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Why Google+ has to shrink to grow

The first step is admitting you have a problem

One day in 2013, I received an email from Google informing me that YouTube was preparing to fix its notoriously bad comment section. The proposed savior was Google+, then a little over 2 years old. By harnessing people’s real identities and reputations, the thinking went, the most toxic and spammy of commenters would sink to the bottom, and the cream of the comments would rise to the top.

Users revolted, though that was to be expected. Trolls, after all, enjoy their anonymity. The real surprise was that after generating so much angst, Google+-powered YouTube comments never really got much better: people continued to say terrible things under their real names; vibrant conversations rarely surfaced; and popular accounts still found their comments bombarded with links to giveaway scams. The best advice for anyone posting a video to YouTube remained leaving the comments off or, at the very least, promising never to read them.

A grand solution, built at incredible scale, that wound up solving very little: the story of Google+ comments is the story of Google+ writ small, and now another chapter has concluded. Yesterday Google announced a divorce of your Google account and Google+. Your YouTube comments will no longer appear on your Google+ profile, if you’ve created one. In the future, you’ll be able to create a YouTube channel or make comments with a plain old Google account, which won’t be tied to your real-world identity. The move has triggered a fresh round of stories from the tech press in the popular Google+ is dead genre, which emerged shortly after the service’s launch and receives a wave of new entries every time Google+ twitches. (Ahem.)

Shrinking Google+ gives it a chance to matter

What once was to be Google’s mighty social pillar has retrenched into what Google now somewhat elliptically calls "Streams, Photos, and Sharing." On one hand, Google’s approach to its underperforming social network lately looks like Grover Norquist’s vision for the federal government — shrink it small enough that it can be drowned in a bathtub. But from a sheer product standpoint, shrinking Google+ is the best thing that could happen to it — and might even give it a chance to matter.

In its current incarnation, the Google+ stream has become "a place where people engage around their shared interests, with the content and people who inspire them." Strip away the marketing-speak and it starts to sound a lot like a message board: a place where people share things and discuss them, often in mesmerizing detail. PhotographersAndroid partisans, and a handful of other interest groups have developed relatively vibrant communities on Google+, using them to share links and discuss news much as you might find on Reddit or another web forum. If Google has a unique twist on all this, it’s a more modern, visually pleasing design, at least compared to the free forum hosts it is at least nominally competing with.

It starts to sound a lot like a message board

This Google+ represents a radically scaled-down vision of a service that even today still houses events, Hangouts, and the somewhat indistinct "communities" and "collections." But better to start there than keep bolting on new services in hopes a coherent story will emerge. Google Photos improved radically once it was freed from the social network; there’s room to hope the social network will be better off without Photos.

Consider how successful social networks began: Facebook was a way to check out people at your college. Twitter was a way to share your status with friends via SMS. Business types call this type of use case "the wedge" — it’s the pointy bit that inserts itself into your everyday behavior, and which can be leveraged to push more features at you down the road. To the extent Google+ had a wedge, it was privacy — the idea that sharing to small circles of friends would make you feel comfortable sharing more. (It’s a blind alley many startups have wandered down. Ask Path!) But privacy turned out not to be the wedge Google needed. Instead, it was a complication that introduced friction at every turn. The network sputtered.

Now consider the market for interest-based message boards. Many of them sport designs straight out of the Geocities era. The market is fragmented across a variety of small-time, under-funded players. And the biggest message board of them all, Reddit, is lately teetering on the brink of revolution. Meanwhile, Google+ has a photography forum with 1.8 million members. If you’re Google, and you want to create a place for a social network to grow organically — well, web forums can begin to sound a lot like a wedge.

Web forums as a wedge

To speculate much further runs the risk of writing fan fiction about Google+. The truth is that even though it’s a big forum, Google+ Photography isn’t a good forum — it’s a confusing mass of photos in reverse-chronological order, most of which have sparked no discussions whatsoever. Collections, a kind of Google+ take on Pinterest, is designed to let you follow only the interests you share with your friends. But it requires too much work on the part of the person casually browsing the stream, and strikes me as just one more doomed twist on private sharing and circles.

That said, I can still imagine a world where a more focused Google+ team builds a next-generation message board and helps it reach significant scale. It would be surprising — failure is the norm for social networks, and Google’s social efforts have been clumsier than most. But Google+ is now finally small enough to build on. It’s focused, self-contained, and at least by Google terms, not overly ambitious.

In other words, it’s what Google+ should have been from the beginning.