Friday, April 26, 2019

Google Plus was about community and collaboration and killing it damaged users

Anti-trust law keeps large companies from stifling competition. Could consumer-protection law keep companies from simply killing services that many people depend upon?

Google Plus chief architect Vic Cundotra "sold" the project to Google CEO Larry Page by convincing him that Facebook was an existential threat and, when Google Plus was launched, Facebook took it as an existential threat and responded accordingly.

Both were wrong, because, while they overlapped functionally, they were not direct competitors. Facebook serves a social feed of posts from family, friends, and people an algorithm identifies as being like you. Google Plus also offered a feed but was more about collaboration and support of communities of common interest.

J. C. R. Licklider, who was responsible for much of the research that led to interactive computing and the Internet, anticipated Google Plus Communities by over 40 years, writing that interactive communities would "consist of geographically separated members, sometimes grouped in small clusters and sometimes working individually. They will be communities not of common location, but of common interest."

I barely use Facebook but did use Google Plus. I didn't pay much attention to my Google Plus feed but used Google Plus Communities extensively. I have an interest in the Cuban Internet, so created a Google Plus Community on the topic and joined several other Cuba-related communities. I also joined communities on other topics I am interested in, like the Internet in developing nations and satellite Internet service.

I am also a teacher and created a Community each semester for my students to share material relevant to our class and study together. My students and I also used Google Plus Hangouts on Air for collaboration and coordination.

At the start, Google Plus was not just a social feed -- it was a collection of services that also included Photos, Hangouts, and Communities. Google separated Photos and Hangouts before they killed Google Plus and could have separated Communities as well, but they did not.

Would Google Communities have been viable as a stand-alone service? Yes. The closest competitor would have been Facebook Groups, but Groups lacks key features like post categories and the Communities user interface was far superior to that of Groups. Revenue sources could have included community-member data, ads, an optional membership fee, etc.

What about fake news, spam and toxic filter bubbles? It's easier to manage those things when the unit of scrutiny is a community rather than posts in a social feed. A community will have a creator and perhaps one or more moderators. They would be the first line of defense against inappropriate content within a community. The operator of the community platform would guard against communities that were intended to violate platform rules.

If they decided not to operate Communities as a separate service, Google could have offered the code and data assets for sale to others or at least put the code in the public domain. Evidentally it was easier for them just kill Communities along with the social feed, but doing so damaged me and other users. I don't know how many Communities there were or how many members they had, but killing Google Plus caused the loss of a large amount of social and monetary capital.

Over the years, Google has killed 137 services, 12 apps, and 12 hardware offerings, beginning with Google Deskbar after a three-year run in 2006. Anti-trust law keeps large companies from stifling competition. Could consumer-protection law keep companies from simply killing services that many people depend upon?

Such a law would not be all bad for Google. If constrained, they would still recoup some of the value of their investment and it would instill confidence in other companies that were thinking of offering products that depended upon them. If I were a developer, I would be reluctant to build a product that depended upon Google with its track record of killing 161 offerings in 13 years. Google Plus also had a symbiotic relationship with other Google services. For example, Google Plus drove some Blogger and YouTube traffic.

Elizabeth Warren and others have suggested breaking up large Internet companies. If we do so, let's not throw away all of the pieces.

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