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.
"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.
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:
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 NFL.com/fantasy 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 NFL.com 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]