When Google launched its Google+ social network, the company made it clear that it wasn’t just another Buzz-style experiment — director of product Bradley Horowitz said Google+ would become “part of everything” the company did. And over the past year or so we have seen a bit of what this means in practice, with G+ content being incorporated into search results and other services. But these attempts have also meant an almost inevitable clash between what Google wants and what users want. We got a glimpse of that on Wednesday with actor and author Wil Wheaton’s response to a change on YouTube. Is promoting Google+ worth it?
Wheaton, who has parlayed a starring role as the young ensign Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation into a career as an author, wrote on his widely-followed blog that when he went to give a video a “thumbs up” vote on YouTube, instead of the usual thumb icon that he used to see, there was a Google+ button. And hovering over the button showed a popup that asked him to “upgrade to Google+” before he could vote on the video (according to a comment from Google, it is testing different interfaces for YouTube votes including a Google+ button, but has not made a widespread change).
This incident sparked a rant from Wheaton about the web giant forcing users to log in to its network in order to simply vote on a video. But the outrage wasn’t driven by the actor and author’s desire not to use Google+ — in fact, he is a regular user, and an extremely popular one, with more than 1.3 million people including him in their Circles (the Google+ version of Twitter or Facebook lists). Instead, Wheaton said he was concerned that users who wanted to give his videos a “thumbs up” might refrain if they had to join yet another social network in order to do so. As he put it:
Oh, go f*** yourself, Google. This is just as bad as companies forcing me to “like” something on Facebook before I can view whatever it is they want me to “like.” Just let me thumbs up something, without forcing me to “upgrade” to G+, you ****heads.
The actor’s rant on his Tumblr blog was subsequently re-blogged (or shared) by over 2,000 users — including author Neil Gaiman, who added his own comment, saying he wished that “Google would leave the Social Network thing to others.” Although the company is capable of great things, said Gaiman, “when it rides bandwagons, it’s irritating. I’m not on Google Plus, and I suppose that I won’t be liking YouTube videos any longer.” And best-selling author John Green added a similar comment on his own Tumblr, saying:
Making it so that only Google Plus users can decide whether a YouTube video is worth watching benefits no one except for Google Plus: It is bad for viewers, bad for video creators, and bad for YouTube’s ability to curate and tailor videos to potential viewers.
The addition of Google+ voting buttons to YouTube videos no doubt seems like a natural extension of the network — one directly in line with the philosophy that Horowitz outlined last year, where Google+ becomes a “social layer” on top of everything the company does. And using YouTube as a way to promote the network as a destination and encourage users to sign up probably seems like a natural thing to do as well. But the response from Wheaton and Gaiman and others shows that some users are going to see it as an attempt to shove Google+ down their throats whether they want it or not.
There was a similar kind of response when Google added G+ content to its search results as part of its “Search Plus Your World” feature: critics (including us) complained that this was a breach of Google’s promise to its users that it would present an unbiased view of the world, and that it was effectively putting its thumb on the scales in order to promote its own network. And it seems to be doing more and more of this in an attempt to overcome the perception that there simply isn’t enough room in the market — or in most people’s online lives — for yet another social network.
Buttons on a YouTube video may seem like a relatively small thing to get so upset about, but it’s just one more lever that Google is using to try and push users into its network whether they want to go or not. Is that really the best way to get the kind of goodwill that a successful social network requires?