Google Plus Is Like Frankenstein’s Monster

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Your humble correspondent begs your indulgence for this flu-fuelled stream-of-consciousness post, but deadlines wait for no virus, so needs must I expel the contents of my febrile mind onto this screen and thence to yours.

To wit: Google Plus is a total mess.

You probably knew that already. But you may not have realized that of late it has become an interesting mess…like Frankenstein’s monster.

These days there’s a lot of disingenuous chatter about how G+ is just a “social layer on top of Google,” and was never intended as a direct competitor for Facebook; which is, of course, revisionist nonsense. Two years ago it seemed pretty obvious to just about everyone that G+ was intended, or at least hoped for, as a Facebook killer.

Which obviously never happened, not least because Google shot themselves in the foot as they came out of the gate: the tech community of early adopters that could conceivably have become a critical-mass beachhead were the same group who reacted most strongly and negatively to G+’s controversial, divisive, and just plain dumb real-names policy. It wasn’t until it became painfully apparent that Facebook had nothing to worry about that G+ pivoted to Plan B, its current status: a thin social veneer atop all of Google’s products.

Which has been moderately successful. Google Plus is awfully quiet, true, but it’s not the ghost town that’s often claimed. Some numbers from my pet project Scanvine, which tracks how and where news articles are shared online:

  • The average news article tracked (as of this writing) has been shared/liked 890 times on Facebook, mentioned/retweeted 147 times on Twitter–and shared/+1d a paltry 19 times on Google Plus. That’s 2 percent of Facebook. Which is pretty bad (by Google’s standards) in terms of overall reach, but probably good enough in terms of accumulating a semi-representative sample of social-media signals to feed the ever-hungry maw of Google’s search algorithms.
  • Mind you, this distribution varies quite a bit from source to source. Fully a sixth of The Verge’s shares come from G+, compared to 0.1 percent of Upworthy’s. (Similarly, LinkedIn is basically nonexistent for many sources, but is a huge contributor to the Harvard Business Review. G+ does okay on TechCrunch, too, in case you’re curious, but what’s notable here is the massive outperformance of Twitter.)
  • I’ve heard rumors that G+ is big in India, but the numbers for The Times of India offer at best tepid evidence for that: six shares/story via G+ vs. 137 via Facebook. Better than the overall 2 percent average, but not by much.
  • In general, G+ outperforms for tech sources and underperforms for, errrrr, let’s say “non-tech” ones. Its population seems to be heavily STEM-oriented — or, to quote an anecdotal report from elsewhere, “Google+ loves math.” We may tentatively conclude that it has caught the attention of many technically inclined early adopters, but two years on, its use doesn’t seem to be expanding much from that core. It’s a foothold, not a beachhead.

So. G+ failed as a Facebook killer, and while it may have attracted enough of a STEM-loving audience to serve as Google’s social layer, it isn’t exactly setting the rest of the world on fire. What it does do, however, which Facebook mostly doesn’t, is serve as a means for aggregating and filtering stories. G+ “Circles” can be coerced into news feeds for a particular type of story; for instance, Brad Acker shared a “Futurists” circle with me which is a really interesting aggregated source of cutting-edge science/tech news.

But even that doesn’t quite work right. You can share Circles with other people individually, but there doesn’t seem to be any way for me to, for instance, post a link to that “Futurists” circle here so that anyone could subscribe. (Please correct me if I’m wrong; this seems like such an obvious feature that I suspect my flu-ridden state is the reason for my inability to find such a link.)

Moreover, I’m using that Circle as a news aggregator, but the posts there are still social — i.e. they’re built around people, with smiling-face icons and commentary and so forth — when actually I really just want to use it asocially. I mostly don’t know or care about the people who are posting to it; I’m just interested in the links they’re aggregating. The rest is distracting noise. Hacker News, for all its ugliness, gets this right. G+ does not.

Circles are still really useful for all kinds of things, from small-group conversations to project-oriented discussions to news aggregators that nothing else can quite match–but at the same time, they suffer from G+’s attempt to be all things to all people. Admirable ambition, but unless your UX design is superb, you wind up seeming like a bundle of individually good ideas bolted together awkwardly into a shambling mess. Like Frankenstein.

But that’s not actually the criticism it may seem. People tend to think of Boris Karloff’s portrayal of a brute monster: but Mary Shelley’s original novel had the subtitle The Modern Prometheus, and its creation was eloquent, educated, and intelligent, but unfairly rejected by most of the world because of his physical deformities and inability to fit in. Alas, I fear the same may be true of Google Plus.