intended as the social layer for all things Google? That question becomes even more relevant as I see my kids at work (and play) in the Google universe.

“I’ll Google it,” my 11-year-old daughter announces, referring to the search engine that is almost as integral to her existence as air. How different our learning experiences have been! When I was her age, I had one choice for finding information—the World Book Encyclopedia. My daughter has thousands.  

Because of Google, she’s not just looking up a column or two of printed text, as I used to do. She is constantly looking up pages of information and evaluating, contrasting, comparing, triangulating, correlating, preferring, prioritizing, and organizing in her mind what she is learning. Basically, she is growing.

Wow! Once again, the wonder of Google hits me between the eyes. The difference between my daughter and me is not just the sophistication of our technology or the volume of data available. It’s the speed of her growth—the rate of her development.

Google+ and Growth

Members of the more disciplined Google+ communities experienced the same kind of difference. In the typical social channels, there’s a high volume of content, but little opportunity for meaningful intercourse.  It’s like being in constant repartee with a new-found friend. By contrast, being in a Google+ community was more like participating in a conference with like-minded associates. 

As a result of that difference, Google+ users found themselves getting to know the direction of a broader dialogue, absorbing current trends, assessing expectations, meeting needs, contributing to a vision, and helping to create common understanding. Basically, they were growing.

How did Google+ sponsor such growth?

Development through Freedom

This is the title of a seminal book by Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen. With my apologies for making a gross reduction, Sen asserts that freedom is fundamental to the economic development of nations and peoples. “Greater freedom enhances the ability of people to help themselves and also influence the world, and these matters are central to the process of development.” 

Acknowledging the rich, nuanced dimensions of Sen’s idea in the field of economics, permit me to make this modest application in the world of social media: When a social platform gives users the freedom to help themselves and make a difference in the lives of others, they grow. They develop capacity. They become more capable of realizing their ultimate potential.

The effect of this freedom is clearly evident in children, including my own daughter. When she chooses to pursue something she really cares about, especially when she serves the needs of her siblings or our family, her ability to perceive, think, and act expands. Her power is enlarged. She grows.

Freedom to Make a Difference  

How does a social media platform promote this kind of growth? Let’s go back to Google for a moment. As a search engine, Google delivers results that are relevant to our query. To the extent that our query is a serious-minded one—reflecting our real interests for ourselves and others, our growth is accelerated. 

In a similar way, by structuring interactions around the shared interests of users—hobbies, talents, professions, circumstances, and so on—Google+ gave users the freedom to “help themselves and also influence the world.” Which means, basically, that users were growing.

For example, when users posted in the “Photography” community, they weren’t posting and consuming just anything. They were learning and growing by sharing their work or responding to the work of others. And they were enlarging and enhancing the community where others could to the same.

Communities Require Rules

For Google+ to cultivate those communities, they asked sponsors to establish rules of participation—boundaries that disciplined community members’ interactions both individually and collectively. 

As Sen might predict, these “rules” actually enlarged users’ freedom to act meaningfully. Susan Johansen, a contributor to, explains, “By introducing . . . 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.”

Agents for Change

In Google+, community rules or boundaries helped users know what meaningful, helpful, beneficial contributions might look like. They reminded users of this potent truth: a social platform benefits users in direct proportion to the benefits it provides the community as a whole. 

In speaking of such benefits, Dr. Sen observes: “The concern here relates to what we may call (at the risk of oversimplification) the “agency aspect” of the individual. . . . I am using the term “agent” . . . in its older—and “grander”—sense as someone who acts and brings about change.” 

A hallmark of the quintessential Google+ user was the impulse to bring about the most basic, beneficial social change—the growth and well-being of individuals and a community. This was especially likely in Google+ because the platform’s structure increased the “agency aspect” of users to act meaningfully in behalf of others.

As an example, in Episode Two of the podcast, we hear a couple of Google+ pioneers recount how community members helped a user resist suicide and called on communities to support philanthropic work among refugees. Google+ encouraged such social responsiveness and responsibility.

Continuing to Grow

My daughter gets on Google, scrolls through results, then clicks to access one of dozens of relevant results. With every click she is working on a question or problem—even as the question or problem is working on her. As she exercises her agency—her freedom—to enlarge herself and bless others, she is developing. Google and Google+ are helping her grow.

What does that mean for the future? It’s true that Google+ is fast becoming a ghost town, but the growth opportunities it has offered will continue to influence our social media interactions and bear fruit. 

As users move to other platforms, imagine what they take with them. Consider how they will enrich the communities where they reside. And think how the world will be different because they were given freedom to develop and grow in the remarkable place we’ll remember as Google+.