This past weekend Google revealed 1) That a massive data breach had occurred on Google+, the social networking site it’s managed for several years, and 2) that as a result of that breach it would, over the next 10 months or so, phase Google+ out of existence.
The news resulted in a lot of “I didn’t even know R.E.M. was still together!” type of commentary, since Google+ never caught on as the Facebook competitor Google wanted it to be. It was popular in certain niche geographic and topic-based communities, but most usage resulted from the fact that it was integrated into other Google products, so you had a Google+ profile simply as a result of having a Gmail or YouTube account.
What seems odd is that the incident that lead Google to realize it operating in waters too dangerous for its liking isn’t all that different from the kinds of breaches that have become common for Facebook and other companies. That includes the massive Cambridge Analytica story from earlier this year and the security hack that exposed 50 million user accounts just a few weeks ago.
Both cases are much more substantial in terms of the number of accounts exposed, so what’s the difference? It comes down to this: Facebook is massively successful while Google+ never was. And so the latter will actually take action to deal with what has happened, largely because it loses little by doing so.
Just recently, Pew Research Center released a report showing the vast majority of Americans don’t trust social media sites to protect their private data. That’s largely because these kinds of things keep happening, along with the growing realization that the ads that they see across their web browsing are based on the data that’s been harvested by these social networks.
Technology/social media companies, despite their protests to the contrary, operate like any other consumer brand and are dependent on the trust they maintain in the customer/user base. When that’s violated they risk alienating the very people they depend on.
Unfortunately for the public we’ve likely crossed the rubicon and companies like Facebook are too big to fail, not in the way the banks were in 2008 but because they have such a massive installed user base that ditching the network simply isn’t an option for many people. That’s why the #DeleteFacebook campaign in the wake of the CA scandal never fully took off.
Making matters worse, there’s nothing most people can do. The companies make it nearly impossible to download your profile and history to you can import it on another network, and even if you could there’s no critical mass of users there to give you any sort of support or feeling of community.
There were always problems with Google+. It never worked like you thought it should, Google’s insistence it be tied into everything else it offered was cumbersome and frustrating while also artificially inflating user numbers and offered nothing in the was of a “standard” experience. Those and other reasons are why it also failed to take off with brand publishers, who soon relegated it to “it’s just going to be a copy of what we share on Facebook” status because there were still SEO benefits but no active community to engage with and manage. Naming conventions were wonky and you never knew when you were or weren’t editing your profile.
Still, its demise represents one fewer competitor Facebook has nipping at its heels. The only way to spur real change in practices or usefulness is to have someone who’s always pushing you to do more and be better, but Facebook doesn’t really have that, especially since it already owns and now has more control over Instagram.
That’s where the user really loses out. Facebook would have to address these privacy concerns if there were actual market pressure being applied, but there isn’t. It can do what it wants and ignore everything else because there are no alternatives. Google+ tried to be that, but lacked the manipulative savvy of Zuckerberg and Co.
Every few months a new company comes along claiming it will be the one to unseat Facebook and provide a better, more secure environment. None achieve breakout speed, though, so we’re back to where we started, just waiting for the next instance of our privacy being violated by someone who knows just where to find the most personal – and therefore most valuable – data about us.