Google Plus: Ghost Town or Company Town in the Making?

The Google Plus social network is often slammed as a virtual ghost town, bereft of people and meaningful interactiions. But what if Google Plus is starting its life a ghost town… only on purpose?

There’s a big difference between a community that’s empty because it’s still being built and a ghost town that’s been abandoned by its residents.

Real Ghost Towns?

As a kid, I spent many a summer in southwest Florida, specifically in the town of Port Charlotte.

Port Charlotte was one of several towns developed and built by the General Development Corp., starting in the 1950s and '60s along the Gulf Coast of Florida. Unlike most towns - which are built around a small center and then grow outward organically from there - GDC towns had a much more optimistic way of doing things.

Even before there were any residents, the company would build streets. Miles and miles of streets winding endlessly through Florida scrubland. Streets complete with names (and street signs) that would form the infrastructure for a massive suburban town.

With nary a house in sight. For mile after steamy mile.

You can still see signs of what this was like. Just north of Port Charlotte is another GDC town, North Port, where Google Street View shows thoroughfares such as Pinklady Lane, a placeholder for a town that doesn’t yet exist.

You need to look at North Port, though, because Port Charlotte is now a real town, its streets lined with Florida's typical one-story homes.

Google Plus Is a Company Town

When Google Plus gets hit with the “ghost town” comments, I can’t help thinking about the ghost towns that Port Charlotte and its sister GDC communities once were. And how different it is for a community to be empty because it’s still being built compared to one where the residents have left.

“Google Plus is not a ghost town. It is a city still being built. When Myspace first started, it took people quite a while to get it cranking, set up their pages, etc. When Facebook opened up to the general public, people were already primed for social networking. They just wanted a ‘grown-up’ way to do it,” pundit Mike Tuttle wrote in March.

This is not to dispute reports like those from RJ Metrics in May that insisted Google Plus has "weak user engagement” even though “user growth is strong.” On the contrary, I believe that kind of result to be very true.

Perhaps what Google has done here is built itself a company town. A GDC town. A town with all the lights, the water and the streets in place - ready to welcome people to start flowing in and do what they do best: socialize.

If this is what Google has in mind, then it may be too soon to write off Google Plus as a failure.

Now that Google Plus has been built out, it could be well positioned to attract and support new adopters to fill those empty streets with content, sharing and activity.

If that happens, the network could suddenly reach a tipping point where it quickly moves from ghost town to boom town. I’m not saying it has to happen. Look at North Port, after all. But the history of towns like Port Charlotte show that even empty communities can fill up over time - especially when the infrastucture is in place to support growth.