Our correspondent, writing from Moonbase Alpha looks back at the troubled life and eventual death of Google+
With the tumbleweeds that greeted Google’s announcement that it is closing its social project ‘+’ it’s hard to remember that for a few short weeks in 2011, our forefathers were enraptured with this web curio. I took some time out to talk to the surviving members of the team behind the project.
I first caught up with Joe McDingle – now a spry 38 year old in a Florida retirement home, but still with a youthful twinkle in his eye. In 2011, he was in charge of naming and marketing the project
It was 2011. I guess we were all just a bit young and stupid
“Well we chose a stupid name!” he laughs, slapping his knee on his colourful check trousers. “It took Microsoft nearly two decades to realise that Microsoft could never use its brand outside of Windows and Office. We used to get out kicks shouting “Bing!” at Microsoft employees at conferences, but Hell – it worked! We should’ve learnt that lesson ourselves with Google Video. Google always meant search. That was the brand.”
McDingle now believes that the “+” name was a mistake that should never have happened.
“Oh we had critics from the get-go. People said it was difficult to use – how do you even type it? – and no-one dared to point out to the board that Google+ would mean nothing to the man in the street. At best, they’d probably guess it meant extra search features.” He is equally scathing about the choice of +’s internal modules.
“Huddles? Well that was Alvin’s [Kuriesha – Google ops manager at the time] idea. I wanted to call it something that people would understand like ‘chat’ or something. But they’d bussed these marketing guys in and they said it had to be futuristic and we were overruled. Just like ‘friends’ and ‘groups’ became ‘circles.’ He stops for a glass of water and looks out of the wistfully out of the window. “Still, it was 2011. I guess we were all just a bit young and stupid.”
But +’s problems weren’t just limited to its branding. Alvin Kuriesha himself now admits that the launch plan was deeply flawed. Today, he is in charge of Google Hatstand – the new dating service for Google users – but back in 2011, he was the idealistic ops manager who came up with the launch strategy.
“You have to understand that back then it was all about playing to shareholders and keeping the stock price up.” He chuckles at the memory. “Of course, no-one would run a tech company like that these days, but back then that’s all there was.”
Everyone’s got a Google profile and the advantages of that over a Facebook or Twitter account are just so obvious.
+ was initially rolled out to selected journalists, bloggers and geeks. The reason, Kuriesha now explains, was to get coverage.
“Of course Sullivan [Danny Sullivan – then just a lowly blogger] wasn’t a regular customer! He was tech all the way to his fingertips. And he had this blog or something that had, like, hundreds of readers. So it made sense to let him in on it first, because he’d get it. And then he could tell his readers about it and… well. You get the idea.”
The theory, according to Kureisha, was that positive early press reports in the tech media would percolate out through naive, untrained journalists covering tech in the mainstream media who would be unable to grasp anything more than the point that this was somehow like Facebook. They in turn would do the heavy lifting work of explaining the project to the lay public who would then lap it up like slavering simpletons.
“Even now I don’t know why it didn’t work the we way thought it would. It worked wonders for Wave [Google’s massively popular chat/email tool]. There was a famous video of developers whooping and hollering when Wave was being demo’d and the guy typed things and they appeared onscreen practically in realtime. When that went viral, we knew Wave was a hit because it really explained the product. + seemed so logical to us that we thought the same thing would happen.”
Of course, history now shows that this never happened in the way that Google insiders had envisioned. The cachet of being invited to preview + certainly garnered column inches and the attention of the tech bloggerati but it turned out that actual people didn’t really care.
“It’s funny,” Kureisha says. “People just love sharing stuff. And people love Google. So why no-one bothered to share things on Google is just a mystery to me. Everyone’s got a Google profile and the advantages of that over a Facebook or Twitter account are just so obvious. All your friends are on Google. All of them!”
To this day, Kureisha keeps an internal Google PowerPoint presentation about the benefits of +. Faded with age, but still legible, it includes several Venn diagrams and arrows pointing from box to box to illustrate how people talk to each other. He maintains that locked inside this presentation are the secrets that will finally make the public realise that Google IS social. From the quiet of his office, with its view of the California mountains, you get the sense that one day, this quietly determined man will be back to prove his point.
Perhaps, in the final analysis, + was just an idea ahead of its time.