Google Plus as Google’s “social layer” failed.

How Google Plus Changed the Web

When Google Plus first entered our horizon it appeared as a “Facebook alternative”. It wasn’t. Not to those who actually used it. I normally provide some basic data, evidential studies and corroborative material for most of the things I write about.

This is a more personal post, drawn directly from my experience so I haven’t. Of all the places across the web Google Plus is my favorite network (at this point I am still using present tense). It came just at the right time as I was transitioning in my career from working behind corporate walls (mostly) to completely going it alone and I was ready to be more open, public and interactive.

We’d all, of course, had had Facebook for some time by then and Twitter but Google Plus promised to be something different. Without proximity to guide us it offered connection across the world. With virtually no character limit and the ability to post and share images and countless links it removed some of the constraints traditionally associated with social networks at that time. Video connectivity and the ability to tag people plus strong search capabilities transformed it into a powerful playground where anything was possible.

And for a while that promise bore fruit.

Early adopters were, naturally, marketers and those who happened to have fallen out of love with Facebook. So, in the early days, you got strong conversations about search and social media and marketing and rants and ideas and suggestions from people from all walks of life.

What happened next is what happens whenever you throw together a group of people from across the world without any guidelines. Information flowed fast and freely. Marketers and search engine optimizers who were used to keeping their trade secrets, secret; found themselves sharing information, tips, suggestions and ideas. There were in-network posts and articles that were endlessly debated. Once past the fear of giving away ‘secrets’ we all discovered the heady feeling of verifying hunches, validating ideas and helping countless others learn along the way, just as we were learning.

It was inspiring, liberating and terrifying in equal measure. ‘Expertise’, knowledge and experience were suddenly being held accountable. Ideas and opinions were open to being challenged and ideological positions had to be defended without applying “scorched earth’ tactics.

As a way of communicating this, inevitably, spilled onto more personal types of posts, engagements and interactions and suddenly people more used to the dictum of the internet’s guaranteed anonymity for dogs found themselves striving to be authentic. Transparency, tolerance, empathy, respect are not usually associated with diverse, energetic, opinionated, cross-cultural information and opinion sharing, yet that’s exactly what happened on Google Plus.

We all learnt to be better because we all wanted so badly to understand more, learn more, see more than we could through our own eyes and ears.

Personally I remember taking those who followed my posts across airports in three continents and twelve countries over three years as I travelled giving speeches and doing corporate talks. Some of my books including Google Semantic Search changed direction, as I was writing them, because of the sharing of ideas, information and insights that I had.

Once we start to truly live in the digital world the options of being vastly different in the non-digital one become commensurably slimmer. In my corporate days I tended to be more absolute in my judgements. Secure in my knowledge and power I did not suffer fools gladly. I look upon that self now and cringe. Google Plus, in its brief tenure, taught me more about myself and others than any other entity, digital or otherwise ever did.

I met people there whom I truly respect though I have never physically met them and, often, do not even agree with how they see the world. I have learnt that the things that unite us run deeper than any perceived divisions, that we want largely the same things and suffer the same fears even if we label them differently. Google Plus, Google’s “failed social experiment” made me better as a person and willing to help others and give even if there is no direct benefit to my helping and giving.

My guess is I am no exception or, even, exceptional. There are countless others just like me across the web and many of us cut our teeth, refined our approach and learnt to make digital work just like real life in Google Plus. Just like me, we are loosed upon the digital world. We form part of the backdrop that has made the sharing economy possible. We are part of the wave that drives the connectivity revolution.

Google Plus’ demise saddens us all. But while it has come and gone we remain. And the legacy of what the web can be, of what digital should be: borderless, open, authentic, helpful, transformative, supportive, challenging yet respectful, human.

I am the petri dish of my life experiment.