Google+ and life after social media death

When a big social network shuts down, what comes next?

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
5 min read

Google+ is shutting down. 


After being called out for failing to tell the world about a security bug, Google said it will finally lay to rest Google+, its well-designed but unpopular social network that valiantly tried to take on Facebook .

The shutdown comes after Google was forced to acknowledge it found and fixed a security flaw in March that might have exposed the personal data of 500,000 Google+ users. Google remained silent about the problem for months and only came clean after a report Monday from the Wall Street Journal. Google said then it decided against disclosing the glitch because the problem didn't meet internal "thresholds" for alerting the public.  

It's the end of a long and difficult road for Google+, which started with a lot of fanfare when it launched in 2011. But while the network was consistently lauded for its clean interface and useful photo features, it never gained the traction to ever really threaten Facebook, now the world's largest social media network with more than 2 billion users.  

So now Google+, long described as a ghost town, is being bulldozed for not being up to code.

Watch this: How to delete your Google+ account and save your data

But it's a story that doesn't have a clean ending, at least not yet. The demise of Google+ raises questions we haven't yet had to tackle on this scale in modern technology: When a big social network shuts down, what comes next? Google said the service will wind down slowly over the next 10 months, ultimately shutting down in August, to make sure people have enough time to transition their info and photos off the network.

Of course, Google+ isn't the first social network to fail. There were Friendster and MySpace, but they burned out in an earlier era, before the all-consuming social media age we live in now. Friendster shut down in 2015 after a brief pivot into gaming. MySpace is technically still around, though it's positioned itself as a music site. Vine, the Twitter-owned network for 6-second video loops, announced its closure in 2016. The move was widely lamented, and most of its users migrated to Instagram and YouTube.

This is different. Google+ was originally meant to be an alternative to the behemoth that is Facebook. It failed spectacularly, but it's a major social network by arguably one of the most powerful companies on the planet. This is a social network announcing its death at a time when we're so entrenched in social media it may be suffocating us. About 77 percent of the US population has a social media profile, according to Statista. We've relied on the mechanisms of social media so heavily, it's brought us disinformation, division, election interference and data misuse.

And so the death of one of those services -- even as little-used as it was -- may be welcome news for some. But that doesn't make it any less jarring.

"A sliver of your life, or how you chose to present it, is going to vanish," says Brian Solis, an analyst at the Altimeter Group. "There's no real understanding of what that's going to mean."

Google declined to comment for this story.

The SoundCloud scare

The biggest scare we might have had when it comes to a beloved social site shuttering is SoundCloud . The German site lets musicians, both signed and unsigned, upload their music and share it with a community of fans. It's such a part of the zeitgeist that it's become a meme for people to dole out their SoundCloud links to anyone who will take them.

Last year, the company laid off 40 percent of its staff, followed by reports that SoundCloud only had enough financing to survive for 80 days.

The internet immediately went into a panic. Chance the Rapper, an avid user, tweeted, "I'm working on the SoundCloud thing."

The service was eventually saved by emergency venture capital funding, and its CEO, Alex Ljung, stepped aside. (It's not clear what role Chance the Rapper played, though he did tweet he had a "fruitful call" with Ljung.)

Still, the thought of losing SoundCloud prompted ruminations on the instability of online communities.

"The moral of its struggle is clear," The New York Times wrote. "As digital culture becomes more tied to the success of the platforms where it flourishes, there is always a risk of it disappearing forever."

The power users

For most people who forgot about Google+ years ago, the shutdown might be anticlimactic. We have lots of other options to feed our social media fix, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and Pinterest. (Though it may be prudent to scour through your Google+ profile and see if there are any gems or content worth saving.)

But just because Google+ mainly became a punchline, that doesn't mean it was completely abandoned. It's hard to pinpoint exact user numbers, because Google reportedly counted people using the network's social capabilities across Google products. One outside researcher in 2015 estimated 111 million active profiles.

Google declined to share user numbers for the social network, either at its peak or at present. But earlier this week, the company said 90 percent of Google+ sessions lasted less than five seconds.

"Google gave us no reason to use Google+," said Michael Pachter, an analyst for Wedbush Securities. "Facebook was good enough to satisfy what we needed in social media."  

Still, like any service, it had its power users. The service is popular among photographers because of its well-regarded photo features like storage and editing capabilities. Daniel Radcliffe -- Harry Potter himself -- is a dedicated user. It's his only verified social media account, though his follower count on the site is unlisted.

Radcliffe has said the reason he likes it so much is actually the lack of engagement. "It's something that I can do that just doesn't, like, have comments and stuff on it," he said in 2016. (Asked about an interview for this story, a Radcliffe rep declined, saying the actor was busy focusing on his new Broadway play, opening next week.)

Then there's Guy Kawasaki, Apple's evangelist for the original Macintosh. He's got nearly 7 million Google+ followers, compared with 1.46 million on Twitter and 430,000 on Facebook. On the day the search giant announced its shutdown, he wrote on his page: "What the Plus?" and added, "I saw great potential in Google+." He even signed a Change.org petition asking Google not to shut it down.

For people like him -- public figures and speakers -- the end of a platform is a blow. It's an especially big hit for people who tout their cumulative follower counts among several social media sites, for things like speaking gigs. Trying to replicate his audience on other platforms is out of the question, Kawasaki said.

"It's impossible," he said. "I wake up tomorrow, and I just tell myself I'm going to get 7 million new followers on Facebook or Twitter? You show me how to do that without buying them -- and I don't buy followers."

In the end, he said, Google+ just wasn't a priority for a company as big as Google. Alphabet, its parent company, already has its hand in everything from search to email to driverless cars. So the social network, perpetually languishing, was dispensable.

"I'll miss it," Kawasaki said. "It was a great experiment."

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