"It's a fireside chat, but there's no fire."
That's how writer and marketer Guy Kawasaki introduced his conversation at the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, with Vic Gundotra, the senior vice president at Google who heads up the search engine's social efforts.
And that, in an inadvertent nutshell, is the problem with Google+, Google's not-quite-a-social-network social network. Google+ has plenty of users, but they don't spend a lot of time using it, as recent numbers from ComScore showed.
There's no fire.
Google disputed those numbers at the time the study was released, and Gundotra offered new stats about the network's users: 100 million were "active" in a month while 15 million were "active" on a given day. But he didn't address the critical metric of how much time they spend with Google+. And without those, Google is left with the appearance that it's struggling to form a real community of social Web users.
Gundotra got in some good lines. When Kawasaki asked about journalists who reported experiencing a "ghost town" when they logged onto Google+ and tried to get responses from friends, Gundotra replied, "Maybe they're just not that into you yet."
But Gundotra still had a hard time communicating the basics of Google+—like what it is. He trotted out Google's usual explainer that it's a "social layer" that touches multiple Google products like its Chrome Web browser and its YouTube video community. He also suggested that people wouldn't understand what a "social layer" meant until they used it.
Some users remain frustrated with Google+'s policies on real names. While Google has made some tentative accommodations for people who use pseudonyms online, it still requires real names to log on and makes it difficult to sign up to use a pseudonym. (A Google spokeswoman described this characterization of the policy as "inaccurate," pointing us to Google+'s name policy, which requires use of a "common name," as well as a post by Google executive Bradley Horowitz that described the Rube Goldberg-esque review process used for pseudonyms. The Daily Dot stands by our description, but if you think otherwise, please say so in the comments.)
Gundotra offered a completely novel explanation for why Google has been slow to allow pseudonyms on Google+, citing fears that inconsistent implementations across different Google services would result in "outing" pseudonym users by accident.
That doesn't quite square with previous statements by Google chairman Eric Schmidt, who said last August that Google+ emphasized real names because it was an "identity service" and people who had concerns about their real names being revealed simply shouldn't use the service.
"Vic summarized our stance on pseudonym support accurately," Google spokesperson Katie Watson said.
It's clear Google has shifted its stance on pseudonyms in the face of heavy criticism. But to this observer's ears, Gundotra's comments smacked of revisionist history.
And it's Google+'s future, not its history, that really needs a revision.
Updated: This story has been updated with comment from Google.