One of the side stories of the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas TV special was the Island of Misfit Toys. The island is a sanctuary for defective and unwanted toys. Thing is, once these alienated holiday presents found each other, they found home, friendship, community, and a family. Once, people physically moved somewhere else to find themselves: to Los Angeles for film, New York for art and fashion, Boston for academia and music, or San Francisco for a more open lifestyle – free from consensus reality and puritanical mores.
With the advent of the Internet and the virtual community, it’s been easier than ever for birds of a feather to do much more than just flock together – they’re able to discover that they’re swans and not ugly ducklings well before taking to the sky in V formation. If you don’t fit in where you live, you are by very nature a misfit toy, whether or not anyone around you knows (you may look to me like a middle aged dude in khakis and Weejuns, but you’re actually a Furry who identifies more with being a fox than being an accountant.) I get it.
During the height of my online community involvement, from ages 23-31, 1993-2001, even my home base online, The Meta Network, was a walled garden. First of all, you needed to know about it, you needed to be at the cutting edge of technology and the Internet, you needed to be willing to spend money to be a member, and you needed to believe it was worthwhile spending time with people you’ve probably never met--instead of the people who are all around you in the form of your family, spouse, children, and the people you drink and work with. Even then, while I met the best, most creative people of my life, I only got to know the people who were already members of MetaNet or the smaller communities inside: ArtsWire and Education for the Arts. Maybe the comparison is like choosing a college: the people you meet at university are amazing; however, by choosing to attend GWU or UEA I am missing out on the people I would have met at Cornell, Georgetown, or American.
Maybe the promise of Google+ is not reconnecting with everyone you have or will have ever know – Facebook is amazing at that – maybe Google+ is designed to be the most affecting olly olly oxen free ever to exist, potentially. Realistically, amost everyone will have had a Gmail account, and those who haven’t and won’t are still addicted to YouTube and Google Search. Eventually everyone will have a Google Account and possibly have a come to Google moment when they will dip their toe into the waters of Plus. No matter if they’re my friend or not, no matter if we’re already connected or attached through friendship, I can potentially connect with you in a very real way no matter who you are, where you live, how old you are, or whether or not we’ve ever actually met. Then, if we have even a modicum of chemistry, we can then explore our likes, dislikes, passions, interests, and we can even build a larger and more persistent community of purpose, action, circumstance, interest, inquiry, position, place, or practice by attracting, including – in Circles and Groups, presumably – and creating real tribes of choice outside our families of obligation and blood which we have at home, in our physical towns and villages. We can use the strength that we have in concert to make real world changes, allowing the confidence inspired by belonging and acceptance to overpower the natural feelings of fealty one tends to have for the status quo. I get it. That’s powerful.
Do you think Google knows what they have in Google+? I know for a fact that the founders and owners of Linden Labs knew – and still know. We’ll see what happens. Currently, on Google+, I don’t know what the numbers are, but even if there are a couple million zealous users, is that enough momentum to keep the whole endeavor moving forward deep into the future? The Meta Network, The WELL, EchoNYC, Howard Rheingold’s Brainstorms, and even Second Life are all alive, but only shadows of their original selves.
The reasons why people like Google+ are three-fold. 1) For whatever reason, people consider Facebook to be Goliath and Google+ to be little David. While Facebook has sold out, Google+ is still legit, authentic, real, intimate, and deep (though Google is valued at $400B while Facebook is valued at $192B – some David). 2) The fact that nobody but a few nerdy, arty, geeky, creative makers have committed to G+ makes it a very cool and exclusive all-access pass to a virtual TED/Aspen Ideas Fest/Burning Man. 3) The perception that Google+ is a ghost town works for the current community: there’s an intimate Salon happening among some of the world’s most interesting people happening right in the midst of the biggest virtual city every designed by man.
There are quite a lot of people who are just now discovering how beautiful they really are – and they’re doing it on Google+. With Google’s global and almost ubiquitous reach, more people have more access to each other than ever before. The reason why people have not responded well to my series of anti-G+ articles, Google+ on its third birthday, How to be a Google+ success, and Google+ is an antisocial network, is because their experience is almost sacred, holy – and I have been more than a little profane.
Every new generation fancies itself the first. The most zealous Google+ devotees think they have discovered something new just as I thought I had discovered something new back in 1983 with the advent of the BBS and then again in 1993 when I discovered a platform called Caucus that enabled me to find some amazing birds of a feather on ArtsWire, The Meta Network, and Education for the Arts. Before me, there were researchers using Unix and BSD tools such as talk, IRC, and USENET to globally connect and change the world. Before that, there were Universities, salons, cafés, secret societies, fraternal organizations, private clubs, book clubs, religious orders, and any number of other excuses for coming together to share experience, knowledge, and understanding. What the newest and most passionate proponents of Google+ are enjoying right now is the zeal of the newly converted. They will mellow with age and time, though hopefully the high quality and depth of their experience leads quickly and readily to an infinite number of the newly converted.
Currently, Google+ is pristine. There’s no advertising. It’s all about us, it’s all about the Plussers. How would the pH balance change were Google decide to monetize the Google+ experience the way they've monetized Search and Gmail? Would it ruin it? Would monetizing G+ kill it? And even if that never happens, what would happen if everyone were to jump ship from Facebook and flood into Google Plus? What would he consequences be? Right now, very few people know there’s a "there" on Google+. We’ve all been calling it a ghost town. Many of us have become disheartened with Google+ as we take what we know about Facebook and try to map it to what’s going on with Google+. Everyone you’ve ever known is on Facebook right now. There’s a chance that nobody you know is on Google+ right now – or ever has been. What happens if everyone were to pile in? Would it become better or worse? Are Plussers fickle? Only time will tell.
USENET used to be it. It was the true precursor to Google+. In fact, Google bought it and turned it into Google Groups. Then, everything changed. There was an apocalypse. In September 1993, AOL created a gateway to USENET that resulted in millions of bozos, newbies, goobers, wankers, bros, cruisers, trolls, and freaks – the bad kind – flooding into USENET and “ruining it.” Well, I thought it was ruined, anyway, and a lot of us did. They called this fateful day Eternal September; they called it the September that never ended. God, I really hope this never happens to the vibrant communities that are emerging, coalescing, deepening, tightening, growing and persisting right this very moment on Google+.
I am only perpetuating this in order to protect you. I guess it’s a very dangerous game. On one hand, I kind of don’t want to make G+ seem too worthwhile because I would hate to be responsible for anything akin to the Eternal September. On the other hand, I would really hate Plus to go the way of Orkut, Dodgeball, Jaiku, Google Wave, Google Buzz, and the dodo. With the loss of Vic Gundotra and the reassignment of the Google+ 1,200 person team to other Google projects, who knows how much time there is left in this iteration of Utopia.
Well, the good news, no matter what, is that a couple-few million of the newly converted now have Jesus in their hearts – and by Jesus I mean they’ve been touched by something profound. They’ve recognized that no matter where they live, no matter their means, no matter their education or wealth, and no matter what their time zone, native tongue, or how much of an oddball or misfit toy they are, all they need is just a little bit of bandwidth, a browser or an app, and the will, and they’ll be forever be able to discover and engage tens, hundreds, and thousands of people with whom you can deeply and profoundly connect.
With that knowledge, none of us really need Google+ at all. Maybe that’s why Google calls Plus a social layer instead of a social network – it’s the people who are making Google+ what it’s becoming and not Google+ itself. What Google+ is offering is direct access to 540 million potential best friends and intimates. The Internet offers the same exact thing, even without Google acting as a social connector, a social concierge. No matter what the ultimate outcome – whether or not the members of Google+ will become Orkuted – these people will never be the same. They will have evolved past the short-form passive engagement and play encouraged by social networks like Pinterest, Facebook, or Twitter and into a much deeper, longer-form, and intellectually profound collaboration.
Google+ is an important and profound community. So is Second Life, reddit, and IRC. I admit I have been poking the Plus beehive pretty hard with a pointy stick. I think it may well be out of jealousy. I had a profound personal virtual community experience from 23 until I was around 30. This was before living a digital life was normalized, 1993 until 1999. What happened then? Blogging, maybe; then, social networks. I’ll be honest, I feel like my life transitioned from virtual to actual. I had moved in with my girlfriend, joined the Renaissance Weekend family, an actual conference with actual panels, making actual friends and all that. But here’s the thing, I refuse to call online communities “virtual” because they were more influential, more real, and more essential in my early development than the majority of face-to-face relationships that I have had.
“But Chris,” you say, “you’re the most persistent, prolific, and committed social media devotee that I know.” Maybe so, but I don’t believe I do it for the joy of doing it anymore. I notice that the complaints that I have had about Google+ are that it’s only use is for SEO, for content marketing, for representing your brand, and for hanging your shingle. When I was 13, back in 1983, I discovered the dial-up BBS from the office of my Kaimuki childhood home. I had an IBM PC AT with a 1200 baud modem. I explored but I never really belonged. When I was 23, in 1993, I joined ArtsWire and then The Meta Network – and I had found a home. It was all via Telnet, all text, and I had never been so open, creative, vulnerable, or expressive in my entire life. There was one men-only discussion, called the Fire Conference, where I discussed my heartbreak, the loss of my father, the frustrations I felt, and sated my hunger to be understood, for real. MetaNet was made up of only hundreds of members, none of whom I had met before. I was a member of The WELL but I never cottoned to that community the way I did TMN.COM. ArtsWire, a New York Foundation for the Arts project, allowed me to be part of a hyperfiction, name is scibe, that Judy Malloy produced when she was painfully convalescing from a terrible accident back in 1994. Who knows, it might be the most important work of writing I have ever been a part of, and yet I really hadn't met any of my co-creators.
Every time I write an article critical of Google+ I get blowback and each time this happens, I understand the Plus Loyalists better. It all started with Google+ on its third birthday then on to How to be a Google+ success and finally to Google+ is an antisocial network – today, I leave a palm print directly on my forehead as everything became clear to me: Google plus is a virtual online community and not a social network at all – not even an antisocial network. I even understand why Google refers to Google+ not as a social networking service but a social layer! Social layer must be code for virtual online community Howard Rheingold’s likeness. Maybe it’s called a “social layer” because it’s an open floor plan. It’s pretty much all cardboard box and access to 500 million people globally. Google+ is what you want and need it to be. It is the Maker Faire of online communities. Go ahead: drop links! Market! Share your latest posts! Dump everything you have – even as an afterthought – into Google+ and you’ll be fine. Or, instead, Google+ can be a de facto Dreamtime, en exploration into your soul, your creativity, and global birds of a feather. Either way, you can find hope on Google+. If you don’t engage with Google+ and the Plussers seriously and with respect, they’ll probably shun you. If you take a little time, as I am told, to do a little bit of following, sharing, engaging, commenting, and spend more time than usual sorting out Circles, Hangouts, and eventually bringing content and insights into G+ and onto your “wall,” for lack of a better word, before you know it you might start discovering birds of a feather of your own. Maybe you’ll end up with a flock. Good luck and go git ‘em, Tiger!