Web giant Google launched Google+ on 28 June 2011 as an invite-only "field test", with golden tickets sent to a few early adopters and journalists.
The proposition was attractive: a Facebook-rivalling social network, integrated into all of the web services you already use, backed by Google's raw energy and innovation.
Up front were Circles - a way to organise everyone you know, and share content only with those who would be interested in it. The photos of your new-born baby could be shared with your "Family" circle, while you type out a filthy joke for your "Friends" circle and then pen a paradigm-busting blog post for your "Work" circle.
Backing up this functionality was a "Hangouts" system to video-chat, share documents or screens or just play games with up to ten people at once, and perhaps the most visible feature of all - a '+1 button' that let you recommend websites. Word quickly spread that the number of +1s your site had would direct impact its rankings in web searches, so publishers fell over themselves to add +1 buttons to all of their content.
Demand and conquer
Demand for invites was immediate and vast. Two days after launch, Google exec Vic Gundotra wrote on his Google+ page that the company had been forced to shut down the invite system due to "insane demand". But not everyone was impressed - in his review of the service, Guardian technology editor Charles Arthur wrote: "Being social isn't just about involving lots of people in things. It's also about getting out of the way. Google+ might work better if it tried to do less, and then built it up."
Things got worse as more people were invited through the Googly gates. Users quickly discovered that the search giant was deleting profiles where people hadn't used their real names. Suddenly, the internet where no one knows you're a dog was being replaced by an internet where pseudonymity was being eroded wholesale.
The protections offered by pseudonymity to vast swathes of society are well-documented. Many underprivileged groups rely on the protection of a nickname to allow them to express themselves online in ways that they might not be able to in the real world. But Google wouldn't budge, and growth faltered.
A pledge from Gundotra to overturn the real-name policy came in late 2011, but it was both too little, too late, and then not followed up. At the time of writing, Google still requires your real first and last name.
"If you asked the team behind Google+ how they thought it was performing, they'd say it was off the charts"
That put Google in a difficult position. Over time, the company attempted a fightback with a sophisticated events system, impressive photo editing tools, community discussion and business pages. But none of these features brought life to what was rapidly becoming a ghost town, so like any good startup, Google pivoted.
The search giant took its big jug of social juice and poured it carefully across all of its products in a process that the company described as an "evolution" of the Google experience.
Suddenly, Google+ was in your email, your calendar, your documents and your maps. "Google is trying to rebuild its products to defend them for the future," explains independent PR consultant Max Tatton-Brown. "The goal is a more coordinated, consistent and identity-aware experience, that builds on its current advantages in a way that's difficult for threats like Facebook and its others to emulate."
He adds: "Because it's a new layer throughout all Google products, the advantages emerge in different ways. In Google Search and Maps, average users can see reviews and endorsements from their friends around results or ads. In Gmail, Circle associations can help funnel relevant messages accurately into the new multiple inbox system."