Thursday, October 11, 2018

Google -- kill Google Plus but save G+ Communities.

Last March, Google discovered a bug that exposed around 500,000 Google Plus profiles. Only static, optional profile fields like name, email address, occupation, gender, and age were exposed -- no other information like post content, Community memberships, viewing history, etc.

They discovered and immediately patched the bug last March and spent six months investigating it before going public yesterday. They say their investigation found "no evidence that any developer was aware of the bug or abusing it" and "no evidence that any profile data was misused." In spite of their assurance that no harm was done, Google stock dropped 2.6% last Thursday morning, when the news may have leaked out, and it is down about 4% for the last five days.

In the same post as they announced the bug, they announced they would "sunsetting" the consumer (free) version of Google Plus (but not the paid, enterprise version). Google or any other company has the right to discontinue an unprofitable product or service and, as they point out in their post, the "social network" portion of Google Plus was a failure, but there is more to Google Plus than social networking.

I quit reading my Google Plus feed long ago -- it was filled with spam and fake news based on my (faked) political interests, but I have found Google Plus Communities to be valuable and useful. While Google could not compete with Facebook's social networking feed, the features and interface of their Communities are superior to Facebook Groups. (Even if you like Facebook Groups, there is no way to transfer the members and history of a Google Plus Community to a Facebook Group).

Google should save Google Plus communities. There is a precedent for such a move. When it was launched, Google Plus included a service called Hangouts on Air (HoA). HoA enables video "chats" among up to ten people. That is not unique, but the chats can optionally be broadcast online and archived on YouTube. HoA was and remains a unique, valuable service that I and many others use. In 2016, Google removed HoA from Google Plus and integrated it into YouTube so it will not be affected by the elimination of Google Plus.

The decision to zap Google Plus provides a good example of the danger of dependency. There is an Internet saying -- "do what you do best and link to the rest." That makes sense and it has facilitated the rapid proliferation of Internet-based services, but it also leaves one vulnerable. The cost of using a service you depend upon may rise or one day or, like Google Plus, it may disappear.

I use HoA and Communities in my teaching and other professional work. Google saved me when they moved HoA out of Google Plus and I hope they do the same with Communities.

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Update 12/4/2018

Edward Morbius recently analyzed a random sample of 12,000 of the 7,974,281 Google Plus Communities. The size of the 10,358 Communities with visible membership ranged from 1-271,297 and the distribution was highly skewed -- the mean was 128.6, but the median was only 2.

Some Communities are worth saving, others are not. Communities with only one or two members are not worth saving, nor are communities with no recent activity (though they might have some archival value). Some topics should also be eliminated. For example, Morbius found many porn Communities in his sample and a Google algorithm should be able to flag and eliminate pornography. Spam users should also be detectable.

The largest Community in Morbius' sample had only 271,297 members, but there are much larger Communities. (I am a member of three Communities with over 500,000 members). Large Communities with non-spam traffic should be preserved. Small, active Communities are also valuable. For example, I create Communities for my classes. They are short-lived -- one semester -- and active relative to the number of members. They are quite useful to me and I do not know of a suitable alternative and I imagine the same is true for other finite-length projects.