Engineer Timothy Sweeney uses Google+ a little over once a week. He might publicly share Jimi Hendrix videos, ruminate on Beto O’Rourke, or catch up with a community of fellow mandolin players. To Sweeney, and many thousands of others, the social network often said to be dead has become like a kind of small-town mall, that has “only has a movie theater, a TJ Maxx, couple of shoe stores, and a Cinnabon left open,” Sweeney wrote in a public post. A little clunky, a little forlorn—but home.
These users are today reeling from the news that Google plans to shut down the free, consumer version of the social network over the next 10 months. It’s partly due to low usage, Google said: 90% of user sessions last just a few seconds. But for some educators, gamers, and people who’ve simply found their niche there, it’s a digital home they believe other social networks can’t offer.
A substantial number of Google+ users are in education. Thomas Ho is a K-12 educator from Indianapolis, Indiana. He’s also a keen user of Google Suite. The two “pretty much go hand-in-hand,” he says. For example, Google+ helps Ho connect with other educators around the world to share and solicit thoughts about teaching strategies and solutions to nitty-gritty technical problems. “We depend on it to help one another,” he says, “because as great as the G-Suite tech support is, sometimes it’s easier to just chuck a question out there.” The network’s demise is not a total shock. “That Facebook juggernaut has just been a really tough one to break,” says Ho, but he’s left wondering how well the needs of teachers will be met by the “secure corporate social network” Google is promising as an alternative.
Josh Fisher, who designs teaching materials for K-12 math classes, is based out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Over the past five years, he’s built a Google+ community of over 20,000 members from all over the world, who share stories, external blog posts, and tips and tricks on what he describes as the “nuts-and-bolts kind of stuff about teaching math, research, and curriculum.” Google+ has been a significant part of Fisher’s life, but he says he’s not disappointed about the network going down. “In many ways, I feel like I accomplished the signal-boosting that I wanted to accomplish,” Fisher says, “helping to bring smart, international voices more into the US conversation. I feel good about it, even if it evaporates tomorrow.”
Other communities have clustered around unusual shared interests. For example, Google+ is a hotspot for fans of tabletop role-paying games. They come together to share everything from kickstarter campaigns for game-themed art projects to inspirations for character concepts. One of these gaming communities alone has nearly 30,000 members—all must now find themselves a new digital home.
With the clock ticking, Google+ users are warily eyeing their alternatives. A “Google+ Mass Migration” group has already sprung up (on Google+, of course) for “community leaders” to decide “where we go.” The options so far are suitably niche: the privacy-oriented social network MeWe; the decentralized, open-source network Mastodon; and Pluspora, which describes itself as an “online social world where you are in control.” Facebook is absolutely off the table.
But there’s a sense that other networks, however good their interface, may still fail to fit the bill. For many Google+ users, it’s not about what you can do there, but the fact of being the last residents in a place that feels right. “This really hits me hard, because there’s no genuine alternative,” user Brian Griffith lamented. “This is the most chill social media I’ve found, with friendly people I like.”