Google+ Numbers Take a Dip, But May Yet Rise Again

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Traffic to the new social network has slowed, but a pattern seen in finance, politics, and medicine gives the Google site reason to hope

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Tech blogs are buzzing today about a Bloomberg report showing a small decline in Google+'s traffic last week, with 3 percent fewer visitors and average time spent on the site down by 10 percent.

We should be cautious in thinking that this is the beginning of the end for Google+. There are essentially two paths Google+ could be on: a downward spin leading to Google's dustbin or a happier trajectory called the j-curve. Based on the most recent numbers, it's impossible to know which is the case.

The j-curve is exactly what it sounds like -- a curve shaped like a "j," meaning that it starts moderately high, drops down into a valley, and eventually recovers and surpasses its initial high point.

The-J-Curve_blanksm.jpgIf Google+ does find itself on a j-curve, it's not alone. The j-curve appears in several disparate areas: politics, business, and medicine, for examples. In the case of governments, a 2006 book by Ian Bremmer, The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall, argues that the most repressive nations are moderately stable, and the most open are extremely stable. But at some point near absolute repression but with more openness than, say, present-day North Korea, there is a volatile no-man's-land. (This is not universally accepted: Some political scientists point to countries such as modern-day Russia as exceptions, where a modicum of openness has enabled repression to persist, they argue.)

In medicine, a j-curve has been observed in the relationship between blood pressure and heart attacks, where high blood pressure results in an increased risk of heart attacks, but so does very low blood pressure (though not to the same extent -- hence the "j" and not "u" shape). Somewhere in between lies a blood pressure associated with lower risk.

The j-curve is also a pattern in business, illustrating a common trajectory for the profits of investments in private equity funds. Initially, fees are high and funds see a decline in value, but as the portfolio matures and bad investments are written down, returns increase and eventually turn to profits.

Technological adoption is often described as a bell curve -- slow initial growth, sudden and rapid increase, a leveling off, and an eventual decline. Today's report from Bloomberg shows that Google+ isn't following that pattern. But we shouldn't expect it to. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, which grew slowly and organically, Google+ received a major initial boost from its Google branding and integration with Gmail. The past week's drop-off is just the end of that boost, and tells us little about whether Google+ will someday find itself on the path of the common bell curve or soon go the way of Buzz and Wave.

Images: 1. Brass Monki; 2. Wikimedia Commons.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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