A lot of people in tech like to say that Google does not have a good grasp on human psychology– hence their failure to deliver a sticky social network, contrary to Facebook’s phenomenal dominance. Yet I think that the reality is not so simplistic. It isn’t that Google does not understand people, it is just what they believe of people is often a version more ideal than the population at its typical performance level. In other words, what they understand of people is the potential good in all of us. Much like their corporate culture and the people they seek out to recruit, the Google mantra is a belief in the inquisitiveness, aspirations, and good-heartedness of everything human. When you come into contact with Google world, it feels like the psychological equivalent of entering a city where the weather is always good, the public transportation impeccable, and where everyone recycles and goes to museums and have picnics at parks every weekend.
This is why people love the Google brand– its quirky playfulness underlined by a seemingly insistent call to innovate and do the right thing. How can you say that Google does not understand people when so many clearly find resonance in its culture and image? Google does understand people: it understands the best of what many of us want to be.
That said– this seems to be something that Google has increasingly forgotten these days. In the attempt to defend its ad business, it seems to now believe that it needs to appeal to the rather more mediocre sides of each of us– i.e. our idle attraction to passive consumption and voyeurism that compel us to stay on the internet for hours. It has forgotten that its best asset was that it made us feel like a better, more intellectually accomplished version of ourselves.
All of this is profoundly significant in the surprising failure that is the Google+ platform. There was so much that could be done with the platform which slipped through Google’s fingers. It was trying so hard to be someone else– launching games, Google+ hangouts with celebrities, that it had completely forgotten who their most loyal users were and how they could leverage upon meaningful usage patterns.
Even though it’s clear that Google understood Gmail to be an important launching point for G+, I am still surprised by how amiss their attempts have been. Instead of meaningfully leveraging its most valuable user base, it basically used Gmail as not much more than a doorstep on which to dump the G+ baby (where we are forced to discover it then take it in). Just like its failed attempt to shove Buzz in our face, Google seemed to not really understand how to properly interweave the usage of email with the psychology of a social network in a way that was neither intrusive (i.e. Buzz) or borderline irrelevant (i.e. G+).
Unlike Facebook, email is typically used only for the 2 extreme spectrums of the people that we come into contact with: people who we are close to (i.e. not the non-speaking acquaintances on FB) or people that we do business with. In the realm of personal email, this tends to be either updates related to life or sharing information that we find interesting. G+ could’ve easily capitalized on this by providing more integration with suggested friends groups using our email patterns. With a little more thought and effort, G+ could’ve had great momentum as a social network that complemented our Gmail world. It could’ve become the social network where we only updated our real friends, and shared information that is interesting– i.e., something much closer to the real Google culture.
Facebook started as a network to stalk your college classmates, and Twitter was born in a business conference; more than any innovative features, what every social network direly needs is its unique context. Yet Google appears to have missed this point completely– Gmail was its best chance to build a relevant and authentic experience, yet it tried so hard to be everything to everybody that ultimately it forgot to utilize the psychology of the users it already has.
Reader was another product that Google very poorly integrated into G+. Again, instead of carefully interweaving the community into G+, it forced its loyal users to simply switch and adopt. The community that Reader amassed could have easily become a key point of differentiation to what Facebook and Twitter had, and could have reinforced the knowledge sharing feature on G+.
Clearly, Google has not missed a beat in trying to use celebrities to attract traffic to G+, and it has also integrated the basic features of streaming “shared content” from your friends. But seriously– is this really the best it can do? How about leveraging on the thousands of indie artists on Youtube trying to do their thing? Wouldn’t G+ be a great platform to help artists have conversations with their fans? Offer artists incentives to use G+ by providing differentiating features on their page (or even just Verified Identity– who doesn’t like to feel like a mini celebrity through the littlest things?) There is so much that Google can do given that all the multimedia features and content is in fact on their side, yet they are just giving the people away to Facebook. Celebrities may have huge followings, but Google should remember that the best of Youtube has always come from its indie contributors.