Google’s top-down approach doesn’t work when you’re trying to build a community
This is the second of a three-part series on Google Plus. Also see:
• Hey Google! Here’s why Google+ is still a ghost town
• Why Google Plus is more like a forum than a social network
Target audience: Marketing professionals, SEO specialists, PR pros, brand managers, businesses, nonprofits, educators, Web publishers, journalists.
Over the last few weeks I have been writing almost exclusively about Google Plus. The first article was a hopeful but disappointed look into the ghost town known as Google+. The second article was in response to those passionate G+ users who professed love for their online community home, Plus.
Well, in the words of my friend and colleague Ike Piggot:
“I really believe one of the issues with Google Plus is that it wasn’t ‘born organically.’ It was thrust upon us as an answer to a question no one was asking. It didn’t have a gestational period, and as such seems artificial. Like a little Android Baby, for lack of a better term.”
The virtual online community
Back in the 90s and early 2000s when online virtual communities were new to the web, three books defined the online community (and I recommend you read them all):
• The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier by Howard Rheingold
• Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities by Amy Jo Kim
• The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary by Eric S. Raymond
While the first two books are explicitly about community development online, the third is about the emergent nature of distributed, asynchronous, online community in its creation, growth, and maintenance of the Linux operating system.
There’s one thing they all agree upon, echoing my friend Ike: the best communities grow organically from the bottom up, from the ground up, developing from small virtual villages into much larger, robust towns then cities. The most effective and persistent communities start off small and then grow according to the needs and interests of its members. Think London and not Paris; think New York and not Los Angeles; think San Francisco and not Washington, DC. And even Paris, known for being planned, took root as Ile de la Cité; and DC took root in Georgetown and Alexandria. The plan is simple: start small and knowable and then see if the first ten people can attract 100 birds of a feather who can attract a 1,000 others, and so on.
From Facebook’s humble beginnings to G+’s top-down approach
Even Facebook took this strategy by launching Facemash, deciding that wasn’t going to work, then launching Thefacebook.com only in Harvard and then extending its reach to expanded to Stanford, Columbia, and Yale; and then Ivy League and Boston schools, then most universities in the US, Canada, and then abroad to the UK, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands – but still limited to members with .EDU email addresses, including, presumably, alumi. Even Facebook adapted its apps, algorithms, priorities, and attractions based on what it learned from its users as it quickly took over the entire world.
Google+ did no such thing. It imposed itself, top-down, by launching itself into the arms of its 540 million registered users, be they users of Gmail, YouTube, or any of the other apps that require a Google profile and unique login. “Here you go, kids. Play!” might be what Google thought. And it’s felt to me a little like coercion ever since – the sort of bargaining that mums do with their cool children in order to get them to take along the loathsome one, “come on Gmail, bring your little brother Plus along and I”ll consider getting you a car when you turn 16.”
The light at the end of the tunnel is … Facebook?
I hate to be a Facebook fanboi or even compare the two, but I like to tell people that Facebook is as close to an afterlife experience as you”ll ever have before you die. Why? Well, they say that people with afterlife experiences go through a tunnel and end up in a place where they relive their entire life and also are greeted by everyone they have ever known. Same thing with Facebook. Everyone is there.
Really, the moment you drop into Google+, there’s nobody there. G+ even fails Swerdloff’s Test of a Good Online Social Network:
“Are pretty girls using it? If not, you don’t have it. If they are, I can’t see where. If pretty girls show up, their hangers on show up who bring THEIR hangers on, etc., and it’s hangers on all the way down. If pretty girls DON’T show up, you’ve got a much quieter network. Yes, that’s the reason Google+ is more intellectual. Intellectual and empty is still empty.”
Hearts and minds — then spirit
I have been on the board of directors of an Episcopal Church (we’re called the Vestry) and one of the most important aspects of growing a faith community – or any club for that matter – is through attraction, seduction, and retention. Every Sunday, we would select two members of the Vestry to physically engage any new people who would come to church for the first number of times. Reach out, say hello, offer a lay of the land, and to answer any questions.
I am a “blue dot” when I attend Renaissance Weekend and that means that I have attended for a while, know what I am doing, have the trust of the community, am generous, and can probably help anyone out who has a question. Online we call these sorts of people facilitators, moderators, and managers. They’re essential everywhere (except Facebook where everyone you know is already there) and are distinctly missing on Google+.
It’s sink or swim. You either get it or “you just don’t get Google+.”
How not cool is talking about Second Life in 2014?
I felt the same way when I spawned into Second Life for the first time: “what do I do now?” Now, with both platforms, Google+ and Second Life, the moment I wrote a big, critical, article – like I did about Second Life forever ago over at AdAge, Twitter Is What Second Life Wasn’t: Light, Cheap and Open (And That’s Why It’ll Outlive the Hype Cycle) – only then did the cavalry arrive with tips, tricks, advice, and help to get me along, out of the default kit, and into some hip and happening clubs, galleries, events, and even some pretty amazing talks (yes, that really was Kurt Vonnegut, too).
The same thing is happening, as we speak, on Google+. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. After three years and several damning articles, I seem to be making some progress on Google+. But like being a visitor to Paris, most outsiders feel shunned and most Parisians are happy to shun (and New York used to be the same before a Mass Disneyfication in the early 2000s, post 9/11).
Did Google copy Plus from Jean Paul Sartre’s ‘No Exit’?
Dropping people into an empty room without some guidance and love is antisocial. Welcoming newbies into conversations outside of suggesting people to follow through am automated wizard is antisocial. Not really explaining what circles are or how to use them is antisocial. Creating a social layer that encourages using it as a reader akin to the now defunct Google Reader is antisocial.
Not allowing social apps like Instagram, Foursquare, et al, to post automagically to my own Google+ wall is antisocial. Building up a culture of blame, suggesting that my inability to grok Google+ –or feeling the need to compare G+ to Facebook – is in some way my fault and not a fatal flaw in Google+ — is antisocial.
Creating a community that demands that you spend a lot of time putting everyone you know or care to know into boxes, called circles, is antisocial. Creating a community based on following, like Twitter, but in a container, like Facebook, where nobody can be friends, just mutual followers– is antisocial. And, finally, making it virtually impossible to effortlessly invite my friends over to Google+ without jumping through hoops is antisocial.
Is a community of introverts a community?
Now, maybe Google+ is the world largest online community for introverts who don’t want to be bothered. They just want to be inspired, want to read up, want to use Google+ as a de facto newsreader. Maybe their tagline should be “Google+: leave me alone, I am happy right where I am, hanging with people just like me, allegedly from around the world.”
Like I said in the first paragraph, the Summary, Indianapolis SEO guru and speaker, Michael Reynolds, loves Google+ — and exactly for the reasons I noted:
“Elegant design, no ads, high quality content/interactions, video hangouts, communities, in general it’s just a very well-designed network. Some people think it’s a ghost town but I think that’s just because they haven’t taken the time to really set up a presence there (which is fine). I’m finding it to me a great source of content, inspiration, and communication.”
At the end of the day, I love message boards at one end of the spectrum and Facebook on the other. I get them both for what they offer. And, I miss Google Reader (oh Feedly and Flipboard, you just don’t stack up); however, I still can’t get a toe hold onto Google+ even though thousands of people have me in their Circles and I have had over a million views. Ironically, when Mr. Reynolds posted his latest article, Why Google+ is my new favorite social network, the discussion he had on Facebook garnered 22 comments and 13 likes but when he posted his article onto Google+, I was the only commenter and there were only two +1s, one of which was mine. I brought this to Mike’s attention and he responded:
“Chris, You posted numerous comments on this post and on other networks mostly questioning my engagement but I’m not sure you noticed the part where I said “I’m not looking for engagement.” You’re right… you won’t see much engagement from me. That’s because I get the most value from Google+ by reading posts from others. I get lots of business inspiration on this network.”