What I Learned On The Way To 3 Million Google+ Circles

3million

I crossed the 3-million Google+ circles line this morning.

It’s weird and thrilling to have so many “followers,” and to be sandwiched in circle counts between Paris Hilton, who has a couple hundred thousand more circles than I do, and Rihanna, who will probably catch up to me and pass me at some point in the future. (One of the great things about Google+ is that the geeks hold their own against entertainers in popularity.)

But mostly, it’s been an eye-opening adventure for me. Here’s what I learned along the way. 

Although according to Circle Count, I’m the #30 Google+ user in terms of circles, I consider myself the #2 “native” user on Google+. (Daria Musk is #1.)

What I mean by “native” is that follower counts on any social network are dominated by “celebrities,” who drive followers from the outside in. For example, the number-one user on Google+ is Britney Spears. But she didn’t get there because she generated organic social activity inside Google+. She’s on top mostly because she’s a superstar. She drives followers from the outside of Google+ in — mostly from her web sites, but also from other social networks.

I, on the other hand, have so many followers because of social activity inside Google+, for the most part.

Yes, I have a respectable following on Twitter — about 22,000 followers. Not bad, but nothing to tweet home about. And I write a lot of columns, and I’m discovered on those columns by people who like what I write, and follow me to Google+ where they might circle me. But the number of people who find me outside Google+ and follow me in is dwarfed by the people who find me inside Google+.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Before Google+  launched, I had criticized Google sharply for their missteps in social media. So when the invitation-only service launched on June 28, 2011, I jumped on it, expecting another epic fail. To my astonishment, I found the service was amazing. It was visually appealing, and spectacularly flexible, with none of the manipulative BS that happens on Facebook.

I wrote this column, saying that Google+ is the cure for social media overload, but only if you used it as a replacement for other services, rather than as yet another service to overwhelm you.

So as an experiment, I used it as a replacement. I replaced my blog, Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Foursquare and even texting, chat and email. I figured out how to auto-send an email newsletter from my Google+ feed.

I’m a prolific communicator, so my Google+ stream was from the beginning a torrent of posts when early adopters were super hungry for content, and especially original content. And because I had given up other media, I had the time and attention to “engage” with people in comments, which I discovered comes back at you ten-fold with others “engaging” in response.

I loved Google+, and Google+ loved me back. My circle count in the early days grew at the rate of about 400 additional circles per day. When the Google+ suggested user list came along, Google put me on it, and since then my follower count has grown by roughly 2,000 a day, give or take a thousand or so on any particular day.

Over time I developed an intimate relationship with Google+. I always keep it running and open on my desktop, and I’m always monitoring comments, feedback and developments on the site.

As a result, it’s been bizarre to see the constant stream of falsehoods and confusion about Google+, which I know to be untrue. One writer after another used to say Google+ was a “ghost town,” and in 100% of those cases the author was not circling people or engaging. They confused their own lack of activity with a general lack of activity on the network.

Another theme has been that Google is “forcing” Google+ on people. For example, the YouTube comments fiasco, and the more recent Gmail brouhaha.

So the tech media echo-chamber is stuck on the talking point that Google+ is a “ghost town” that Google is “forcing” on people. Yet this is a product of pure, unalloyed ignorance.

First, Google+ is a hive of activity. No, your grandma isn’t here, and aunt Mildred is over on Facebook spying on her teen children, even as they flee to Snapchat. And, no, the American media stars aren’t super active here, either. They’re issuing serial missives on Twitter, where they enjoy the megaphone quality of Twitter — all talk, no listen — instead of the quality conversations that characterize Google+.

But for real people globally, Google+ is on fire. I’ve made friends — no, really: real friends — in Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Spain and elsewhere in the US! These are the kinds of people I could never meet on Facebook or Twitter.

As all this happens, the user base of real people on Google+ grows steadily, and beyond the perception of the fickle tech press and self-promoters, who are too busy being distracted by shiny objects and the sound of their own voices to notice what’s happening with real people in the real world.

And second, Google isn’t “forcing” Google+ on people. Google is in fact doing something awesome.

The larger point of Google+ is a universal identity layer for the Internet plus a universal social layer.

In a nutshell, when Google is accused of “forcing” Google+ on people, what they’re really doing in most cases is upgrading services with identity.

For example, YouTube comments were a disaster because anonymity was allowed. The site’s conversations were totally dominated by trolls, racists, misogynists, and morons. Rather than upgrading YouTube with its own separate and incompatible identity layer, Google applied its universal identity layer, as in: Google+.

The Gmail thing is also a massive improvement. Google simply added its universal identity layer to email. Now, in addition to sending people email by using their email address, you can also email the person by using their identity. The knee-jerk response was “anybody can e-mail you now!” The reality is that I can be accessible without giving out my email address. That’s a good thing. If someone emails me, and I don’t want them to, I can block them.

Yes, it should have been opt-in rather than opt-out. But the complaints about spamming are simply ignorant. The complainers in the press didn’t come ask those of us who have made ourselves emailable from Google+ — something I’ve been doing for a couple of years. If they had, I would have told them that no, even with millions of circles, it doesn’t create a spam problem or anything like it. Nothing ruins a good story like good research.

In any event, Google put users in control. You can easily shut the whole thing down. But you probably won’t because it’s awesome. Email addresses are ultimately obsolete and dumb, and Google is the only major company trying to move the world forward to an identity-based system, rather than an email address-based system, with all its spam and problems.

The same is true for the other integrations. For example, Play Store reviews were given the identity layer so that competitors to your app couldn’t come and easily kill your business with lies.

Just to be clear, Google is far from perfect about all this. For example, I believe any or all tracking of user activity and location should be easily opt-out without having to sign out. And I think that if Google+ is to be a real identity system, they need to explicitly allow pseudonymity where the actual identity of the user is unknowable, but is known to Google (for identity good enough to be used for commerce).

Ultimately identity is a great thing. Google+ should allow me three layers of identity. The first layer is that when I’m logged in, I’m me and I can prove it. The people I approve should be able to call and email me without knowing my number or address. I should be able to buy things. I as an author should be able to tell Google as a search engine that this other person is copying my work, and for Google to know that it’s true. I should be able to log in to new services with a single click.

The second layer is that I should be able to appear online under a pseudonym, but still enjoy the benefits of identity without others knowing who I really am.

And the third layer is that when I sign out of my universal identity layer account, I should be able to operate without the benefits or constraints of identity, tracking or any of the rest. I should be able to stop being me while online.

This is the world Google appears to be working toward, and it’s the right direction.

And, in any event, Google+ the social network is ultimately not as important as Google+ the social layer. In the years ahead, to use Google will be to use Google+, even if you don’t come to the site. The site is really a collection of services, and most of the services will come to you.

The first big version of this social layer concept is Google’s newest ad program called Post+ ads. It’s a brilliant concept, and to me the future of the Google social layer. A regular ad on the Internet when clicked expands to the center of the screen and — voila! — it’s a Google+ post, a social ad. You’re using Google’s social layer and, if you’re also using their identity layer (i.e. signed in), you can go ahead and plus-one, comment and share even though you’re not on the Google+ site.

Another example that people fail to appreciate is the Moto X. I think it’s uncontroversial to say that the Moto X is to some users the very best phone currently on the market and for most knowledgeable phone fans easily among the top five phones.

The Moto X gives you a great experience not because of its speeds and feeds — is a mid-range phone in terms of hardware. The Moto X is radically improved by the Google+ identity and social layers. When you take it out of the box, you’re already logged in. The phone is already “yours.” The Google Now integrations are all about the identity layer. The easy sharing and integration is all about the social layer.

In other words, Google’s identity and social layers (plus the X8 technology) turned an average phone into one of the best on the market.

The same can be said for Google Glass — without the Google+ identity and social layers, the product would suck.

This is why the whole whose-is-bigger conversation is moot. Google has already won that one. Facebook is just Facebook and to use Facebook is to go to Facebook, for the most part.

Google+ and YouTube combined already dwarf Facebook, plus every other site on the Internet that uses the social layer and/or identity layer — forget it.

Google+ and Facebook are apples and oranges. Facebook is a web site that has social and identity benefits. Google+ is a social layer that brings social and identity benefits to the entire Internet, plus there’s also a nice site you can go to.

Did I mention that Google+ is a nice site? Some people don’t care that much about aesthetics, and focus only on function. Not me. I don’t want to look at ugly interfaces. To me, Facebook is ugly. It’s fingernails-on-a-chalkboard ugly. And Google+ is pretty. No ads, no clutter. It’s very nicely designed, and I really appreciate that.

This column is already going to be too long, so I’m not even going to mention video hangouts and the photo editing tools, which are massively and obviously superior to anything else online.

There are so many ways in which Google+ is superior. Google+ doesn’t get hacked. It integrates fully with some of the Internet’s best services, including YouTube, Drive and Google Glass. You can “check in” without spamming your friends or being manipulated by “badges” and other BS.

Zero ads!

As someone who lives and breathes Google+ every day, it’s frustrating to see people suffer on other social networks.

I see women and LGBT and vulnerable people (for example, people with cancer) being bullied, threatened and harassed on Twitter and for the ignorant echo chamber throwing up their hands as if nothing can be done about it, as if the only solution is for 100% of the human race to suddenly become kind and virtuous.

The solution to me is obvious. Stop using Twitter and start using Google+.

On Twitter, the conversations happen “out there” scattered to the wind, and blocking someone has no effect on their participation in the conversation.

On Google+, the conversations happen on one’s own stream where blocking eliminates haters from the conversation.

To prove my point, I once challenged every troll and hater on YouTube to come at me, bro, and try to spoil my conversation. I also promised to all my circle friends that not a single trolling or hateful comment would appear in the comments, and Google+ made it trivially easy for me to keep my promise.

People never stop complaining about Facebook’s abuses — the ads that lie to your family and tell you that you “liked” things you never liked; the unethical mislabeling of ads as “sponsored stories”; the confusing user interface; the clumsy filtering of messages, combined with a sales pitch: “We’re only delivering your posts to a tiny fraction of your family and friends, but if you pay us we’ll deliver it to a larger fraction…”

Again, the obvious solution to all Facebook woes is Google+.

I could go on and on, but this column is already too long.

The bottom line that everyone needs to understand — I’m talking to YOU, tech media echo chamber! — is that Google+ is not a Facebook without the family and friends. It’s in fact just one part of a larger Google strategy to improve all its sites, services and hardware with a single, universal identity layer and a single, universal social layer.

Google+ is a central part of the future of Google, and a central part of the future of everything. It’s the solution to the problems everyone complains about on other social networks. And it’s just a really great site.

Yes: I come across as a hopeless Google fanboy here. But I’m not. I have no interest in advocating for or promoting Google. My heavy use of Google+ is purely selfish. Google+ makes me smarter, better informed, a better communicator, more influential and gives me clarity of thought because I’m not burning my brain out shifting gears and chasing conversations on 12 social networks.

Which brings me to the very best thing about Google+ hands down: the community.

I’m circled by more than 3 million people. I have circled pretty close to the 5,000-person limit. But the people I interact with directly in conversation is probably about 1,000 people on occasion and probably about 300 people almost every day.

I would gladly sacrifice my inclusion in the 3 million circles (and lose the influence that comes with them) in order to keep these folks I interact with.

In other words, being in 3 million circles is great, but it’s not nearly as great as the much smaller number I interact with every day. These people and the conversations we have are by far the best and most important thing about Google+.

And anyone, whether they’re in 3 million circles or 3 circles, can join into these conversations and form relationships with such people.

It’s astonishing to me that, when I consider the benefits of Google+ — the hangouts, photo backup and editing tools, integrations with other Google products, user interface, lack of ads and all the rest — the one feature that rises above them all is the superior space Google has created for great conversations — for flexible, user-controllable, respectful, stimulating, hilarious, fulfilling conversations.

So for the 3 million who have circled me, I thank you.

And for the people who have engaged in conversation with me over the past two and a half years, I REALLY thank you. It has been a life-changing experience to know you and to learn from you.

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