Google+ . . . The Big Idea Before Its Time


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,” “On the Shoulders of Google+,” “Google+ Made Us Better,” 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.”

In the mid-1800s, Ignaz Semmelweis, a doctor in Vienna, told fellow surgeons that by washing their hands they would reduce the mortality rate among patients. As a result, he was ridiculed, shunned, and died in an insane asylum. “Germ theory”—a big idea before its time.

By 1914, Robert Goddard had invented the first liquid and solid-fueled rockets, hoping to realize a boyhood dream of travel to Mars. But 40 years later, he was still funding most of his own experiments and remained largely ignored. Finally, the U.S. government embraced his work, making space exploration possible. “Rocket propulsion”—a big idea before its time.

In the 1930s, Fritz Zwicky, a Bulgarian-born astrophysicist, concluded that the gravitational pull of ‘dark matter’ was helping to hold galaxies together. Fellow scientists roundly rejected his work, including theories about supernovae and neutron stars. “Dark matter as an essential ingredient of the universe”—a big idea before its time.

We could go on. Most of the big technological ideas we take for granted were initially misunderstood, marginalized, and even rejected. For example: The Internet. E-commerce. Live streaming. Overnight and same-day delivery. These ideas (and thousands like them) struggled for life. They are the rule, not the exception.

We believe Google+ follows that rule. It was a big idea before its time. And while it flourished in its way, it will soon be discontinued. There is nothing wrong with that. The fruit it bore nourished technological growth and will influence development for years to come.

Granted, not everyone will be philosophical about it. They’ll say, ‘The demise of Google+ is not because the idea wasn’t big enough or was introduced too early. It’s because of implementation and differentiation. The vision was compromised in a zealous quest for users, or undermined by inadequate security, or abandoned altogether because of a misguided strategy.” Okay. That may or may not be true. It’s always useful to look back and learn from experience.

BUT (pay attention here), if our only measure of success is a competitive and enduring business enterprise, we’ll completely miss the pioneering role of a “big idea before its time,” now and in the future. Remember: germ theory, rocket fuel, and dark matter, to name a few—initial business failures, enduring ideological successes.

Which is why we must reject the adage: “The only thing worse than being wrong is being early.” No. Not true. Utterly ridiculous. Even dangerous. Instead we must say, “The only thing better than being ‘on time’ is preparing the way for that which is to come.” Because the truth is, it’s the big ideas that come before their time that alter the course of human history. They awaken us, challenge us, and invite the innovations that will soon appear.

You watch. The Google+ vision is very much alive. It has already asserted itself in big ideas that will shape the future: Cohesive groups rather than sprawling networks. Topic-based communities instead of free-for-all feeds. Influence of real people we respect over celebrities we don’t. Constructive conversations in place of self-assertions and destructive posts. Substance over ephemera. Common bonds in place of incidental connections. Live-streamed interactions beyond lifeless words and images. Shared responsibility for safeguarding relationships instead of “it’s someone else’s job to police this space.”

The big idea of Google+ is not going away. Millions have been changed by their experiences in Google+ groups and circles and communities. As a result, they will ask and expect more of the platforms they use in the future. They will innovate. Competitors will respond. And the next generation of social media users will look back and see the DNA of Google+ in and through all we have become. Because big ideas before their time never die. They live in us, forever.