Saturday, February 18, 2012

Social Google

I'm sure you're aware of the changes Google has made the past few months, but have you done your research on them? Read these articles:
Man, what's got Gizmodo's panties in a bunch? They should try to act more like their big brother Wired. These changes are something to be mindful of, and certainly precautions should be taken, but none of it is the betrayal of trust it's being seen as by some. What I see happening here is a chain of events beginning with Google's decision to enter the social networking arena and never done in malice.
  1. Google, while staring hungrily at all the ad revenue Facebook gets, notices that social network users are growing increasingly dissatisfied with Facebook. They decide that it is a good time to start a social network of their own and try to claim all that traffic themselves. Innocent so far; competition is the essence of business.
  2. Google+ launches to far less fanfare than Google wanted. The userbase reaches a plateau much below where it needs to be. Despite this setback, the company isn't going to let it die like Wave did. Google strives to do its level best to make people want to use Google+, so it adds a benefit for Plus users to its most popular service: web searches. Now, anyone with a profile on Plus will get results even more relevant to them, because it will also search their social network. The enormous problem is that this is not an opt-in feature  it is opt-out. The reasoning here is obvious: a feature that's on by default is visible to more users, and will therefore draw more users to use Plus. But those users who use Plus and do not want this feature are now bombarded with the unsettling surprise of very personal results appearing in a service which has always been seen as homogenized and impartial. Google has changed the characterization of their primary service by doing this, and that degree of redefinition will always have significant negative backlash.
  3. Social networks, by their nature, aggregate samples of every single sort of interaction and information that is possible on the Web. Since Google owns the most popular providers of many of those mediums (YouTube, Blogger, etc.), it is absolutely in their best interests to try to streamline the interactions between their social network and their other services. If you upload a video to YouTube, for instance, and want to share it on Google+, it will help if there are mechanisms in place for precisely that. So, as part of this, they decide that it will allow beautiful integration of their services — hypothetically boosting the popularity of each — if they make it so that all your separate Google profiles are simplified and consolidated into just one.
Now, this is alarming to us because we're suddenly seeing that all the information we've given Google is in one place. But Google accounts should always have been combined this way. It's far more efficient, and in many ways can improve services. The bit that makes us panic is the social hub around which this is all built. When Google provided us with a social network, we do what we always do on them: we loaded it with personal information, safe in the knowledge that, short of high-profile hackers with vendettas against us, the only people who will see that information are the people we add to our circles. Now this private information — most notably, the name and photographs we've given Plus — will be propagated to all the Google services that we've linked together under the same account.

However, the proper response to this is not panic, and neither is it condemnation of Google. Google's dynamic is shifting slightly to a more social focus, and their structure must necessarily change to allow this. It is still, as it has always been with their business model, in their best interest to keep you, as the user, happy. This is why they've loaded your inboxes with notifications about their changing policy. This is why they have engineered a data liberation program to facilitate removing your information. The best course of action, if you have any concerns, is to simply use that service to remove private information, then wait until March 1 to see how, exactly, they will be using the information from one service in another. Personally, I seriously doubt anything beyond your name and possibly a photo would be visible to other users if you left all your data intact. Everything else will just be used to tailor ads to the user — and I don't know about you, but I much prefer seeing ads for things that actually interest me.
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