This is simply a hypothetical thought-experiment, especially since it’s all too late now.
I am (soon to be was when G+ shuts down next year) the #1 most followed photographer on there with over 8.5 million followers (and 140+ billion photo views across the G+ ecosystem). I use these social networks a lot. ALL of them. Over on Pinterest, I have over 4.2 million and a decent number on the other platforms too. I’m not saying this to be showy, and I certainly don’t take myself seriously in the least. I’m simply indicating I have some authority in the matter.
All these social networks are kind of a fun game for me. Observing them from a distance, I see humans slowly forming a super-organism like bees and ants. I think it’s important to have a good infrastructure for humans to communicate, cooperate, and inspire one another. You need to be able to trust in that network. I’m starting to not trust places like Instagram, where you can buy hundreds of thousands of fake followers, fake likes, and fake custom comments for a very inexpensive price. Last year was the year of fake news. This year is the year of fake followers. And when you can’t trust the infrastructures in which you invest time, it causes our level of global anxiety to get even worse.
I’m not bitter about G+ shutting down. It doesn’t matter to me personally since I’m on all the other social networks, and, most importantly, none of those have a significant impact on my business or personal life. They are just sorta “fun” places to share your creations, help people, get inspiration, and inspire others. We could all use a little more of that.
If anything is upsetting, it is that all of the Google+ effort was largely a waste of valuable time, not just for the users that fed the machine, but for the team at Google that built it. Along the way, I did make some GREAT friends, was inspired, and it helped to fuel a lot of my creativity. This is one reason I hate to see the ride coming to an end for so many people.
The attached photo is from a really fun Photo Walk I did with Thomas Hawk in San Francisco with over 500 people. The idea that this entire community is now dispersed across the diaspora of the internet is kind of depressing.
Anyway, if I was in charge of Google+ now, I could do nothing! I’m talking about if I was in charge, say, a few years ago when they began to notice the trend lines to plateau rather than grow. THAT was the time I wish I was in charge of the design!
What would I have done?
I’d immediately make a fancy pivot-move to make it a photo-centric Instagram competitor rather than a Facebook competitor.
Of course, I often look at the world through the “lens” of a photographer, and I’ve always believed photography and imagery to be a much more interesting way to communicate, rather than words. I wrote an article for Facebook Stories several years ago that envisioned an alternate reality world where we learned to take and share photos BEFORE we developed a written alphabet. Link to article: Humans Evolve a New Form of Visual Literacy… Through Imagery. What if the principal way humans communicated was through a photo or a series of them? The article explores that idea. But the basic premise is that, presently, I do find photos to be an extremely stimulating way to communicate.
Instagram was just going up a big curve a few years ago. I loved it (here’s my Instagram @TreyRatcliff) and could see this was a very fun way to interact with photos and the people behind them.
Here is where Google had a huge advantage. Android is used by over 75% of humans on the planet that have a smartphone. The cameras were clearly only going to get better, especially as we add in x-factors like machine learning, AI, cloud processing, better mobile editing software, and more. At the time that G+ growth plateaued, Instagram “only” had about 500 million users, but Android had over 1.5 billion. The core idea is not to make the user download a separate app, but instead to have this Google photo sharing feed as part of the built-in camera/photo app itself.
Train the users the benefits of sharing after taking a photo
Rather than JUST taking a photo and doing some simple editing, Google could have “trained” its users to have one final step that is integrated into that process: to share it in your feed. New users automatically get a free private photo sharing account set up which is called Google Photofeed (or something – simply the best bits of G+ re-purposed). Existing users can use their existing G+ account along with all their followers and people they follow.
The way to beat Instagram would be the new user experience, however. To train hundreds of millions of people that a photo is not “done” after you take it and tweak it with software. It’s only “done” after you share it with others. I have many artist/author/creative friends who also believe in this. If you create something in solitude and never let the light of the rest of the world shine on it, it might as well not exist.
Of course, you don’t have to share all 100 photos you take every day. Just some. Just the best photo of your cat, your casserole, or your catamaran.
The new user’s “Sharing” account has been automatically set up like an online gallery with the initial setting to private. Users continue to get prompts after they add to their gallery that they might want to share it more widely in their “feed”. Maybe at first, just family. Then friends. It’s still private, and that is okay (many popular Instagram accounts are private too). But, over time, the OS (note that I say OS and not the app because this would be an OS-level priority) guides them into making a public profile, so that anyone can see whatever photos they wish.
The users also get regularly prompted to “follow” others that might be of interest, the same way the integrated OS-integrated Google News feed suggests new topics now. New users would come to see there is a big ecosystem of sharing, and they are encouraged to take their favorite creations more and more public.
It is quite exciting (and not necessarily an ego-feeding thing) to have strangers stop by and leave a comment on your photo. The idea that you had some kind of positive impact on someone else’s life is great. It’s a noble human goal. Also, under a larger goal of consciousness, I think that artists and creatives can help save the world. And the more we encourage creativity and sharing, the better it is for the entire world. That sounds a bit high-minded, but I really believe it. How great would it be if the OS had this as an underlying goal as well, rather than simply robot-like efficiency?
Make photo sharing part of the OS experience, not a different app
And this is where they could have steamrolled Instagram because your Android OS would not even need a separate “app” to download, install, set up a username/pw. All those are funnel hard stops for many users. The entire experience is simply built into the phone. By tying each phone to a user, it would also do quite a bit to diminish fraudulent behavior we see on Instagram with people buying followers/likes/comments to become slimy “influencers” that swindle big companies out of millions of dollars. $1.1 billion was spent last year on influencer marketing with hundreds of millions going to fraudulent accounts. I’m working on an article about that right now (maybe for Wired).
After we nail that experience and workflow, we can layer in the other great stuff Google+ was developing at the time, like Communities. The G+ Communities are an amazing feature and still beat out Facebook Groups in many ways. We’re doing the best we can with our Facebook Group for Creatives. There are many things in Communities that I hope Facebook steals, especially the “categories” feature.
We still use Google+ Communities for an online education platform we built called TheArcanum.com. Of course, this is causing us a few issues as we have to scramble to migrate to a new platform. I am sure many people are having similar problems as G+ Communities have become an extremely active part of many people’s lives. It’s kind of like if your local bingo hall for retirees suddenly disappeared.
Anyway, please note this is not anti- Vic Gundotra/Bradley Horowitz/Sergey/(or any of the other people I met there at Google). I love those guys and they are still good friends! But 12+ years ago when I used to work in corporations before I became a full-time artist, I understand how sometimes things go astray, and it’s never exactly one person’s fault. I think there was just simply some hesitation about whether or not Google wanted to play the “social” game or the “organizing information/building an AI” game. I wished they had stayed in both games because observing social behavior could have also fed some important cultural data into that Google AI that is a’rollin’ down the tracks towards us all.
Well, that little flight-of-fancy thought-experiment is complete. It’s too late now. I guess we’re stuck in a world of Instagram and its follow-bots, Facebook and its angry people in their blame-the-other-group echo chambers, and XXXXX with its YYYYY problems.
That sounds a bit dour. I’m actually pretty optimistic that either A) something new will come along or B) one of the existing infrastructures will make them an absolute DELIGHT to use all the time, like Google+ was in its first few years.
And if you followed me on Google+, since that is vaporizing, here are other places to find me 🙂
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