When MySpace announced in March that, owing to a “server migration issue”, 14 million pages and 50 million audio tracks had been deleted, the news trended worldwide. People were nostalgic about the time that MySpace was the most popular social networking site in the world. Many reminisced about uploading angsty teenage songs about the perils of Clearasil, plimsolls and Glen’s vodka. Or maybe that was just me?
Yet in January 2019, there was little reaction when Google announced that Google+ – the social networking site it launched in 2011 to take on Facebook and Twitter – would be shutting down.
Google+ allowed users to share photos and videos, start conversations and create their own online “communities”. For a variety of reasons, however, the platform never really took off. One analysis of Google+ usage found that, four years ago, only about 10 percent of users could be considered “active”. This is particularly damning considering that Google automatically creates a Google+ account for its users when people sign up. Because of this, Google+ has become a long-running joke. The first news hit when I search “Google+” is a Daily Mail article titled “How do I delete my Google+ account?” Bleak indeed.
What were the problems that led to its downfall? Google’s explanation is that it decided to close the platform “due to low usage and challenges involved in maintaining a successful product that meets consumers’ expectations”. Based on the feedback I received from former users, easy functionality was an expectation that the site failed to meet.
“I got Google+ in around 2012 because my dad badgered me into getting it,” says Josh, a 27-year-old finance worker. “It was useful to have things on one platform but it was also insanely clunky. Eventually we migrated to WhatsApp instead.”
“Google+ was where the user experience came to die,” Lisa, another former Google+ user, tells me. “It wasn’t a bad idea, but horrific execution, which is weird considering other Google platforms are very easy to use.” Like Josh, Lisa tells me that a family WhatsApp chat eventually rendered Google+ obsolete.
Another “challenge” referred to by Google might relate to a huge data breach in 2018. The leak potentially affected up to 500,000 accounts, allowing third-party entities to access private information, though Google said it had found “no evidence that any profile data was misused.” The leak happened in March 2018, but Google did not disclose it for six months.
Ironically, news of the leak was a reminder to many people that they even had an account in the first place. “I received an email about the leak, so I shut down my account because I hadn’t used it in forever,” says IT worker Paul. “It’s better to be safe than sorry, and lack of care for data is something that really irks me.”
A common theme among Google+ users I spoke to was that older people in their lives, such as parents, encouraged them to get Google+. “I decided to get a Google+ account because my mum wanted a way of sharing photos with me but she knew I didn’t want to have her on Facebook because it was full of photos of me drinking, smoking and generally being a moron,” says Jack, a bar manager.
Others unsuccessfully attempted to use Google+ as an alternative to other social media sites. In an article titled “I joined Google+ to escape Facebook. It didn’t work,” tech writer Rachel Kraus concludes: “For a few months I put my hope in Google+. But it turns out that a social network with neither the social nor the network is no fun.”
All that said, however, Google+ did have some loyal users – and some who will miss it. There’s even a subreddit, r/plexodus, dedicated to “Google+ users migrating elsewhere”. One of the most active Google+ groups was photographers, who were the first to fully embrace it. Before Google+ went offline, the Landscape Photography Community had more than one million members and Street Photographers had over 350,000 members. Even up until weeks before its closure, new photos were appearing.
And, like many social media sites, where Google+ really came alive was the specific communities, such as board game groups and collections of people who enthusiastically explored silly things, like Toy Photography, as well as more established fandoms such as Lord of the Rings or Pokémon.
The Art of Making Bread, a community which explores bread baking, plans to move from Google+ to an “Ask to Join” group on new social media site MeWe. David, an active member, tells me that there’s a real sense of sadness that the community in its current form is ending. “The intimate nature of Google+ was always something I enjoyed,” he says. “No need for hashtags or begging for likes. No sponsored ‘influencer’ blogger types. Just photos of bread and a nice place to share advice and comments with like-minded people.”
This more private community element is something others will miss, too. “Most other social media sites encourage you to be as public as possible, to share everything with everyone. But on Google+ you could form your own communities,” explains Google+ user Ramsay, who mainly used the site to engage with gaming communities. “Google+ is more discreet and the culture is less focussed on bragging about stuff, which is probably why it didn’t catch on.” Ramsay suspects that in the absence of Google+ more gamers will turn to YouTube.
Margaret was encouraged to use Google+ by her late husband to share their holiday photos and store images of her artwork. Her husband passed away two years ago, but she continued using Google+ to store her own photos. “Richard pestered me to get it and I don’t use it often, but maybe twice a year I’d upload my photos to it and keep them in one place out of habit,” she says. “I wanted something more private, so it’s a shame Google+ is closing.” Following the news of its closure, Margaret’s son sorted her out with hard drive to store all of her and her late husband’s photos. “Saving them has been a nice trip down memory lane,” she says. “Difficult, but nice.”
Ultimately, it seems that those who used Google+ did so mainly out of habit and nostalgia. But that doesn’t mean that its “sunset” (as Google+ describes it) isn’t sad for the minority who used it to the very end. On the site’s final day, it was flooded with warm messages. “Thank you for the countless fond memories I had with the people I met here within this place I call home,” said Jessy, who used Google+ to explore her love of flowers and animals. “You are so dear to me. Goodbye Google+.”