Google+ Goes Looking For Love

Instead of going for the billion-user benchmark recently set by social titan Facebook, Google+ is trying to harness emotion, says Google's Vic Gundotra.

An interview with Google’s senior vice president for engineering, Vic Gundotra, about Google’s social network Google+ has become a conversation about … the meaning of life.

Vic Gundotra

"If we step back and look at the core problems humanity faces, people just aren’t connected to their passions. But if you can somehow connect a 16-year-old to their passion, get them deeply engaged and excited—that’s how you solve something like poverty," Gundotra says. "One of the things people love about Google is that we’ve made the impossible an ordinary part of people’s lives."

Let’s back up.

Google has for the past year positioned its fledgling social network as a more sophisticated alternative to Facebook, a kind of replacement destination for anyone disenchanted with the quotidian flotsam of what I’m doing, what I’m eating, and where I’m at. Google+ recently crossed the 100-million-active-users mark, although some have questioned just how engaged many of those users are. But among avowed users, there's an almost cult-like evangelism, and it’s just about impossible to talk to G+ users—"Plussers"—without getting into stories that involve deep emotions.

Yet, one year into its existence Google+ is still wrestling with doubters who’ve written it off as an also-ran, a "ghost town." Google might be a much bigger business ($220-plus billion) than its social rival Facebook ($40-plus billion), but on the social front, Facebook's just claimed its one-billionth user, effectively dwarfing the G+'s posse.

Gundotra doesn’t offer anything remotely resembling an admission of defeat, but he also doesn’t totally refute the conventional wisdom about Google’s social network. It’s not, and probably never will be, a Facebook-killer. Rather, Gundotra’s bigger point is that it doesn’t have to be.
The service represents an entirely new approach to social media, he says.

Facebook’s stated goal is to make the world more open and connected. "Our goal," Gundotra says, "is to make the world intimate and much smaller."

So in that spirit, we went looking for evidence of ways Google+ is pulling off the VIP act. Here’s what we found.

Select Audience, Universal Emotion

It’s early September, and Chief Master Sergeant Dr. Robert Malone, an elderly World War II veteran, is sitting in a rehabilitation center in Jefferson City, Missouri, with a laptop and a larger computer monitor in front of him. He watches in rapt, silent attention as a group of fellow veterans tours the World War II memorial in Washington D.C.

Thanks to so-called "honor flights," many aging and terminally ill WWII veterans from around the country are flown at no cost to the memorial. Others, like Malone, aren’t in good enough health to make the trip. So on Sept. 4, Veterans United Home Loans, in partnership with Central Missouri Honor Flight, took the "honor flights" to a new level—to Google+.

With help from volunteers across a handful of states, a group of veterans including Malone participated in streaming the first virtual honor flight using the Hangout feature of Google+. During the Hangout, volunteers transmitted images from WWII memorials in D.C., Australia, and from the beaches of Normandy, France, so that the aging veterans could see the past, up close, one more time, in real time.

With a wavering voice at one point during the Hangout, Malone can be heard sharing some memories about his military service. About 20 minutes in, while surveying the monument to his fellow veterans, he interjects the only word he can think of:

The Power Of Hanging Out

One of the more compelling stories of Google+ is the way its Hangout chat sessions have knit together celebrities, politicians, artists, ordinary users and others in face-to-face encounters. Hangouts also are one of the clearest examples that distinguish the service from the other kings of the social media hill.

Facebook frequently touts its brand of so-called frictionless sharing, and one Google employee described Hangouts as, in a sense, Google’s version of that, taken to the nth power. The Googler describes the extraordinarily complicated coding required to pull off Hangouts and all of their features, such as automatic camera switching to whoever is speaking. Simple, as any designer knows, is hard.

The result is the common refrain among Plussers, who say G+ is clean, easy to use, and makes sharing and communicating with friends via Hangouts an order of magnitude simpler, deeper, and more meaningful than Facebook, where friends keep up through shared and liked (sometimes inadvertently) media or photos taken with Instagram.

Hangouts got a big stamp of approval earlier this year, when both President Obama and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan hosted hangouts for voters. Obama’s Hangout offered a rare chance for average voters to ask a sitting president questions and even follow-ups in real time. At one point during the president’s Hangout, which included five participants from across the country, he asked one frustrated woman to forward her husband’s resume to him and offered to help find him an engineering job.

Meanwhile, Google and the NFL are giving football fans the option to Hangout through fantasy football pages. A hangout button is connected to team pages set up through the page. Hangouts top out right now at 10 live participants, but since fantasy leagues tend to have about a dozen players, the number of hangout participants is being bumped up to 12 on the fantasy football page.

The New York Public Library in September held its first-ever Google+ hangout book club focused on Gillian Flynn’s hit thriller Gone Girl.

And yoga instructor Danielle Herman leads yoga instruction hangouts. Christina Trapolino, social media manager for the fast-casual chain Jason’s Deli and a strong Google+ advocate, said uses like these underscore what users love about Google’s social service—that it facilitates "deeper interaction," not just an endless stream of one-line quips about the same TV commercial or news event.

"My belief in the power of Google+ isn’t about the technology—it’s about the people using it," Trapolino said. "In little more than a year, I have watched artists, thinkers, photographers, technophiles, and countless others build robust communities around their interests."

She expanded this thought in a recent blog post: "We see people using hangouts to teach each other classes, (and) we see people performing concerts for free that reach thousands of people from the international community. People are creating art, music, sharing jokes, and thoughtfully discussing issues in ways only previously seen on isolated forums and niche newsgroup communities across the web."


At the end of August, NASA put out a call to the Google+ community, asking users to post pictures of the moon. Hashtagged "#winkatthemoon," NASA’s post was a loving nod to Neil Armstrong, whose family on the day he died put out a statement that encouraged people to wink at the moon in honor of the first man to walk on it.
Photos of the moon came in from around the world and can still be seen by searching the #winkatthemoon stream, an extraordinary memorial for an heroic explorer using a new medium that’s aiming for a similar giant leap, one small step at a time.

"When we asked people, ‘Do you love social networking?’ love was not a word we heard," Gundotra said. "So we dug into it. We asked, ‘Why aren’t you satisfied?’ People said it just felt awkward. They felt their privacy was violated. And we [at Google] don’t think ads should be injected into intimate social moments.... Over the long term, we want to turn Google+ into the resource you go to to share your passions."

Which leads back to Gundotra's tendency to turn a talk about Google's social adventure in really big, emotional terms.

"Data really matters to us," he says. "But what about the challenge of people who are disconnected and lonely? Can we solve poverty? Can we solve loneliness? Can we solve for love?"

[Image: Flickr user Phil Gibbs]

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  • Sam

    Let's be real here. Social networks came to the net world in the first place due to the openness. Guys love to stalk girls and vice versa. The "closed" model of g+ is completely opposite to the core of sociality (is that a word?). That alone guarantees a cold death sentence even in its design days. 

  • Rio Longacre

    Everyone I  know uses Facebook, yet I don't know a single person who uses Google+ regularly. Yes, I think Google+ is  a great platform - in many ways it's more attractive, less cluttered and providing for a better user experience than does their chief competitor, Facebook. I also agree that Hangouts are a terrific feature. But none of this changes the fact that no one is using the service - which for a social network is a big problem!  Sorry, Google, but deluded statements (Vic Gundotra being the biggest offender in this department) about hundreds of millions of so-called users who were forced to create accounts via a brute-force sign-up process but never return do not make your product a success.

  • Mike Keller

    I also know only a couple of people in real life that use G+, and they don't use it regularly. Most of my family is on Facebook. I don't expect to see them on G+.But that's OK, because I have met and interacted with a lot of people on G+, had serious and light-hearted conversations there, had more discussions about my actual interests than I have had on Facebook. The way Google+ is organized, it's much easier to have those discussions than it is on Facebook. There's a place for both, and I expect to be using both for quite awhile.

  • Farhan

    Google+ is more of a business platform for me. Facebook is more casual and for leisure only. Twitter on the other hand is a quick summary of what's happening. 

    I love all three of them and use them for different purposes.

  • Tyler Fastcompany Gray

    ... cuz ... you ... didn't see the button right above you? ^^^

  • Kate Barsotti

    I'm sorry. I admire the goals of Google + and like many of its features. But Google is hardly a big warm and fuzzy hug. If they care so much about passions, and enabling them, then they can pay musicians well, not a pittance, for using their videos and songs on YouTube, and they can stop scanning books under copyright. They always want it both ways. In some cases, they enforce their vision and what they think is right, and damn the consequences to the creativity and livelihood of artists. If they are that smart and visionary, then they can stop making money off content they pay little to nothing for. 

  • Alex Murphy

    Book scanning increases book sales, and using songs on YouTube increases song sales (just look at Spotify - they've found that streaming services actually increase purchases). So in my opinion you have it ass backwards...Google is helping artists and authors get discovered more easily, which increases their bottom line. It's overprotective, publisher-centric, "old media" style thinking like yours that is hurting the average artist, not companies like Google. Will the mega-popular artists take a hit? Sure. But the 98% that used to barely get by can actually make a living now through direct digital publishing of their music, books, or videos. 

  • Tyler Fastcompany Gray

    A fantastic comment. But let's not forget the responsibility of people who download pirated movies and songs and buy ads against all of that book-scanning, song-ripping, movie streaming free goodness Google offers. Google's answering a market demand. So that market either needs to be regulated or some sort of massive cultural shift needs to happen on its own. 

  • LoveGoogleHangout

    My kids love the google hangout!  Its as amazing technology as google search.  Time will prove it. Sometimes I wish I was working in the google hangout group!!