I asked Google to delete my Google+ account the other day.
I did it without second thoughts, without regrets, after using the service for barely a year. Well, not really using the service. I was one of the first to join Google+ during the invite-only phase last June, but my interest quickly petered out after some early experimentation with Hangouts. Really, for the better part of the last year, I’ve mostly ignored the little “+Cyril” link at the top left of Google pages.
Yes, yes, I know. There’s nothing terribly original about criticizing Google for its desperate, almost tragic struggle to establish itself in the social networking world. It’s an open secret that Google+ is kind of awful.
Somehow, though, I thought Google would have realized the error of its ways by now. I thought it would have left Google+ to wither away quietly like Google Buzz and its other failed projects. I didn’t expect the relentless and suffocating barrage of integration and promotion efforts we’ve been subjected to in recent months. Google+ is in Gmail now, and it’s in our Google search results, too. All the trendy blogs and news sites are peppered with grey-and-red “G+1” buttons. Even the White House is staging highly publicized Hangouts with handpicked members of the public. Now, thanks to Google+, anyone with a webcam can be Joe the Plumber. How wonderful.
Putting Google+ in our e-mail and in our morning coffee and in direct telepathic streams from outer space would be fantastic—if the service had some unique, intrinsic value. It just doesn’t, though. It’s a me-too Facebook clone with a clunky interface, and the few neat things it does are like raindrops in a squalid, swirling sea of mediocrity. Google managed to make it worse with the latest redesign, which inexplicably squeezes all useful content into a tiny column on the left side of the screen. It’s sad, because Facebook hardly has the cleanest, neatest interface around. Yet Google+ manages to be uglier and more awkward to use.
I might overlook that if it were Google+’s greatest sin, but it isn’t. Google+’s greatest sin is something it can’t really atone for: everyone, and I mean everyone, is already on Facebook. My girlfriend is on Facebook, my dad is on Facebook, and my aunt is on Facebook. All of my friends are on Facebook. My cousin is on Facebook, my old high school pals are on Facebook, and my work acquaintances are on Facebook. TR’s Geoff Gasior isn’t on Facebook, but I don’t think he’s on Google+, either. His enlarged privacy gland makes him allergic to social networks.
So why, exactly, should I split my social networking activities between two services? Google+ only ever let me interact with a subset of my Facebook contacts, and that was never an exciting prospect. Never once did I think, “Oh, hey, cool link. I think I’ll share it on Google+!” Never once did I feel like adding a picture to my Google+ Stream. Facebook always provided a broader audience, a bigger sounding board, and nothing Google did ever made up for that. The Circles feature almost made me into a believer, but Facebook was quick to copy it.
To me, it seems Google is fighting a battle when the war is already lost. Google+ arrived far too late and far too long after Facebook had seeped into mainstream culture. They’d already made a movie about it, for crying out loud. All Google could ever do was try and shove Google+ down our throats in the vain hope that, eventually, the service would gain enough users to become a compelling alternative. To this day, they show no sign of letting up. I suppose sheer perseverance might eventually give them what they want. Maybe, through attrition, people will slowly flock to Google+ and share their baby pictures and birthday messages in that infuriatingly thin content column. Maybe they’ll revel in daily Hangouts with old friends from far away.
But probably not. And I hope it never happens.
Don’t get me wrong; I wish Google all the best. However, Google already has the number-one search engine, the number-one webmail, the number-one mapping service, and the number-one a lot of things. Its Android platform has grown into an unstoppable juggernaut, and it has access to a downright frightening amount of personal user data. Google doesn’t need the number-one social network (or even a major one) on top of it all. It doesn’t need that, and it shouldn’t have that.
Obvious antitrust and Big Brother concerns aside, I think there’s just something fundamentally healthy about companies picking their battles and playing to their strengths. Apple gets it, Facebook gets it, and I wish Google got it, too. When big tech firms over-diversify, it leads to sad, shameful things like Zune and Bing, which exist not because someone said, “We can do it better,” but because someone said, “We can do it, too.” When big tech firms over-diversify, it makes them into lumbering giants who stop serving us and start smothering us with mediocrity. Competition serves us when great ideas compete with other great ideas, not when old companies enter new markets just because they can.
Google, please, just be happy with what you have. Just do a really good job of being Google. If you do, you might find that your users’ desires begin to take precedence over yours. You might find that, although you’d love to compete with Facebook, your users aren’t really into that. You might find that, since everyone already uses Facebook, maybe they’d just like to see it better integrated with your services. And why not? People use Facebook for the same reason that people use Gmail and Google Maps; it’s the best service, and using the best service is always the path of least resistance.
Google+ is not the best service. Using Google+ is not the path of least resistance, and having Google+ waved in our faces day in, day out won’t change that.