Android Intelligence Analysis

The (subtle) second coming of Google+

Google may have given up on its official social service, but it never really left the underlying ambitions behind.

Android Intelligence Analysis

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Don't look now, but Google's getting into social — again.

Actually, let me rephrase that: Google's been getting into social for a while now. It's just been doing it in a less lofty, more piecemeal manner than what we've seen in the past.

Google officially pulled the plug on its high-profile Google+ service in the spring of 2019, as you may recall — though, interestingly enough, it actually announced the timing of that shutdown exactly two years ago today. At the time, it seemed like the end of Google's social ambitions. But it's becoming increasingly clear that wasn't entirely right.

Before we get into the present, we need to briefly revisit the past — because it's critical context for what we're seeing play out right now. So first things first: Google+ was created, by most counts, as a direct response to the threat of Facebook and folks spending more and more of their online time within its closed-off walls. As author Steven Levy put it in his thoroughly reported 2011 book, "In the Plex":

That March [in 2010], [Google executive] Urs Hölzle sounded an alarm that evoked Bill Gates's legendary 1995 "Internet Sea Change" missive to his minions at Microsoft. Just as the internet threatened Microsoft back then, in 2010, the sea change to a more people-oriented internet — social media — was becoming a problem for Google. Hölzle said that the challenge required a decisive and substantial response, involving a significant deployment of personnel — right away.

What followed, Levy reported in other outlets, was an explicit discussion of the challenges Google faced from other companies — most notably Facebook — and how the company needed to respond to those threats if it wanted to keep its future secure.

[Google search engineer Amit] Singhal spoke passionately about how the internet was increasingly organized around people, urging Google to dramatically expand its focus to create a hub of personalization and social activity. Singhal believed that Facebook not only was ahead in that realm, but, worse, it was building an alternative internet with itself in the center.

And thus Google+ was born.

We all know how that story ended, of course — in part because, uh, we just talked about it like 60 seconds ago. But fast-forward to today, and what do we see once more? Yep, you guessed it: Google building systems designed to encourage you to stick within its own ecosystem when you want to share something instead of instinctively hopping over to a more traditional social service.

It's been happening on some level for quite a while, actually, though it was one recent launch that really made it click in my mind: Google's addition of a full-fledged social stream within its Maps apps for both Android and iOS.

Ahem:

The feed shows you the latest reviews, photos, and posts added to Google Maps by local experts and people you follow as well as food and drink merchants, and articles from publishers. ... [It] brings together helpful local information and tailors it to your selected interests.

Hmm...why does that sound so familiar? Oh, right: because it's essentially a social network — just a smaller, purpose-specific one that's masquerading as a mere feature.

Google Maps Streams Google

But that's just one tiny little niche area, right? Maybe — but then you start thinking further, and you realize that Google's quietly been adding similar sorts of social elements into other areas as well. When you want to share photos or videos with someone, for instance, you don't have to post 'em over to whatever social or messaging service you typically use; instead, you can just share 'em directly with any number of other people as part of an "ongoing, private conversation" in the Google Photos app. Heck, you can even like or comment on the stuff other people share!

Google Photos Stream Google

So...what is it? Yessiree, Bill: it's another small, purpose-specific social network — a place where you can share, interact, and communicate without having to venture away from the app you're already using.

And the saga doesn't end there, either. The same basic thing can be said for the new version of Google Pay announced a few weeks ago — an app that's now "designed around your relationships with people and businesses," as Google explains it. The product is "built around your relationships," as an executive in charge of the effort put it in one interview: "All your engagements pivot around people, groups, and businesses."

To that end, the new Pay app actually includes threads in which you can communicate with individuals, groups, and even businesses whilst thinking about money-related matters.

Google Pay Streams Google

So what is that, essentially? Let's all say it together now: a social network — a small, purpose-specific one, sure, but ultimately still a way to keep you within Google's universe when you have something to share or say.

And let's not forget about Google Currents — not the short-lived Android news app from 2011, mind you, but the reworked version of the old G+ framework that's now positioned as a Workspace-bound corporate communication tool, thereby bringing this same concept directly into the enterprise environment.

Google Currents Google

There are other examples out there — including, on some level, the 7.2 zillion overlapping messaging services Google currently maintains — and if I were a betting man, I'd sure put my money on even more such elements showing up in the months ahead.

More than anything, Google+ was about keeping your social and communication activity within Google and outside of a walled-off ecosystem. Google knew it needed to find a way to do that in order to protect its primary business for the long haul, and it's easy to see why: The more time you spend within Facebook, ChatSnap, or the Tickety-Tocketies (those are what The Youths™ are using these days, right?), the less time you spend on the part of the internet Google can actually access. And that part of the internet, whether it's within a Google service or somewhere out on this wild ol' web of ours, is where Google can enrich its profile of your interests and show you the ads that power its business. If you're inside another service, you aren't a Google customer; you're a ghost.

Well, Google+ itself may have failed, but Google is slowly and subtly rebuilding it, in a sense, right before our eyes. You just have to zoom out a little to see the forest for the trees and put the pieces together.

This new version may not be getting the centralization, the unified branding, or the widespread attention its predecessor did — but in a way, that's kind of the brilliance of it. Google is effectively giving itself a structure to achieve the same goals Google+ set out to accomplish, only this time, you don't have to go out of your way to embrace it. You don't have to build up a whole new network of connections and deliberately decide to visit its virtual home. Instead, it comes to you, in a bunch of super-targeted, almost unnoticeable ways.

Odds are, in fact, you won't even realize you're using it — which maybe, just maybe, is part of the point.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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