Google’s failed social network is now just another empty storefront on the Boulevard of Abandoned Tech
So much for Google+. As of April 2, 2019, the social media site’s personal accounts are no longer available for posting or comments, although for the time-being users can still access their accounts for downloading data. News of the shutdown proved surprisingly disturbing to me, reminding me of why I have used free and open source software exclusively for years.
Personally, I never warmed to Google+. Although I used it almost from the start, for me it was always a poor third to Facebook and Twitter among social sites. Although it often had better discussions, it wasn’t where most of my friends and acquaintances were — which, after all, is what social media is about. I would post a few times a week, and respond to comments, but I rarely checked other accounts, and never took part in any groups. Still, I would usually login for a few minutes before beginning my day’s work.
Yet somehow I couldn’t let the news go. In the last month of Google+’s existence I found myself counting down the days. On the morning it was shuttered, I automatically started to go the site, and when I remembered it was no longer active, I had a flash of anger I couldn’t explain. Before I knew it, I was having a flashback to the mid-1990s and the end of OS/2. Once again, a company was making decisions that affected my computer use without bothering to consult me.
Flashback to OS/2
OS/2 still exists today, renamed eComStation and shored up by FOSS apps. But for most people, it long ago became a minor footnote in history. What isn’t remembered is that in the 1990s it was a refuge for those who disliked the clumsy makeshifts of Windows 3.x. At a time when Windows only offered task switching, OS/2 had multi-tasking. It was the first 32 bit commercial operating system, and with a little tweaking often ran DOS and Windows applications better than DOS and Windows could. It seemed the sensible alternative of its time.
So imagine the surprise of users when around 1996 IBM started de-emphasizing OS/2 in favor of Windows. The budget for the product line was reduced by 95%. OS/2’s development lab and marketing ceased, and some 1,300 developers were laid off. User requests to release the code went unanswered, presumably because parts were proprietary.
This change of direction was not immediately obvious, but over the next couple of years it became obvious that the users had been abandoned. Naively, we had trusted IBM to provide a refuge from Windows, and the corporation had responded to our loyalty by betraying us without even informing us.
That was the end of me expecting corporations to act in my best interest. Fortunately, around the time I realized that OS/2 was no longer an option for my desktop, I discovered Linux and FOSS.
The contrast could not have been greater. Instead of being developed by a corporation, Linux was developed by a community. Instead of decisions being made in a secret board room, they were argued in public forums. Who cared if the discussion sometimes got raucous? There was an honesty in FOSS development that I could respect. I started experimenting with Linux, promising myself I would never be under the control of corporate whims again.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
The way Google+ closed down bothered me because it reminded me of what happened with OS/2. True, in contrast to OS/2 I had minimal emotional investment in Google+. Yet for the first time in twenty years, I had been touched by a corporate decision that was made without even token consultation.
Even worse, the closure date had been moved from August to April. The official reason was security vulnerabilities that were too expensive to fix. Yet the decision was only announced after the story leaked that Google had kept a security vulnerability secret for over half a year. Nor apparently, did Google see anything wrong with Google+ users continuing to be exposed to the vulnerability for another couple of months — although if it was serious enough to shut down the service, then I would have thought it was serious enough to shut immediately. The kindest explanation is that Google was not living up to its responsibility to users. The cruelest is that Google preferred to mislead users rather than simply admit that Google+ had not had its hoped-for success.
Should we have known better? Of course. Google has such a long history of closing down projects that there are even sites dedicated to listing all the failures, like Google Cemetery. But the closure emphasizes the obvious: corporations are not on the side of their user-bases.
Nor is this reminder applicable only to social media forums. It applies even more so to cloud applications and services like Google Docs and online storage. Providers’ claims to be secure have to be taken on trust without the least bit of evidence. Even worse, often both the terms of service and the services themselves are subject to unilateral changes by the providers.
Linux users of Dropbox had a minor example of this basic truth in 2018, when the company announced it would only support ext4 filesystems. The fact that ext4 is probably the most commonly used filesystem in Linux does not make the change any less arbitrary.
Online services often out-compete FOSS ones. Both offer free services, but the online services are often better known and offer easier interfaces. If convenience were the only criterion, who wouldn’t prefer Google+ to Mastodon?
Yet users should never forget that when using cloud services of any kind, they aren’t the ones in charge. Online services can be convenient for exchanging files, but users should make sure they have local backups. If encryption matters, then users should install an app like Tahoe-LAFS and encrypt for themselves. No one should forget that while corporations want their business, any loyalty they feel may not be reciprocated.
Forget these basic truths, and you risk being burned — just like Google+ users were reminded last week.