Thoughts on Google+

End of serendipity?

Google+ is and will remain the main social media platform of my choice, yet I am currently changing the ways I use and interact on Google+. By the end of serendipity, I mean the diminishing likelihood of meeting and finding interesting people and things on Google+ by happy chance, and it points to a set of problems on Google+. I do not wish to don a pair of rose-tinted glasses, but in the early days of Google+, I met a number of wonderful people whom I now consider friends, and I was able to discover interesting profiles and pages, such as a profile of a bookbinder, a restorer of musical instruments, and a great landscape photographer, all by chance, but sadly I doubt such will happen readily now. I am late in coming to this conclusion, as there have been many others who have expressed a similar sentiment, and I am merely adding my voice to it. As I will attempt to delve a little deeper later, this is an issue that could may make Google+ a difficult place for new users to navigate.

Spam, spam, spam

The woes afflicting Google+ can be summarized in one word: spam. Functions and tools on Google+ that facilitated discovery of Google+ profiles, pages, and posts, such as shared circles, communities, events, as well as What’s hot and Nearby streams are vulnerable to spam, despite many improvements and measures that Google has implemented, and spammers have been availing themselves of the opportunities to spam. Spam comes in many forms, and I have a low tolerance for what I consider spam, as spam posts and comments drain away my time, energy, and enthusiasm. In the following paragraphs, I will try to explain what I mean with reference to each of the functions I have mentioned.

But first, perhaps I should expand on what I mean by spam, at least in the context of Google+ and in this article. It is a little like obscenity, in that I cannot clearly define it, but I know it when I see it. I would call something as spam in Google+, when someone uses Google+ purely as a means to an end, which ultimately involves generation of revenue, without being concerned for his or her online reputation, since the Google+ presence is not integral or closely attached to his or her identity. In other words, a Google+ profile or page is expendable and replaceable, in the sense that there is little to no genuine, emotional, and personal investment and commitment. The posts themselves are exclusively or predominantly aimed at certain goals which are closely tied to generating revenue, whether in guiding people off-Google+ to a monetized site or to prompt people to purchase products and services. Because there is no concern for integrity, spammers are willing to use methods that will attract as much attention as possible, not least by using other people’s intellectual property.

Back to the list of things that would assist in discovery of interesting content on Google+, but have become havens for spammers, and I start with shared circles. This function allows – as the name suggests – sharing of Google+ profiles and pages grouped in circles: in principle it is a good tool, since it enables people to create circles with a certain theme or a common interest, and share those circles with others who would be interested in them as well. They soon became a method employed by various people to increase the number of followers. Instead of carefully curated circles, shared circles became a means of obtaining followers, any followers, in the numbers game. The emphasis was on gaining followers, regardless of the contamination and corruption of the streams. Like many Ponzi or pyramid schemes, these shared circles for numbers benefited those who organized them or jumped at the beginning disproportionately, and arguably at the expense of those who joined late.

Google+ communities are where group of people with the same interests can gather and post materials of interest to others. I have joined a number of communities and the quality of posts and the degree of meaningful engagement depend on how active the moderators are to stamp out spam. Any Google+ community owner or manager can attest to the huge amount of spam posted in the communities. Some communities have a very large number of members, and as such spammers target them. Most Google+ users set their accounts to show community posts in their streams, and for that reason the potential reach of a post in the community is larger than just those who visit the community, as community posts appear and are seen on members’ home stream. A while back, there was a concerted effort of an organized group to use Google+ communities as a vehicle to spread spam, in order to generate traffic to a site plastered with advertisements. By incessantly posting links to the same posts, they would have reached quite a large number of people.

Events can refer to online events such as Hangouts On Air (HOA) or to offline gatherings. It is a useful function since an event is added to Google Calendar, it provides a central place where people can discuss or exchange messages before and after the event, and there are lists of invitees with their responses about their attendance. At the same time, the notification is quite heavy-handed, and depending on the settings, people are deluged and besieged by invitations to events. If spammers want attention, and playing the numbers game, then no wonder sending invitations to non-existent events en masse has taken the proportion of an all-consuming plague.

What’s hot and Nearby streams are populated with posts that are personalized and localized respectively. On the basis of interests gleaned from posting habits or location, Google will recommend posts on Google+ to the users. Again, these are ways for spammers to reach a large audience without having to build its own following through engagement, and these streams have been gamed. I have not come across anything remotely interesting on the Nearby stream for a while, and What’s hot recommends things that I am not interested in, though it has become better, but better in the sense that very bad has become slightly less bad.

The spammers who play the long game will want to build a strong Google+ profile or page on its own right, so that they can make money, whether through selling things, advertisements, or even influence. Much like in the world of organized crime where the criminals aim to legitimize their activities by planting their goods into the legal supply chain, what these spammers want to do is to worm themselves into Google+ by gaining genuine followers and look genuine. As mentioned previously, one of the common traits of these spammers is to distribute other people’s creations as if their own, usually involving beautiful images. Google has been negligent in addressing the issue of blatant and massive infringement of intellectual property, but that is another big issue that cannot be dealt with adequately here.

How I use Google+ now

Instead of looking forward to chance meetings on Google+, I sometimes dread to see what Google recommends to me, or what I find on communities, and I am constantly gardening my profile, weeding out the spammers and other undesirables, often blocking profiles and pages in the process. Instead of interesting individuals or relatively unknown organizations, I have started to follow a lot more Google+ pages of well-known and well-established companies and institutions such as newspapers, magazines, publishers, international organizations, and universities. I have reasonable confidence that such Google+ entities will push out quality content. They act as a ballast so that my home stream cannot be polluted too much.

I have not circulated a shared circle for some time. While I still see the merits of shared circles so long as the members of the circles are carefully selected and meaningful, I tend to ignore the vast majority of circles, especially those comprising of hundreds of profiles and pages, and occasionally remove the sharers from my circles or even block them.

As for communities, I remain a member of many, but I rarely have set them to show on my home stream. In other words, I only see posts from a select few communities, which have good management, otherwise I rather go to the community and read the posts there than seeing them float about in my home stream. If spam posts in a community make their way to my home stream, then I might stop showing the community on my home stream, or even leave the community, or report and block the offending Google+ profiles and pages.

If anyone invites me to an event, and it is not something I am interested in, but I do not feel the sender is a spammer, then I mute that person. If the event is what I deem to be spam, or the Google+ profile or page issuing the invitation is spammy, then I have no compunction blocking and reporting both the event and the Google+ entity.

I have never been really looked into What’s hot or Nearby streams, and my settings dictate that they be not shown on my home stream. Whenever I peek into these places, out of morbid curiosity, most posts I see are spam, stupid, inane, or a combination of all three.

In general, I do not follow a profile or a page, unless I can see interesting posts on its stream, so I spend some time looking at the recent posts. Thankfully I have met a sufficient number of people who could act as a filter, so that when someone is connected to multiple members of my circles, then I have a reasonable amount of confidence that that person is unlikely to be a spammer or scammer.

Finally in this section, I should mention that Google offers suggestion lists of profiles and pages to follow, on the People page and the home stream. The suggestions are very much hit-and-miss in my experience: I have found a few interesting profiles and pages, but most of the time, they are not profiles and pages that I would follow. Most of the time, they remain in the stream as something irksome that I cannot get rid of and as a reminder of Google’s inability to select appropriate content.

Be selective

So what does this mean, if you are embarking on Google+? The general piece of advice that I would give is to be very selective about whom or what you add to your circles, and be prepared to remove profiles and pages quite readily, since the Google+ entities you follow are going to determine what you see on your home stream. Do not necessarily add Google+ profiles and pages just because Google recommends them to you. If you do not like what you currently see on your home stream, then I would prune the existing circles carefully. Moreover, the profiles and pages that you have in your circles will act as a kind of filter because they are unlikely to post or share or recommend things that you would consider totally inappropriate or uninteresting, as well as the basis of further recommendations from Google.

It may seem as if I am arguing that you should not add anyone, but that is not the case: without adding profiles and pages to your circles, your home stream will be empty, and your Google+ experience will likely to be poor. For an interesting and fulfilling Google+ stream, you will need to add profiles and pages, but as mentioned above, you will need to exercise your judgement. Explore and keep an open mind until you find a good feeling about the place. Join communities, engage with others by leaving comments or +1ing posts, even have a look at What’s hot and Nearby streams. Think for example whether you would like to see more from the same source. Does the poster make you think, laugh, or happy? Do you wish to engage in a debate with the poster? Does the community have a lot of interesting posts that you want to see more of? The criteria of what makes your stream good depends on you, because you have your own interests, your own sense of humour, and your own idea about what you are looking for from a social media platform: there are so many profiles and pages that create a lot of interesting content, and you need to find them, mostly through exploring the vast landscape that is Google+.

The preceding paragraphs may prompt you to wonder whether it is worth spending the time and effort on Google+. It even sounds like a lot of work. My answer is, as on so many other issues, it depends, but I would also like to say, give it a go. I certainly think it is worthwhile, but it may not be for others. Another answer that I would give is that if you are going to spend some time on Google+, then it is worth doing it properly from the beginning, otherwise your experience on Google+ might be compromised, and if you are ensnared by a network of spammers, then you might be caught in a rabbit warren of spam.