Ramblings on social media

Is Google+ walking dead?

This should be counted among questions to which the answer is no.

A couple of hacks on a news site called TechCrunch, which many if not most people in the real world would not know the existence of, penned a virtual obituary of Google+ titled Google+ Is Walking Dead, indicating that Google+ as a product will be wound down after Vic Gundotra left Google, based on unnamed and non-descript sources. Perhaps it is a primarily British practice, but journalists tend to describe their anonymous sources in a coded manner, such as those close to the project stated on the condition of anonymity that then quote the sources. This is especially prominent with political reporting, and there is an implicit understanding between the writer and the reader about the closeness of the sources to the matter, thus indicating a greater or lesser degree of reliability and trustworthiness. If a journalist gets it wrong too often or on really big news, readers will cease regarding the medium as a reliable publication. Journalists therefore need to have confidence in their sources, the editorial team will also need to be confident, and they are staking their reputations on the line both as journalists and as a publication, especially when the claims are big. They have staked their journalistic reputations in this instance, and if they are wrong – as I think they are – then their judgement and credibility will be called into question in the future when they write and publish on a similar topic.

Anyway, this report was widely reproduced on other sources. As such, and predictably, given its sensational copy and startling content, it has caused a major storm in a pretty large teacup of those who have more than a passing and passive interest in social media platforms. Google has flatly denied the reports, and individual Google employees have made clear in no uncertain terms that the report of the imminent zombification and eventual death of Google+ as a product is a load of nonsense. And that seems to be that: do I believe Google and Google employees who have posted in their own names, or do I believe multiple unnamed sources quoted in a poorly-written article? I believe the former.

The claim is startling, but the article lacks coherence and concrete information. I often disagree with articles or opinion pieces, because I disagree with the premises, but at least I can see the validity in the argument: I cannot say that this is the case with this particular article. The main claim of the article seems to be that Google+ will cease to be a front-end product, but it will remain the backbone behind the scenes, and by that I suppose the article is claiming that social functions such as the posting, streams, circle-based social connections, etc, in other words, what many people consider as Google+ will be gone. Perhaps it is claiming something else. Its definitions of Google+ as a product and as a platform are unclear, as they are left undefined, and there may be some confusion and false dichotomies in them. The article is a hotchpotch of rumours, speculations, and insinuations. It seems to draw the conclusion from the apparent reshuffling of Google staff that sees the kingdom of Google+ denuded of its population to populate the kingdom of Android, tangentially speculated from a physical relocation of Google employees from one building to another: the claim of personnel reshuffle has also been denied by a Google employee (source: https://plus.google.com/+MoritzTolxdorff/posts/9iqRWUYU9RD). In addition, the failure to acquire WhatsApp is cited, again essentially unattributed, as another unexplained reason for phasing out the Google+ experiment. I am genuinely baffled: I struggle to see why the failure to acquire WhatsApp renders Google+ unviable.

From where I am, it looks extremely unlikely that Google will kill Google+ as a product. Its success or failure can be argued variously. I thought it would struggle, but it has performed better than I had anticipated, as a late-comer to a crowded market and where there is a very large established player. Yes, most people I know are on Facebook and some on Twitter, if they are on social networking sites at all, but I was expecting that to be the case anyway. For others, it has not performed well at all. It is a question of benchmarking success and failure: perhaps I have a relatively low expectation for Google+, particularly after the major debacle that was Google Buzz. Whether you believe this story or not probably depends on the narrative you have already chosen for Google+: either it is utter nonsense since the premise that Google+ is failing is wrong, or it is true because it confirms that Google+ is indeed failing. It should not surprise you that I belong to the former.

While personalities and individuals are undoubtedly important, Google+ is not a personal hobby project by someone in Google that dies with the person, but there has been a concerted corporate effort to promote and utilize it as a layer covering and glue holding together different Google products and services. Google has for example called angry YouTube users’ bluff when it forcibly introduced Google+ identities for commenting on YouTube videos: a mass exodus from the platform did not happen. I am ambivalent about forced mergers, but it seems to me that Google has made an effort to integrate products and services, and it was prepared to sacrifice a certain amount of user goodwill. Mergers are complicated, and there are so many oddities and quirks with Google+ because things are integrated imperfectly, but so are demergers. While imperfect, there has been deeper and deeper integration involving Google+, therefore separating them neatly into constituent parts would in all probability be a gargantuan task. Google+ has gone through many iterations in its short life thus far: it has added more functions in a relatively short period of time, and I certainly enjoy interaction on this platform and utilizing its functions.

As much as I do not think Facebook will disappear by 2017, I do not think Google+ will be shut down any time soon: it will be interesting to see how Google+ develops in this new era post Vic Gundotra. What will Google+ be like in a year’s time? I would not hazard a guess, given the pace of changes mentioned above, but I think it will still be there as a product and used for socializing and interacting with others.