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The first bug to kill a social network

October 9 · Issue #223 · View online
The Interface
A year ago today, I sent out the first edition of this newsletter. Two hundred and twenty-three issues later, I’m even more excited to make it than I was when I started. To all 5,128 of you, thanks for your time, your attention, and your feedback. I’m learning so much from you every day. Here’s to year 2.
There are bad bugs, and there are worse bugs. But until this week, there had never been a bug that killed a social network. Then the Wall Street Journal reported that a glitch had exposed private Google+ profile information to third-party developers between 2015 until earlier this year. A few hours later, the network — which once claimed 135 million users — was dead.
For most of its seven years, Google’s effort to build a Facebook-style social network served mostly as a punchline. The company regularly touted suspiciously massive user numbers, but aside from a few pockets of enthusiasts, Google+ never managed to find a place in people’s lives the way Gmail, YouTube, or other Google services did.
Google attempted to reinvent Plus several times, most recently as a kind of modern spin on message boards. And one part of Plus, which focused on helping you organize your photos, thrived once it spun out into a separate service. But mostly it was a wild goose chase — the most prominent example of Google’s many failed attempts to build a true social network. And it will be forever remembered as the social network that shut down over a security glitch — one that it didn’t tell us about until it was discovered by journalists.
Why didn’t Google fess up at the time? Here’s what it told the Journal:
In weighing whether to disclose the incident, the company considered “whether we could accurately identify the users to inform, whether there was any evidence of misuse, and whether there were any actions a developer or user could take in response,” he said. “None of these thresholds were met here.”
As my colleague Russell Brandom notes in a good piece, this wasn’t a “breach” in the legal sense of the word. There are good reasons not to require companies to issue a public disclosure every time they find a simple vulnerability, without any evidence that it was exploited. (Chief among them: it can incentivize them to stop looking so hard.) Still:
After Facebook’s painful fall from grace, the legal and the cybersecurity arguments seem almost beside the point. The contract between tech companies and their users feels more fragile than ever, and stories like this one stretch it even thinner. The concern is less about a breach of information than a breach of trust. Something went wrong, and Google didn’t tell anyone. Absent the Journal reporting, it’s not clear it ever would have. It’s hard to avoid the uncomfortable, unanswerable question: what else isn’t it telling us?
Google will likely pay a price for this data exposure. (Probably in Euros.) State attorneys general are have taken an interest. US Sen. Mark Warner, D-VA, called the cover-up “pretty outrageous.”
And yet Google seemed to shrug off all those worries on stage Tuesday, when its executives appeared to announce the company’s fall hardware lineup. There was a new phone, a tablet, and a competitor to the Echo Show and Facebook Portal that distinguishes itself by omitting a camera.
There was no discussion of Google+.
That speaks to how dramatically the company has shifted since its social network was born — and why, despite their similar advertising businesses, Google and Facebook occupy such different places in consumers’ minds.
Google has focused consistently on being a utility. It builds powerful services that don’t require an understanding of your family structure or your friend relationships. Google Maps iterates constantly in search of the perfect commute; Gmail adds automatic replies to speed up your inbox; Google Photos absorbs all the pictures on your phone and uses machine learning to understand their contents and make them searchable.
Google gives us sincerely new and useful things. And so, when we learn that it has exposed our data inadvertently, we might be more likely to give them a pass.
At Facebook, on the other hand, the prime directive is still user growth. The company talks about a shift to foster more “meaningful” connections, but in practice this simply means growing different parts of its product suite. Facebook is useful, but it is useful mainly in the way that a phone book is useful, and after you have reached a certain number of friends that usefulness plateaus.
Its biggest hit products in recent years — Instagram and WhatsApp — have been acquisitions. The new features it adds are often imported from other social networks. Its News Feed is essentially an entertainment product, but as a mirror for our times, it is often more distressing than entertaining.
It gives us less, we like it less, we trust it less.
I’m oversimplifying, of course. But I once spoke with someone had worked at both Google and Facebook who described the difference between how those two companies are perceived in exactly those terms.
Sometimes a company misses the boat on a trend, and regrets it forever. In the case of Google+, I suspect many executives wish the company had simply avoided building a true social network altogether. David Byttow, who worked on the project and is now at Snap, put it this way: “As a tech lead and an original founding member of Google+, my only thought on Google sunsetting it is… FINALLY.”

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