Five Things I Learned At MySpace That Could Help Google+

Editor’s note: This guest post is written by Tom Anderson, the former President, founder and first friend on MySpace. You can now find Tom on FacebookTwitter, and Google+

This is just a guess, but I’d bet money that Vic Gundotra and Bradley Horowitz probably feel like their heads are going to explode. Anyone on the Google+ team who really cares about G+ is probably getting very little sleep, and are annoying their friends and family with their one-track G+ minds. There’s been such an amazing amount of feedback, the Google+ team can’t help but be overwhelmed—and what we see is just on the site and in the press. Imagine what’s coming into that “send feedback” inbox that’s at the bottom of every G+ page?

At MySpace I tried to digest that “inbox” and “community” by myself, and that worked pretty well for a few years. It was a little easier back then, but today’s G+ users are an entirely different breed. There are a ton of early adopters, technologists on G+, and they’ve all been through the social networking ringer before. G+ users are offering powerpoint slideshows, illustrated screen mockups and long-winded essays on what needs to happen. There is genuine, high-quality thinking going on in the “free advice” that G+ is receiving from the global community. How can the G+ team cut through the noise and decide what’s important? (Especially when there’s some really high quality noise being directed Google’s way.)

Here’s a few things I’d do right now, if I were Google.

1) Start seriously courting the journalists, tastemakers, and celebrities that are using and/or pontificating about G+. This doesn’t mean Google should ignore “regular” user feedback, or even that Google should do what the triumvirate says they should do. It just means they should have a real, personal relationship with those people. During MySpace’s run-up, journalists continually got their facts wrong about MySpace. They wrote story after story about how Facebook was bigger than MySpace when in truth Facebook wasn’t even 1/10th the size of MySpace.

Why? Because the journalists’ Ivy League educated children were using Facebook, and journalists have deadlines and other things to think about. If you get to know people, they think of a real human being when they write those stories, and they care a little more. I don’t want to say people are “sheep,” but if the general Internet population believes G+ is happening and here to stay, then they’ll commit the time to try it out. Popular opinion is the biggest “filter” for most people—they don’t have to try something if they’ve already been told it’s not cool. Popular opinion is the ultimate “social search” if you will. This doesn’t just apply to user counts (G+ hits 20 million!), of course. Popular opinion will shape every aspect of people’s G+ perception.

2) Exhaustively think through the privacy issues and tie up any loose/ends that G+ has on this front. I’ve seen multiple people share their phone number with me without knowing it. They may not be wanting to share other things as well, though those things have been less obviously private. I’d make sure that people understand how their posts can be shared/reshared, and how their other Google accounts (profile, Gmail, docs) and content (Youtube, Picasa) are connected to G+. I don’t believe Privacy is a real issue to most people, but most people think it is a real issue to them. As thus, it plays a big role in the psychological justification for defecting from competitors. “Safety” hysteria destroyed MySpace in the press. It got MySpace banned from schools, Apple stores, and by well-meaning parents who had been terrorized by what they were reading. Privacy advocates have tried to destroy Facebook and Google in the past. You need the best PR person in the world on your team, Google, but even more so, you need to make sure the software doesn’t give the privacy hounds something to be rightfully angry about.

3) Move Google’s top analysts (probably focused on monetization right now) onto the Google+ project to form a skunk works team. Mine the data about G+ usage like it’s Gold, because it truly is the future of Google’s long-term revenue and profit growth. (And I actually don’t think there’ll ever be advertising on Google+, theme for another article.) Facebook was really good at understanding their onboarding process, knowing what key activities led to later usage (adding x number of friends, putting up a picture and getting a response, etc.).  Google needs to closely track users who are not adopting the service, those that are, and try to understand what type of user is the one that is ahead of the curve—identify the user who is illustrating the future “common” use case through their pioneering activity. G+ needs to understand all three types of users and develop a plan for each of them.

4) Hire the best product executors & visionaries in the world, something that clearly has not been Google’s forte in the past. (In fact, it seems that some good ones have left, because they felt they weren’t valued at Google).  I’m not referring to run of the mill product managers and UI developers or “social media experts,” but rather that rare breed of people who have demonstrable experience leading users down the path to internet nirvana. Google has the engineering talent and ability to scale the G+ service (more valuable than people understand, right now, I think). But does Google have the product people? Google’s technical infrastructure will allow them to do things that other social sites could not do—in fact, they’re already doing that. They need product visionaries who can understand that. Though I love G+, some parts of G+ are really a mess right now, and two that are incredibly important at this stage are in need of much work: onboarding & photos.

5) There must be one ring to rule them all. One leader making decisions. Maybe that person is already in place at Google; I don’t know the internal hierarchies within the company. But the leader himself, and every employee must understand who this is. Making a website is similar to making a movie—hundreds of people work on it, one person makes the final decision, and they make them every minute of the day. I use the LOTR analogy because there may be 12 extremely important product people (point #4). But someone needs to make the decisions. And to further that analogy, if the ring goes bad, the Hobbits need to throw the ring in Mt. Doom and find a new leader. OK maybe this analogy doesn’t work, but you get the point. All the opinions and analysis will paralyze anyone who is not up to the task. That person has got to bring it all together and make decisions based on his gut and understanding of the overall company’s mission. No that leader won’t always get it right, but the clarity achieved and time saved is crucial. The Internet moves at lightning speed. If you mess up, a resolute leader can iterate and fix. This is worthy of its own dissertation (read Randall Stross on this point about Steve Jobs/Apple vs. Google right here).

You learn a lot when you mess up. I messed up a lot, so these are just a few of the things I learned. By the way, these lessons aren’t just for Google.  They also can be applied to any startup, so good luck everyone. I’m hoping to see you all make your mark on this world.