Tuesday, December 4, 2012

"Wreck-It-Google": Why the Invite-Driven Userbase Model is Destroying Social-Driven Online Environments

As a fat kid turned fat man, exclusion and I go a long ways back. I mean, I could cite the almost-universal stories about team-picking for gym class or dividing up for impromptu games of Red Rover on the playground. I could talk about my illustrious high school basketball career, where I was drafted (they needed a tenth body to make a team, and I had a mandatory phys ed credit to fill that year) for the team and spent practices walking laps around the gym and games watching from the bench. I could talk about my early days out of the closet, where I was the purple elephant in the room (or at least the pre bear-chic bear in the room) or my introduction to pre-Internet, pre-social media gay social space, where interactions and access to social space and proportionate privilege were often dictated by paired edicts: NO FEMS, NO FATS.

Seriously though, this isn't a pity post. By high school, I'd become used to being solitary, to the point where my partner now rarely sees me on weekends. I tend to leave my room just long enough to get food before returning to my own little geek cave. I'm so used to being on my own that I now find many social situations awkward and confusing. I guess that I got so used to being left out that I just stopped seeking social spaces for fear of exclusion.

So with that in mind, I finally got around to seeing Wreck it Ralph the other night...alone at a 9:30pm Sunday show, wherein I was one of three in the theater...two if you discount the disinterested girlfriend who texted the film away as her boyfriend watched. By now, if you're interested in seeing it, you know the premise: video game "bad guy" gets tired of typecasting and goes on a quest of self-redefinement that would make both Madonna and Lady Gaga blush. Season with enough video game cameos to make geeks spontaneously squeal, release shortly before a holiday weekend, and watch Disney's revenues soar.
"Look, it's not you....but it's you..."

The pivotal scene in Ralph's quest happens at a party. His game, Fix-it Felix, is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary, and not only are the characters in his game at the party, characters from other games have joined in as well…except for Ralph, who was excluded. After an awkward exchange with his in-game nemesis, Ralph enters the party and faces open hostility, to the point where one character even asks aloud why Ralph is present. An exchange erupts, the scene ends poorly, and Ralph leaves to try and recreate himself in a new light. Ralph was tired or being excluded and just wanted to belong.

Enter Ingress…
"It's a game! You'll be Enlightened, and you'll be Resistance!"

In a move that would make Tom Sawyer's whitewashing scheme proud, Google seems to have devised a game wherein two teams--an authoritarian regime (the "Man") and a rebellious underground (the "cool kids")--use geolocation in an augmented reality game that provides Google with free geo-scavenging. This was brilliant, whoever came up with the idea: get geeks with smartphones to go out and do the work that they'd otherwise be paying people to do for them. Seriously, I'm whistling "Gratifaction" just thinking about it. And from what I'm seeing on the app's entry on the Google Play store, when it's not crashing more than Mitt Romney's popularity rating, it's sort of a fun way to do Google's geo-scavenging for them.

…but Google is using an invite system to get players in--a "closed" beta.

Why is this a bad thing, people ask? Doesn't it ease the load on poor, overtaxed servers that would otherwise crumble under the crush of unwashed masses, all trying to fight for dominance for their corporate master…or at least the fictional identity assigned to them by it? Ratings in the Google Play store suggest that the early adopters have already gained a significant upper hand and advantage in the game (spoiler alert: the rebellious "cool kids" outnumber the "Man" significantly, as if no one saw that coming on a Droid-based app) in a disproportion of power that would make a seasoned EVE Online PK blush. But really, think about the servers, right?

That having been said, let's take a look at past Google product launches… The hype may already be moot if we look at the past Google product launches that used invites as a means of gathering users.

I remember when Gmail rolled out in 2004. I got lucky there. An early adopter got me in, and I spent my twenty five (then later, fifty) invites on access for friends. Still, I remember seeing the boorish behavior and the insider-outsider castes forming on my old blogging community. An experiment, Google said of the invites. Yahoo and Hotmail users stuck to their guns. Arguably, Gmail was the only Google product to successfully launch with an invite-driven model--largely because they out-spent competitors on storage space. 250 megabytes to several gigabytes of online email storage...that's a lot of porn attachments to stash away from mom, dad, and prying wives in a secure account.

Google Wave, 2010
Then in 2009, Google decided to use invites for Google Wave, their first attempt at making a social network. Anyone remember that? People were selling Google Wave invites on Ebay…for good money, no less. Twitter exploded with pleas from strangers for invites. Networking and invite-exchange communities rose overnight, all while Google portioned out G-Wave invites with a miser's touch. I remember finally getting my Wave invite around November 2009. It ranked up there with the loss of my virginity--not a crash of Nirvanaish bliss but rather an anticlimactic moment that had me scratching my head and thinking "I waited and anticipated all that time…..for this?" Of course, there were only a few friends around the network to hear it at the time, as they'd all gone back to Livejournal and Facebook, leaving Google Wave to die a stagnating, lonely death usually reserved for distant, elderly relatives.

"Welcome to Google Plus. Now circle a tumbleweed!"
Never one to learn from past mistakes, Google again used the invite system for the launch of Google Plus, their next social networking platform. As with Wave, there was a huge demand for invites, and Google again maintained its miser's touch on allowing access. And just as with their last attempt at forming a social network, people arrived to find the party largely deserted because friends either couldn't get in (they were still waiting on invites) or came, looked around, and left because no one was there to hang with. There was no spontaneous critical mass of mutual social contacts to keep people around.

And again, Google used invites for Google Music--a program that was promised to revolutionize the music experience. What program are you using on your PC or laptop to listen to your music? Chances are, it's not branded with a synonym for "do no evil."

"And his daddy don't even run Android..."
What do they all have in common? Let's look at the pattern: Google created a cool product…or at least the cool premise for one…or at least the illusion of one. Google then baited and teased the 'Net community with said cool product. Google then set up an invite system that not created hype, but limited access…which created more hype, as people wanted to be where they were otherwise restricted from. As demand for invites skyrocketed, early-users either tried to get friends in or acted like Eddie Murphy singing and flaunting invisible ice cream in 1983, which only further whipped outsiders into a frenzy. Eventually, the outsiders either become bitter and simply lost interest (even if they got their Golden Ticket eventually, just so they could officially snub their nose) or had their expectations so highly raised that no user experience could match the hype. It's like the adolescent discovery that the Santa you met at the mall as a child was a street wino for the other forty-six weeks outside the Christmas season or, after forty-five minutes of watching The Crying Game, that Jaye Davidson's character actually had a penis the whole time.

"Still waiting for a G+ invite? We're all on Ingress now! Soooooo sorry... Love your hair!"

Google Wave could have been awesome, had there been more users around (in a net-nod to Alan Smithee, Google was so ashamed of that failure, they pawned it off to Apache before you could say "Mommie Dearest"), but they strangled it before it could be born.

Google Plus wouldn't be largely regarded as a ghost town by social networking analysts, had more people been able to get in before Facebook pulled the wandering herd back to their hangout-less bosom.

Google Music wouldn't be seen as largely a play thing for those with Android phones, had greater numbers had access to it early on.

Never without a sense of ironic humor, it seems that cyberbegging has taken a new form for Ingress invites--performing photographed circus tricks for the developers' attention. One blog recently listed the names of the dev team's G+ names, and my own G+ feed has exploded with images of items embossed with the Ingress logo. A friend of mine even claimed to have put the logo on the infamous Goatse image (Google that one, kids. Even I have my taste limits…sort of) to get the attention of the developers. He said that the image lasted ten minutes before it was taken down…but that it got him an invite in his mailbox the next morning. So there you have it: Goatse=Ingress invite, it seems. May I suggest that someone jump "Two Girls, One Cup" while it's still unclaimed?

Level 8 Enlightened, been on since 11-16-12, NOOB!
Mom, we need more minutes on the phone!!!!!
And now, as more excluded users doom the Ingress client (seriously, it's on the Google Play store…but you can't play it…just request a code and look at the taunting, angular icon on your smartphone) with one-star ratings on Google Play, and early adopters raise their competitive levels and consolidate their gaming resources, all but condemning newer players to griefing that no longer requires a World of Warcraft account and a vindictive twelve year old at the other end of an opposing PC, Google seems to be on a collision course with history once again. Excluded players are getting angrier and more frustrated, which all but guarantees a stunted, small, exclusive player base. No one wants to be the fat kid who's picked last for Dodgeball or Red Rover. No one wants to see a party in progress only to arrive and see you're not on the building in the cake.

Now Google could make the smart move and wipe the player database clean once they've done their stress test….sorry "closed" beta, so all players have an even playing field. But then, they run the risk of alienating now-zealotic early adopters whose stories of betrayal would fill the net for a few days before the next "it" application comes along. Google "welfare epics," if you don't believe me. At this point, it's a lose-lose proposition for Ingress. Let the early players dominate or appease the new players at the expense of the older players' loyalty. Again, Google's invite model has created a perfect storm for yet another abandoned application, like so many midwest strip malls.

"I used to be somebody..."
"Resistance" or "Enlightened" (I'm opting for a third team, personally: "Apathetically Lethargic"), it seems that in a year or so, we'll be looking at our smartphones and thinking "Ingress…god, I remember that. I wonder what's going on there now," as we log in to see tons of activity from that one level 400 holdout friend who was in the early wave of invites, while the rest of our friends have long since abandoned it. Think about it, when was the last time you had to make a drive-by on that Starbucks to defend your mayorship in Foursquare? Exactly. Nobody wants it because nobody's on it anymore…

Got an application idea and want to wreck it? Let Google manage it for you… Sorry, Ingress. You looked fun. Maybe the company that apes your concept and puts out a competing app (speaking of Foursquare, I miss you, Gowalla) will learn from your mistake and make an adoption model that's more accessible for all new players, instead of creating yet another privileged (or unprivileged) class for Americans to loathe and revile.

And for christ's sake, Google, lose the invite model of building a user data base. For a company whose motto is "do no evil," you sure as hell love playing your minions against one another…