As part of my research into both whether to retire as lead in the Bird Photography group and as I’ve been auditing my social media commitments in general, I’ve been trying to get a feel of what’s happening on Google+.
I had a number of projects I was considering to build around G+. When Google decided to restructure and change direction and Vic decided to move on, I put everything on hold waiting to see what G+ had planned. Since then, I haven’t seen a sniff of a roadmap or any indication Google planned anything; the service seems to be standing still, mostly. I’m not seeing anything I’d call significant functional upgrades. there have been changes, most of them leave me with a “with all the crap that needs doing here, you’re doing that?” reaction.
In the last few months I’ve seen an increase in server errors, indicating they aren’t scaling the hardware to support the service enough to support usage. The bug where content in a community disappears for some users for some period of time (indicating sync errors between server instances and servers that don’t get updates at all buried in the round robin) isn’t fixed.
When Google released communities on G+ I thought it was a great start (and it is); unfortunately, they haven’t followed it up with any significant enhancements and the design has some serious flaws — ones
As I’ve been researching and writing this piece, Google has released a new feature, Polls, for communities. It’s great to see they’re working on this and adding new features, because that’s a great indication that Google hasn’t shipped off G+ to “Google Reader Siberia”, but my initial reaction to Polls is minor disappointment. Polls are like Facebook Likes or G+ plusses: trivially easy interactions with very little real engagement of very limited scope and even less value.
It’s the kind of community design that frustrates me, because it’s community design to emphasize the trivial and fleeting. There’s a lot to like about G+ communities, but it has one huge flaw, it’s almost impossible to foster serious conversation or ongoing dialog about anything because new material hides the older ones with no way to float it back into view. This makes building communities that are more than “hey, look at my picture and like it!” very difficult, and it encourages that “click and forget” mentality.
This design benefits Google and serves it’s goal well: it wants to push a constant stream of “stuff” in front of people who will help it understand (by plusses and comments that feed Google’s algorithms) what “good” is. but it doesn’t serve communities well, because good communities are built around the interaction between members and members getting to know each other.
Google+ communities today are something like a conference where everyone gets together and spend all of their time saying “good morning” to everyone else at the conference, but never actually give talks or have panel discussions. there’s more to life (and communities) than saying “hello” and thinking that accomplished something.
The bird photography group continues to show a healthy growth of members (we’re almost at 15,000) but when you dig behind the obvious number, I don’t think the result is particularly healthy. A number of our former top members are no longer contributing and many have stopped interacting with G+ completely. I have been tracking the members who have won contests for five quarters now. The numbers are clear:
There is a lot less diversity in the group. I went back to the 2013Q3 group and did some checking of names I remember as being active contributors to the group; overall, about 50% of them haven’t posted to Google at all in 60-90 days, so they seem to have abandoned the platform completely.
Of the ones that still post to Google but are no longer active in Bird Photography, most of them haven’t shifted to different groups — but are posting only to their public stream. What this tells me is that it’s not that there’s a problem with the way we were running the Bird Photography group, but that they didn’t find value in groups at all and have stopped using most or all of them.
Other aspects of G+ — like #hashtags — seem to be the preferred discovery tools for them now. Given communities were designed to take on the functionalities users self-created around hashtags early in the life of G+, it seems a large number of members have decided they prefer hashtags.
Another experiment I’ve been working on is the Bird Photography Today page, where I tried to compensate for the inability to show off the best work within Bird Photography group by pulling it over to the page along with other content I thought might help drive interest of both the page and the group. I thought the page did pretty well for a while, with good growth and a lot of interaction on the material posted, but over time, it seems that’s stagnated and stalled. Overall interest in the material, as seen in interactions like plusses, has fallen way off.
Google’s analytics for G+, beyond total members of your group, are nonexistent. It’s impossible to see what folks like or dislike beyond trivial plus numbers. It’s impossible to see how many people are visiting a group or what they’re doing. It’s all guess work.
One thing I wanted to know was whether this stagnation I’ve seen was a problem in this group, or more widespread. So I’ve spent a couple of weeks of evenings digging into communities across G+ looking for ones I thought were interesting and doing more than “post pictures and plus them” type interactions.
Frankly, while those kind of groups exist, they’re really rare, and the admins put a lot of work into building the interactions within the group because it’s clear for them G+ doesn’t make it easy for them, either. So it’s not how we’re running the group, it’s how G+ is designed. Mostly, what I found was a lot of empty groups without anyone managing them, full of spam, wallpaper reshares and low value crap.
It’s incredibly hard to find groups where there’s real conversation and discussion. For the record, discovery on G+ is ludicrously bad. I can’t even tell it I only want to see groups in English, so there are many nights the list of “Communities you might like” were in Russian, or Korean, or Japanese, or in random languages I couldn’t identify. One night G+ insisted I really wanted to see middle-aged singles dating groups, another night it was race cars, and another night my recommendation list was full of groups of nothing but groups of animated gifs of cats and dogs and other cute stuff. Kawaii! Seriously, the crap I do in the name of research…
My takeaway from all of this; Google doesn’t really give a damn about communities. They put them out here, and then basically ignored them. Discovery is terrible — I think those recommended lists are effectively random pulls from the database. it’s amateur stuff.
From digging in manually and not based on any numbers Google lets you see or releases to the public, my sense is that more people are abandoning the service than joining it. Where there is membership growth it seems to be away from North America — india and asia especially. The primary use of G+ seems to be casual resharing, similar to Pinterest, but I don’t think G+ works nearly as well as Pinterest for that kind action.
I think the Bird Photography group is doing well in its current form. There’s nothing wrong with it, nothing broken. The moderator team has done a great job in keeping it moving in the right directions — but I don’t think we’re seeing as many high quality images as we used to, and we’re definitely not seeing them from as many members. This doesn’t seem to be anything we’ve done wrong with managing the group; it seems endemic to G+ as a service. There’s still value here, and a good number of people getting good value from the group, but it’s stagnant, not growing. While I’ve decided it’s time to retire and Steve is coming on to lead it in the next phase, I have nothing but good things to say about the group and what we’ve accomplished, and I think it has a great future.
I’ve explored a bunch of things I wanted to do on G+, either to enhance Bird Photography or as new things — and in all cases as I started planning them out, I realized that it would be difficult to make them thrive the way G+ was designed. ultimately, I tabled everything again. Nothing has come along to make me want to wake them up and implement them.
My challenge has been anything I wanted to do to enhance what we had was hindered by the designs of G+ and I never found a way to make those community enhancements thrive given what I could do on the site.
Google+ communities were an interesting start with some problematic design flaws because of Google’s intentions — it wants us to flow judging info into their algorithms more than it wants real communities. For some stuff this works well, but for the kind of communities I want to build, it doesn’t. Given I need to slim down the time I spend
I’ve decided to step to the sidelines but that’s more about what I need than any problems on G+ or the community. I”m still not convinced G+ can ever thrive as a user community site, because the design is heavily biased by Google’s needs — feed the quality algorithm — and not by a wish to build a thriving community site. Use it in ways that work with Google’s designs and you can do some great things; fight it and you’ll struggle. I’m not interested in the struggle right now.
My bottom line: It may be the data I’m seeing above isn’t representative of the service as a whole, but early on, the only group that really took to G+ strongly was the photographers, and what I’m seeing is that group has at best stagnated, and is perhaps starting to pull off the platform. Communities had energy early on after release, but hasn’t seen a lot of innovation and it seems to me many G+ members have given up on them.
To be a bit blunt about it — I think groups on Flickr have a design that reeks of the 1990s and are desperately in need of a redesign, but I also think in many ways they’re a better place to build an active and interacting community than G+ Communities. that said, Flickr falls to many of the same flaws and problems G+ communities do, which you can see by the mass proliferation of “post one like three” type groups aimed primarily to attempt to manipulate the Flickr ‘quality’ algorithms.
I’ve decided to step back from the “casual like” ecosystems and try to focus more on good content and conversation and real interactions. I’m not suggesting everyone else should, too, but think about it. Just what does that “like” mean in the grand scheme of things? Does it really accomplish something useful, or just make you feel better and let you think you did?