Google+ — lots of win, not perfect

Why I decided not to turn pro....
Five years ago today...

I have been experimenting with (and when I say that, I mean “avoiding work with”) Google+ the last couple of weeks, and I have to admit, I did not expect to be impressed, but I am.

The engagement factor is very high, and the friction issue is minimal. It’s very easy to put content into it and point it at your social group — or a subset of that social group — via circles, which are sort of like Facebook lists, but not broken. That’s because facebook lists were grafted onto facebook and fairly awkward to use, while circles were the core element Google+ was designed around, and so everything uses them almost seamlessly and circles make organically slicing and dicing your social graph easy and (almost) painless.

As a result, I’ve found I’m spending a lot more of the time I budget for wading into the social data streams on Google+; this means that I’m spending less time on other services, and the big loser so far is Facebook, where between closing off my time on Zynga games and Google+ means I’ve cut my time on facebook by about 85%. My primary use of facebook today seems to be interacting with and talking to people who are on facebook but not on Google+. Pretty much any situation where someone is on Google+ I’ve shifted my interaction with them there.

The system is pretty good for a 1.0, but not perfect. If find the lack of any way to share items from Google Reader ont Google+ curious (but trust me, I know how in a company the size of Google this happens, and I expect it’s in the plans).

More troublesome is the kerfluffle going on over pseudonyms. it’s hard to spend any time on the system without running into one of the many threads going on about this. For those just getting started, check out this thread for some background; it also shows one of the strengths of Google+’s messaging in its ability for a thread to both get into a meaty, intense discussion without spiraling out of control, and be able to survive ratholes and side points successful. Those are both things many services fail at miserably, and it’s clear some thought has gone into figuring this problem out.

I think Google is well-intentioned but didn’t properly think this one through. Given that it seems some pseudonyms are okay (look at, for instance, 50 cent), google has set up a system I feel can’t be properly policed and is open to use as a spite attack vehicle (spite attack: I piss you off, you report me and try to get my account shut down), and given celebrities seem to be able to use their ‘stage names’ okay, have created a perception of a double standard where you are being required to use your real name, unless you have money and fame.

I made the following comment in the thread above, and it sums up my views on why this policing is a bad idea:

Okay, pop quiz. pick the real and fake names in this list:

1) Barnabus Arnasungaaq
2) Kanimozhi Karunanidhi
3) James Tiptree, Jr.
4) Parasayip Ole Koyati

5) Dean Wesley Smith
6) Chuq Von Rospach
You can look all of these up in google, if you want (I did). Stop and think about it for a second.

1) inuit soapstone sculptor
2) indian politician involved in a sex tape scandal
3) famous pseudonym of a science fiction author (or choose John LeCarre Jr, if you prefer)
4) Person of the Masai tribe in Africa
5) real name of an author who publishes under many pseudonyms
6) are you sure?

My point? first, let’s get past thinking everyone here is an American, using an American name, and that we really have any practical ability to look at a name and determine real or not. When you start looking at a global culture of the scale of the internet and G+, it’s all over.

So policing this on a scale the size of G+ is practically impossible except on the “report/challenge” system. And that means the most likely result of a policy like this is that it’ll become a tool of the griefers. There’s no way Google or anyone can police naming on the scale of a service like this, period, except on a case by case situation involving abuse. So they shouldn’t try.

And my other point is that this is policing the wrong thing. Police bad behavior, not names. Some subset of naming is an aspect of bad or abusive behavior and should be dealt with, but deal with it as behavior. Trying to put naming restrictions in place is well-intentioned but won’t scale and will open the system to abuse by those with axes to grind. Focus on what matters, which isn’t the name, but how whatever is behind that name acts.

By the way, there are still real people in the universe named Adolf Hitler. If one of them joins G+, how would you police that? Because pretty much everyone in the universe will presume it to be a fake name, right? What if this person wants to avoid the issues involved with that name so chooses to use a pseudonym? you going to force them into a situation that opens them to abuse?

And a second big issue: where does “nickname” end, and “pseudonym” start? And how would you write a set of objective rules you could police as administrators?

What is my name, anyway? Is it my real name? Is it my nickname? Or is it a pseudonym? and why?

From reading the various threads on this, it seems clear Google is grappling with this and trying to figure it out; I expect they will. I think this is a case of naivete towards the complexity and implications of the policy, not anything “evil”, and as this has come to light as Google+ rolled out, they seem to be trying to figure out what the right balance is and how to implement it. I’ll cut them some slack while they try.

An even bigger problem for me, though, is harder to ignore: users have found when they get shut down on Google+ that it impacts their entire Google universe. For some folks, that’s devastating. The tight integration of “everything google” is nice, until it bites you; when it bites, it can bite hard. I’m frankly very uncomfortable with the idea of having my gmail account locked or deleted because someone picks a fight with me on Google+; enough so I considered setting up a second gmail account JUST for Google+ usage. Instead, I’m considering shifing my public email presence back to my email address, so that if something bad happens, I’m not completely screwed over here. That’s a challenge as all of these systems integrate more tightly, and something we all need to be aware of. I’ve been careful about not having too many things depend too heavily on Google (no domain registry, no running my business via google docs or google apps, etc) just to minimize the damage this might cause, but now Google+ and Gmail linked is a bit too close for comfort.

This is more serious because Google can (and has; I hear of a few cases of this a year) shut everything down on you without warning, and their appeal process is, well, weak. you can’t pick up a phone and fix things, and they don’t make it easy to get things fixed; not something you are happy about if you’re on the wrong end of it and key business or personal things are locked away from you.

My recommendations for Google to improve all of this are:

  • Commit to service specific lockouts. If someone gets blocked out of google+, then lock them out of Google+, not everything. Ditto if their email gets hacked and someone uses their gmail account to send spam, it shouldn’t cause them to lose their google docs or any of their other services. Free or not, people are building businesses and lives around these products, and depend on them, and it’s good customer support to treat them fairly and give them a way  to reconnect, appeal and pull their content out of their accounts even if those accounts are closed down.
  • Improve your account lockout/closure appeal process. nothing should ever be shut down without warnings; google needs to improve and make more visible the ways to connect in and explain/appeal these decisions. (note for the record, google’s  no worse than most online social sites out there, everything sucks at the mediation/appeal process; it ain’t just Google, but Google can take a leadership role here in defining best practices for social sites if it chooses – and make it a competitive advantage of its services).
  • Resolve the naming issue; as I note above, I think the naming issue is a red herring. Police abuse, not names; if nobody has a problem with the actions and content — don’t worry about it. I think any other path will lead to continuing conflict with the user base, and that’s not good for the service or its users.
  • and please, hurry up and implement nested circles and “mute this person”.
  • oh, and posting links/notes from google reader onto my public stream.

but overall, I think it’s a great launch. If things continue, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I dump my facebook account down the road. And I’m already posting fewer things onto twitter, and posting them onto google+ instead.

Those are the two services i think are at biggest risk at losing people’s time and interest from Google+, plus all of the smaller specialty sites (like Quora) can’t be happy with a new elephant in the room drawing attention. The biggest risk for Google+ is the naming issue; if they don’t resolve it in a reasonable manner fairly soon, I think there’s a risk it’ll turn into one of those running firefights you see on some services, with the controversy being continually replayed well out of proportion to it’s real impact, but having a high public visibility and impacting the reputation of the services overall.

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, and Google+ grows into its potential. It looks to me like it can be a game changer. I didn’t expect Google could do that.






In any event, if you use Google+, you can find me here. Feel free to wander by and say hi.

This entry was posted in Community Management.
  • Mr Fake

    “users have found when they get shut down on Google+ that it impacts their entire Google universe.”

    This is false; there seems to be a disinformation campaign going around…Google+ has lots of powerful enemies.

    On the other hand, if you are shut down due to some legal reason (typically FBI investigations of c-porn or hacking), companies may be required by law to shut down your account and not tell you why, and at best they could refer you to some investigative authority. Your account becomes evidence.

    On another note the idea that “everyone here is an American” in the Google+ design is somewhat laughable given that over half of the people involved are recent immigrants or foreigners. Google seems to be as multicultural of an “American” tech company as you can get.