[Some disclaimers and information: I specialize in community management for online games and the company I currently work for recently received a significant investment from Google Ventures. Also, my boyfriend works at Google.]
This article all started with a public Google+ post by Kelly Ellis, a software engineer at Google who works on Google+. She posted a short video update in the morning of July 1st describing some changes that the Google+ team would be making to their product over the long weekend. The leafy, sundappled background behind Ms. Ellis and her professional-yet-relaxed demeanor exemplified the Silicon Valley ease amidst unthinkably advanced technology. It’s like she’s just chatting with you over lunch about the project she’s working on – never mind that it’s the latest brainchild of the most cutting edge software company on Earth. 8 hours later, the video post had 1000 shares and almost 300 comments. Needless to say, a lot of people started following Ellis for future updates on the development of Google+, including me.
That wasn’t the interesting post, though. What fascinated me was a series of interactions that followed when Ellis posted to the public once more, in a more personal and frivolous tone (although notably still G+ related): “I’m going camping this weekend and I’m actually worried about being in the wilderness without a connection and separated from Google+…I’m addicted!” Amidst the many who were also excited about a) the holiday weekend and b) Google+, one less-than-positive comment stood out:
People immediately jumped in to support Ellis and bash the naysayer. Ellis herself cordially invited him to stop following her or “mute” the post so that he wouldn’t need to see it, but that she intended to make it publicly viewable. The naysayer very shortly thereafter posted a clarification and an apology:
In a sense, this fellow (let’s call him Smith) has a point. He probably initially came across Ellis because of her original update video and figured that she would primarily be posting information in developer diary style – casual, but focused on the product (similar to Google VP of Engineering Vic Gundotra’s stream). Her previous posts mostly discussed G+ features as well. Based on this small corpus of information and conventions for other social networking tools like Twitter, it’s not difficult to see why Smith might assume that Ellis’s posts would continue in the same educational vein, and why he might be a little miffed that Ellis seemed to be dragging down her own standards of discourse by posting something pretty trivial. The stage was set for a dilemma that many employees of web 2.0 companies find themselves in: as a creator of a participatory, discussion-oriented product who is interacting with users of that product, who are you? A spokesperson or a regular Joe? An information bot or a human being? In response:
Ellis is personifying an aspect of Google+ that may be one of the product’s most interesting – although least technological – innovations in the web 2.0 space. What if, instead of press releases and vanilla FAQ pages, you had the people who actually worked on the product itself hanging out and talking to users? What if a core feature of a next-generation social networking platform was the opportunity to talk to the people who made it, in a very natural and conversational way? What if Google+ weren’t just a way to connect with friends, but also a way to connect with the culture and people of Google?
As someone whose livelihood involves being a go-between for users on one side and developers on the other, I have seen the potential for disaster when developers try to engage users directly. I make my living trying to prevent (or at least moderate) these kinds of disasters. It’s not a pretty sight when game developers and players are in keyboard-to-keyboard combat, and it has dramatic consequences for the user community and the reputation of the product and company. It’s also easier for developers to make difficult decisions that may not be taken well by the users if they are shielded from the inevitable outrage that flares up. Users look to one reliable and hopefully personable source to receive information and give feedback, and then that source channels good feedback to the developers and in turn relays information from the developers in a way that is best for the users. This role is tricky in large part because you must make the users love you and trust you while not revealing too much about yourself. You must be enough of a person to seem real, but not enough to distract from the larger image of the product and the company. When someone with a company email address says something about a product, even when it’s clearly their personal opinion, imaginations and rumors run amok and can hurt the bottom line.
Google+ is certainly in its halcyon days. The early adopter crowd is largely intelligent, enthusiastic, sick of Facebook, and willing to try something new and shiny. This makes it easy for people like Ellis to enjoy the honeymoon period of community relations. But as the userbase expands and joining G+ becomes a matter of social networking’s “keeping up with the Joneses” – when people who see corporations in faceless black-and-white join the fray – what will happen to these interactions? Will Googlers be forced to add huge disclaimers to their profiles and toe a company line? Or will Google itself somehow coordinate and support the brilliant individuality of its involuntary ambassadors, creating a corps of developer-community specialists who amplify its brand a thousandfold? How long will it be before a Google employee makes a mistake on G+ that spreads like wildfire among the jaded and gossipy, and what will Google do in response?
Google has definitely earned itself a little breathing room and cause for celebration with its newest offering – Ellis and her co-workers have every right to buzz jubilantly in the playground they have so thoughtfully constructed for us. But as one who has seen the carnage at the front lines of community, I worry for Ellis even as I cheer her on. The days will come when people less reasonable and apologetic than Smith will arrive on the scene, and I hope that Googlers can continue to carry their professional affiliation as a plus to their real selves, rather than a minus. I look forward to getting to know some amazing people in the process.