I begged for an invite and have thus sacrificed part of my dignity to become one of the (temporarily) exclusive group of people with Google+ accounts!
People have written a lot about how this feature is either confusing or a breakthrough in social networking. I actually think it’s neither. I’ve been using a similar feature in livejournal for years (functionality to define and choose groups who can read individual posts has been around for almost a decade now – or more than that, as I’m not sure when livejournal first implemented it) and perhaps because of this experience I view such features to be a minimum standard of user empowerment and privacy. If I can’t define my audience on a post-by-post basis, I may fall into the habit of either censoring myself or not being as careful with my message content as I should.
In short, Circles are great and everyone should get in the habit of using them. I feel it’s important for this kind of thing to become a standard feature of social networking sites.
The ‘Gender’ field
Gender identity in a social media context is a strong interest of mine. I’ve written on this previously, but to put it simply, I don’t feel comfortable with the focus technological systems tend to put on gender (or sex) and hate it even more when they are restrictive and prescriptive.
Google+ earns a few points with me because, unlike Facebook, users have the option of choosing ‘Other’ rather than being limited to ‘Male’ or ‘Female’. However, Google+ loses a lot of points because users only have the option of choosing ‘Other’ if they don’t wish to pick ‘Male’ or ‘Female’.
Both services make this choice a mandatory one. All users must define themselves in relation to an out-of-date – and in many cases offensive – gender binary. Yes, I am aware that gender is viewed as a highly important field for marketing purposes, and that companies such as Google and Facebook find this information valuable, but for many users on social networking sites gender is either irrelevant or, at least, of no more importance than other, optional fields.
Of course, it can also be argued that gender status is important from a technical perspective, making it possible to use gendered pronouns throughout the system. However, Google+ appears to handle the ‘Other’ option’s syntax quite well. If this is a major reason, it should be clear to users so they can make an informed choice about their user experience. If they prefer gendered pronouns to be associated with their alerts, their profiles can be altered.
It’s about this point in conversations surrounding gender status in social media that I usually link to two great discussions from last year, on this topic in relation to Diaspora.
Gender and privacy
In order to use Google+, you need to have a public Google Profile visible to the world, which at a minimum includes the name you chose for the profile.
One great feature of Google+ is that it has a ‘Send feedback’ button in the bottom right-hand corner of the interface. I was sure to send off some feedback about this conflict – but not before I had a chance to post about it on Google+ and Twitter. To my surprise, on Friday Morning (~8am, +10 GMT), less than 48 hours since I sent my feedback, I noticed that it was now possible to hide Gender from public profiles! I received no reply (hey, they’re probably quite busy this week!) so I can’t be certain this is a result of my work, but I like to think it could have been.
Another issue here is that, because Gender is mandatory – there is no ‘opt-out’ – and, by default, profiles are optimised for search engine results, all users give permission for their stated Gender to be associated with their chosen profile name – at least at the initial stage – and for this to be accessed and archived by searched engines. I can’t test for certain without creating a new account, but I suspect Gender is likely set to public by default. If so, despite them making its visibility alterable, I still feel this is a potential privacy issue.
(It should probably be noted that Facebook is worse in dealing with new user data. Names, gender, birthday and email addresses are public by default, and thus allowable to be used by third-party entities. All the information you provide Facebook during registration is ‘post-opt-out’, a term I plan to write about soon.)
I feel systems such as this should be privacy by default. I feel all publication of personal details should be opt-in. I don’t know if this would be considered a good business model, though, so I’m not holding my breath for corporate players to adopt better practices in this regard. Privacy is still not a large enough issue for that to happen.
Google certainly wins points when it comes to simply explaining what it does with user data, and in making it simple to understand how to customise privacy settings. (Though I’m an experienced ‘power user’, so not everyone would feel this is as clear as I do.) However, as Google+ is in very early days, it’s unfair to compare this to Facebook and the regular changes made to its privacy settings. Still, the Google+ package doesn’t have to deal with third-party applications and advertisers (at least ones not already part of Google) so it has a much easier job in this regard.
For now, at least. There is already speculation that Google+ may incorporate other features such as third-party games and applications.
Google – the bad and the ugly
I trust Google to use my data in a way I have consented to. I trust them not to change privacy settings in a way that leaves my personal information temporarily vulnerable. But at the same time, I’m very conscious that the system is there to collect information about me that will be used for marketing purposes. Though I recognise that I’ve registered for a ‘free’ service from a company that needs to make money, reminders about the business relationship we have make me feel uncomfortable.
I was surprised to see recently that pseudonyms are not allowed on Google+ profiles. Facebook does something similar and Mark Zuckerberg has publicly stated it is because accountability guides people to act nicer on the Internet. When people hide behind an anonymous identity they are more likely to act like arseholes to each other. While this may be a correct (though simplistic) observation, there is a strong privacy case for using pseudonyms.
Again, livejournal is a great example here. The system allows users to create an identity that links back to their meatspace identity as much or as little as they like – technical experience permitting. Users may also create multiple identities to better hide interests and, say, membership to support communities from other online friends. When a user loses interest in the content discussed in particular communities, they may leave at any time without their actions being easily attributable back to them in meatspace. My five years as a Sailor Moon fan*, taking part in public discussion with a secret identity can be safely ignored, believed never to come back and haunt me when I run for president.
Google and Facebook, on the other hand, rely on ‘real’ names. This has obvious marketing potential. But it also has not-quite-as-obvious ramifications for identity. Jacob Appelbaum has stated, “Everything you do on the Internet paints a picture that tells a story about you tomorrow.” This is a great quote I keep coming back to because it helps highlight the relation between contemporary action and future ramifications. While it can be argued that all online actions can be tracked back to their source, Facebook and Google make this simple. If I used Facebook rather than livejournal when I expressed my love for the world of Sailor Moon, I’d have that associated with my real name forever. Now imagine how much more concerning this situation is when we start discussing mental health support groups or discussions about illegal actions.
Eric Schmidt once suggested teenagers change their names when they turn eighteen to distance themselves from their youthful hijinks. Realistically, though, a name change is not enough to bury your online activities from anyone if you used your real name to begin with.
And this is where we stand. No closer to seeing the mass adoption of a federated social media system that grants users complete control over who holds their data, “just as you now choose your e-mail provider, and yet still connect with friends who use other services.” (Ariel Bleicher, “The Making of Diaspora”)
Also, Google+ does not (yet?) use nested comments. So that’s an automatic minus fifty points from Googfyndor!
Google+ is better than Facebook for various reasons, mostly to do with user privacy. Facebook is still better in practice because Google+ doesn’t have the large user adoption – yet.
But I still don’t like the shared, basic premise of either system. I’ll definitely play around with Google+ for a while longer, and keep submitting feedback every five minutes when I have an idea for improvement (sorry, extremely busy Google developers – it’s just that you’ve got a button right there and it tempts me so!), but I’m going to continue using email to have conversations and organise social engagements because it’s easier, safer, and (among the people I associate with) email raises fewer problems of accessibility.
Until I can use a service to communicate with everyone without requiring them to join a new, commercial service that may not be around forever, it is a broken social networking system.
* I’m only kidding**.
** . . . Or am I? Perhaps that is the point!