Google engineer calls Google+ a "pathetic afterthought" and "knee-jerk reaction"

A Google software engineer who accidentally broadcast a 4,578-word rant about the company's failings saved his toughest criticism for the Google+ service. A list of features can't make up for a complete lack of vision and a company where "not getting it" is endemic.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Something has been bothering me about Google+ since I first signed up for it months ago, when it was still a "limited field trial."

I've been trying to put my finger on it ever since then, but I couldn't connect the dots until someone from Google did it for me.

I refer, of course, to Google software engineer Steve Yegge, who wrote a 4,578-word rant about the failings of Google as a company, intended as a no-holds-barred internal critique, and then inadvertently published it to the entire world. (Read this post from our own Larry Dignan if you want the background.)

Yegge saved some of his choicest words for Google+, which Google has poured seemingly bottomless development resources into with negligible effect. Here are some samples:

Google+ is a prime example of our complete failure to understand platforms from the very highest levels of executive leadership (hi Larry, Sergey, Eric, Vic, howdy howdy) down to the very lowest leaf workers (hey yo). We all don't get it. The Golden Rule of platforms is that you Eat Your Own Dogfood. The Google+ platform is a pathetic afterthought. We had no API at all at launch, and last I checked, we had one measly API call. One of the team members marched in and told me about it when they launched, and I asked: "So is it the Stalker API?" She got all glum and said "Yeah." I mean, I was joking, but no... the only API call we offer is to get someone's stream. So I guess the joke was on me.


Google+ is a knee-jerk reaction, a study in short-term thinking, predicated on the incorrect notion that Facebook is successful because they built a great product. But that's not why they are successful. Facebook is successful because they built an entire constellation of products by allowing other people to do the work. So Facebook is different for everyone. Some people spend all their time on Mafia Wars. Some spend all their time on Farmville. There are hundreds or maybe thousands of different high-quality time sinks available, so there's something there for everyone.

Our Google+ team took a look at the aftermarket and said: "Gosh, it looks like we need some games. Let's go contract someone to, um, write some games for us." Do you begin to see how incredibly wrong that thinking is now? The problem is that we are trying to predict what people want and deliver it for them.

"...a knee-jerk reaction, a study in short-term thinking, predicated on the incorrect notion that Facebook is successful because they built a great product."

And there's the problem with Google+ in a nutshell. It's a clone of Facebook, built by engineers for people who think like engineers. I now realize what it was I couldn't put my finger on: this service started out as a list of features. But it didn't start out with a vision. In fact, I've never heard anyone articulate, from a customer's point of view, why Google+ came into existence in the first place.

My best guess? Someone with an engineering degree looked at Facebook and said "this is too messy—let's clean it up." Which they did. But by doing that they made a beautiful, simple service that only Google employees and Silicon Valley geeks with oversized left brains want to use. I know. I've spent my entire career trying to explain technically complex stuff to people who do not have engineering degrees and are intimidated by technology.

Clearly, Google+ didn't start out with a vision. If it had, then Google would not have been blindsided by the controversy over its insistence on people using their real names. That little detail should have been part of the very first discussion, before a single mockup was sketched and before a single line of code was written.

An even bigger design blunder was the idea that sorting your contacts into Circles would allow users to control the privacy of everything they post. Again, it's a reaction to Facebook and its privacy headaches. But somebody really, really didn't think that one through.

As others have pointed out, Google senior executives don't use Google+ publicly. That's odd, given that the company has tied employee bonuses to their ability to make its social strategy a success. Sergey Brin has exactly two public posts in the first 12 days of October. He posted three times in September and four times in August. Larry Page has four public posts since August 15. Eric Schmidt doesn't seem to have a public Google+ profile. Last week, Michael Degusta assembled a devastating analysis of how little Google, its top executives and its board members actually use this service.

Now, I think we know why. They're all using the service, but they're doing so privately. They're using Google+ as an internal bulletin board and water cooler, and they expect their employees and customers to do the same, through the magic of Circles.

Just ask Steve Yegge how well that worked out:

Facebook gets it. That's what really worries me. That's what got me off my lazy butt to write this thing. I hate blogging. I hate... plussing, or whatever it's called when you do a massive rant in Google+ even though it's a terrible venue for it but you do it anyway because in the end you really do want Google to be successful. And I do! I mean, Facebook wants me there, and it'd be pretty easy to just go. But Google is home, so I'm insisting that we have this little family intervention, uncomfortable as it might be.

"You do a massive rant in Google+ even though it's a terrible venue for it ..."

Exactly. Everyone has embarrassing stories to tell about the time they accidentally hit Reply All and sent something embarrassing to the entire company. Google has designed a social media system with a Reply All button that goes to the whole damn world.

Anyway, we all know Google+ isn't a social service. As Eric Schmidt has stated, bluntly, it's an identity service. It's a way to tie all of Google's products together with a single identity so that Google customers who use one will use the others, and to provide an ever wider stream of information to the mothership about those customers so they can be targeted with better ads.

The trouble with Google+ is that there's no vision behind it. Instead, there's a feature list that someone tried to turn into a single, one-size-fits-all product. That's a recipe for failure, as Yegge bluntly argued:

[T]he "not getting it" is endemic across the company: the PMs don't get it, the engineers don't get it, the product teams don't get it, nobody gets it. Even if individuals do, even if YOU do, it doesn't matter one bit unless we're treating it as an all-hands-on-deck emergency. The problem is that we're a Product Company through and through. We built a successful product with broad appeal -- our search, that is -- and that wild success has biased us.

The failings that this Google engineer describes are especially familiar to me, because they sound exactly what afflicted Microsoft during its messiest days, from the mid-1990s through the launch of Vista. I'm sure somewhere on a private Microsoft list server there is a 1998 rant from some Microsoft engineer making the same points that Yegge is making today.

Thankfully, that engineer didn't have the opportunity to accidentally share those thoughts with the public.

Update: After deleting the public version of his post, Yegge added a new public post on Google+, addressing it to "external-world folks." In it, he notes:

I posted a long opinionated rant tonight about how I think Google could be doing a much better job of thinking from the ground up in terms of services rather than products. Sadly, it was intended to be an internal post, visible to everybody at Google, but not externally. But as it was midnight and I am not what you might call an experienced Google+ user, by the time I figured out how to actually post something I had somehow switched accounts.

You can read the rest of the post here.

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