On the Shoulders of Google+


This article is part of an EmbraceLife.tech 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,” “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.”

The amazing thing about being lifted up on Dad’s shoulders wasn’t just that we got taller. It was that the world suddenly got bigger. And our sense of power and possibility grew.

As we enter the final weeks of Google+, it’s helpful to consider what we’ve gained by riding on its shoulders—the vision it has given us of the world and our power in it.

Astonishingly, that vision—or a version of it—was hinted at by Mark Zuckerberg in his February 2017 Manifesto—a description delivered six years after Google+ had already imagined it and begun to create it:

Building a global community that works for everyone starts with the millions of smaller communities and intimate social structures we turn to for our personal, emotional and spiritual needs.

Sound familiar? Groups, circles, communities—“social structures” to meet real human needs? If it wasn’t clear in 2011, it is now: Google+ helped us glimpse something we didn’t have, and before we knew we needed it.

Think what Google+ has helped us see and begin to understand:

  • Verified profiles

  • Groups defined by topic

  • Opportunities to collaborate around shared interests

  • A sense of belonging based on common purposes

  • Reinforcement for being ourselves

  • Occasions to interact through live-streamed hangouts

  • Moderators who make a difference with effective tools

We could go on.

Some wonder whether Google+ was a solution in search of a problem—a cure for a disease we didn’t know we had.

It’s true, when Google+ came along, we were still enamored with the idea of a global social network—of trying to make ourselves look good to people we didn’t know and trying to be “friends” with people we wouldn’t want to meet.

Now that we’ve experienced the effects of all that, it’s fair to ask: “If Google+ came along today—in the midst of our individual and collective social media woes—would we embrace it as an antidote, or even a cure?”

Yes, but probably not as it is now. Somewhere along the way, perhaps to get more users quickly, Google+ seemed to lose its distinctive quality. Obviously, Google+ needed a growing constituency. As a social media platform, it had to achieve a network effect for two groups of customers—users and advertisers—and without high numbers on both sides, it could not thrive.

For Facebook’s brand of social media, Facebook already had those numbers. Which underscores why Google+ needed to be in its own space, far apart from Facebook. Success depended on building a unique usership, even if it had to do it less rapidly.

We applaud Google+’s pursuit of a unique social media alternative from the outset. And we gratefully salute designers and developers who made thousands and thousands of choices, microscopic and monumental, to advance a pioneering vision.

The question for us now is, how do we leverage that vision for the next generation of social media users?

First, it’s probably not to build another global social network. Just this week Zuckerberg described an appetite that drew users to Google+, even if it wasn’t entirely fulfilled:

Today we already see that private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups are by far the fastest growing areas of online communication. There are a number of reasons for this. Many people prefer the intimacy of communicating one-on-one or with just a few friends.

It’s not that we couldn’t build another platform for the world. It’s that it won’t be enough. It won’t support the intimate daily encounters we need to be fully human. For that, we want to live our lives in a human-sized cottage and stroll at will in the world-sized public square.

Which means that to practically benefit from the vision of Google+, we should try to capture its basic principles and apply them to a wide variety of less sprawling enterprises. Here are three such principles we see right away—acknowledging that there are many, many more:

  • Social media users are more responsible when their communities have a clear topic, context, or purpose. Part of being socially intelligent and responsive is understanding the terms of engagement. Google+, in all its iterations, has done a good job of helping users grasp the specific “why” of their participation.

  • Social media users are more authentic when they understand what makes them a bona fide member of the group. If belonging to a group depends on popularity or some other evanescent measure, members will be tempted to posture in order to win favor. If belonging depends on a shared interest, natural connection or common purpose (which members know they legitimately demonstrate), they can be confident in “being themselves.”

  • Social media users feel safer and interact more meaningfully in smaller, stand-alone “circles.” All users live life as members of multiple finite groups. Platforms that support such groups foster intimacy, which leads to open, authentic, life-sustaining interactions.

Obviously, these are not just postulates. These are principles Google+ users experienced for themselves, firsthand. They are shoulders millions rode upon for eight mind-expanding, perspective-enlarging years. And whether or not Zuckerberg ever glimpsed this elevated view as a Google+ user, he described it with remarkable clarity:

Whether [our communities and intimate structures are] churches, sports teams, unions or other local groups, they all share important roles as social infrastructure for our communities. They provide all of us with a sense of purpose and hope; moral validation that we are needed and part of something bigger than ourselves; comfort that we are not alone and a community is looking out for us; mentorship, guidance and personal development; a safety net; values, cultural norms and accountability; social gatherings, rituals and a way to meet new people.

Thank you, Mr. Zuckerberg. That’s a description of the core vision of Google+. It’s why so many loved being part of it. And why we’ll happily see the world from its shoulders for many years to come.