Google Plus

by Henry on July 5, 2011

I’m at the beach and kid-wrangling, so not in any position to write long blog-posts. But I am intrigued by this James Fallows post suggesting that Google Plus is reasonably non-privacy invasive (for values of non-privacy invasive that include all your search data etc are belong to us).

One of the immediate appeals is how quick, ergonomically easy, and aesthetically nice it is to set up “circles” that match the natural patterns of your real life. One for immediate family, one for “friends you actually know,” another for “professional acquaintances who are sort of friends,” etc. Or by interest. In my case: airplane people, beer people, China people, tech people, Atlantic people, NPR people, etc. …. The other immediate appeal is that the privacy bias seems set in your favor, rather than constantly playing hide-the-ball with you, as Facebook does. The reason I hate and mistrust Facebook is its constant record of changing the privacy terms, not saying it’s done so until it’s caught, and always setting the default in the least private and most advertiser-exploitable way.

This suggests that Google Plus doesn’t have the deficiencies that drove me away from Facebook (which is not to say that it doesn’t have others). I’d be interested to hear from those who are better connected than I am, and have Google Plus accounts, whether this is true, how they find the experience, etc etc.

{ 43 comments }

1

Greg 07.05.11 at 4:22 pm

Certainly it seems that google+ at first blush is more concerned with privacy than fb; the ability to assign people to different circles and sharing of information by limiting of circles is for the most part fairly easy and seamless. However, my concern for google+ is one that’s been mentioned elsewhere on the web, that is the fact that google has to come from so much further behind to catch up and the very limited way with which google is increasing users may mean that much of the buzz that was generated when plus came out will largely be gone by the time they allow more users in (rendering it moot).

I’ll send you an invite once they allow more beta users.

2

Rupert Neil Bumfrey 07.05.11 at 4:49 pm

It is okay, nothing earth shattering, just another method of communication.

3

R.Mutt 07.05.11 at 5:01 pm

… the very limited way with which google is increasing users may mean that much of the buzz that was generated when plus came out will largely be gone by the time they allow more users in…

Didn’t they launch Gmail the same way?

4

Greg 07.05.11 at 5:07 pm

@r.mutt – good point but gmail was significantly better than the entrenched competitors (like hotmail or y! and they’re certainly still around though I’m not sure what % of market gmail v. others), from all articles and papers we encounter we know that people care about privacy but not always at the sake of convenience. G+, beyond privacy at this point, is not better than FB so for those on FB who don’t care about privacy or view it as a secondary issue will see little to no benefit in joining G+ and this will blunt the growth of G+. Also, this is not the first time google has tried to take on FB (orkut, wave, buzz, and to a slight degree social connect).

5

R.Mutt 07.05.11 at 5:18 pm

G+, beyond privacy at this point, is not better than FB

Well, I’m not much of a facebook fan so maybe I’m not using it right, but when I check it out occasionaly I always find it somewhat annoying how discussions that might be really interesting are hidden between all the stuff written by people I know just well enough not to unfriend them. If the “circles” help me to sort out that problem, it really would be better for me.

Orkut, by the way, is huge in Brazil, Estonia and India.

6

Cranky Observer 07.05.11 at 5:33 pm

1) Google is an advertising company.
2) Google makes its money from selling various forms of advertising and marketing services.
3) Some of those services you can see, such as ads.
4) Some of those services you cannot see, such as data mining and data correlation sold to those who desire to use it.
5) Facebook, Google+, etc are incredibly ingenious methods for inducing citizens to give up enormous amounts of personal information that make data correlation, targeted marketing, price discrimination, and outright privacy invasion very easy.
6) Also, too, national intelligence agencies
7) Actual privacy protection would interfere with the profitable pursuit of 3, 4, and 5, and make the actions of 6 a bit harder.

Conclusion: Left as exercise to reader.

Cranky

7

Aaron 07.05.11 at 5:52 pm

I think there’s an important distinction to be made here between the privacy expected between a service provider and a user and the privacy expected between and among the users themselves. To distinction 1: Look, we know Google is a search company and sells advertising targeted at and derived from our activities. We get that, and anyone who already uses Google’s services should understand that pretty well. Is there risk in trusting Google with this much data? Yes, certainly. But it is mostly knowable and predictable in ways that are completely transparent to us, and so we can assume that risk with at least some knowledge. To distinction 2: My biggest beef with Facebook is that you can never be certain at any moment just who (among your “friends,” their “friends,” other Facebook users, or the general public) can see a particular thing you said/posted or (just as importantly) the fact of your having said/posted something. And this is the problem that Google+ seems well poised to help solve. If you aren’t in the circle I just posted something in, and you aren’t in the circle of someone whose post I just commented on, YOU CAN’T SEE what I posted or what I wrote in that comment. Both of these have burned me on Facebook one too many times, despite my slavish efforts to stuff people into groups and lock down my privacy settings to keep certain kinds of information away from certain others’ eyes. All because the setting I was looking for was on a DIFFERENT page and wasn’t at all obvious.

For all of what are sure to be its current and yet-to-be-discovered faults, Circles AT LEAST makes it pretty intuitive to figure out who can see what you posted or are about to post.

8

Greg 07.05.11 at 5:54 pm

@r.mutt – oh, I didn’t mean to be dismissive of orkut (I’m aware that it’s popular elsewhere in the world, hell, I think friendster still have enclaves elsewhere in the world and there are lots of social networking sites in China which are huge, I was mostly addressing the US market, so, apologies for not making that clearer.)

The “problem” with FB is that it’s really difficult to filter the various sub-networks in our lives. There are people on my FB friends list who disagree vigorously with my political position yet I would still count as good personal friends; as a result, our conversations don’t usually involve politics. As you speculate, the ability to have circles (which are devilishly simple to set up in G+) allows me to better fine tune the people I share things with and as you said, would as a byproduct, germinate interesting discussions.

That said, I think most people just go on FB to check out pictures and read about their friends’ kids. And to those people, plus doesn’t really offer any advantage over the current behemoth.

@cranky observer – you are indeed correct. However, the vast majority of people just aren’t thinking about that. I’m not saying that’s the correct thing, I’m simply saying that when confronted with the choice between privacy and convenience, most people will go the convenient route. Incidentally, if you’re already using gmail, there isn’t much data g+ asks of you beyond what you’ve already given up for gmail. It’s true that once you engage g+, you necessarily allow the service to gain more insight into your life.

9

Chris E 07.05.11 at 6:41 pm

The ‘circles’ in Google+ are nearly exactly what Facebook friend lists are. Though ‘circles’ are more front and centre in Google than friend lists ever were.

The problems with Facebook’s list system are largely replicated in Google. As an example, Share that you’ve changed job to your ‘family’ and ‘co-workers’ circles, and watch your co-workers see every sarky comment your family makes.

The other problem is permission leakage across Google properties. Add people to one of your circles, and they can sometimes suddenly show up in Google Reader and Buzz – with apparently very little rhyme or reason.

10

Ross Smith 07.05.11 at 8:24 pm

The difference between Google+ and Gmail is that Gmail was always part of the existing email infrastructure. As far as the rest of the Internet was concerned, it was just another mail server. Gmail users could always communicate with non-users without any barriers. G+, in contrast, is its own closed network; G+ users can’t communicate (via G+) with non-users, or vice versa. So the strategy used successfully to spread Gmail, growing the user base slowly via invitation at first, won’t work with G+, because a social network (more or less by definition) needs a large critical mass of users before it becomes really useful. Facebook’s biggest advantage here is the sheer number of people already there.

11

Lurker Grad Student 07.05.11 at 9:00 pm

You can already replicate “circles” in facebook by creating private groups. However, as others have said, who knows if facebook will change the privacy settings for these on a whim.

G+ is going to have is that too many people need to be on facebook to keep contact with many of the people I know. I would prefer for my friends to create a private message board or such to keep in contact but unfortunately for me, they only want to be on facebook and it’s pretty much the only way I can keep in contact with them. What’s funny is that many of them are computer programmers who had all kinds of concerns about privacy but were forced to join because their relatives joined. These sorts of social networks are hard to break down once they form.

The only way I see facebook disappearing is if someone hacks the system and there is a massive release of private data to the general public on scale similar to the wikileaks scandal. At that point, privacy concerns will become more important than convenience. I think this is going to occur within the next ten years. Facebook is just too tempting a target for malicious hackers and/or those with some sort of political agenda that is anti-privacy. Only then will some sort of competitor emerge that can be successful.

12

Emma in Sydney 07.05.11 at 11:26 pm

There’s a long and interesting thread at Making Light, titled Shame on you, Google, you might want to look at. Especially if you have kids who currently use gmail. I would link, but the preview tells me it won’t work, although the code is cut and pasted from your posting window. Strange.
http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/013103.html#013103

13

Andrew F. 07.05.11 at 11:33 pm

The great problem with Facebook, for some time now, has been privacy. Sharing information is great. Before social networking sites like Facebook, sharing certain types of information with many people was difficult and time-consuming. Now it’s easy. But controlling that flow of sharing is much more difficult, and, in a world of smartphones and continuous internet access, of enormous importance to many. If Google can differentiate itself as a service that gets privacy right – that enables ease of control as well as ease of sharing – it will turn Facebook into Myspace.

Google+ has two hurdles: critical mass, and really getting privacy right. It has sufficient advantages to overcome both.

On critical mass, it has an enormous base of other services to draw upon, and considerable brand appeal, as evidenced by the rush to try Google+. It can certainly achieve this.

On getting privacy right, it has at least equal technical skill to Facebook, and it has enough revenue from enough diverse sources to focus more on getting privacy right than maximizing short-term returns. I wonder what the pressure is like on Facebook to maximize those returns, given the high prices new investors paid for ownership, and the stream of criticism aimed at Facebook’s management.

14

Antti Nannimus 07.06.11 at 2:46 am

Hi,

Like Cranky says at 6 [assuming the Interwebs don’t change the goddamn number], yes, under all conceivable scenarios, we’re entirely screwed. But you already knew that, didn’t you? Even if Google “does no evil” until this very moment [ha ha], what makes you think your precious private data will be private in the next instant?

Actually, Cranky Observer is probably a digital optimist.

Okay, have a nice day!
Antti

15

John Quiggin 07.06.11 at 3:04 am

Diaspora, which is going very slowly, has the same focus on specific groups of friends. If it ever happens, I plan to switch, mainly because of privacy concerns.

16

Pete 07.06.11 at 4:59 am

The “shame on you, Google” article is a really unfortunate situation, but is condemning Google for actually following a privacy law (albeit in an obtuse way). I suppose like the death of a pet this is one of those life lessons that happens to kids eventually: a bureaucracy or business screwing you over in a way where you have no recourse.

17

Emma in Sydney 07.06.11 at 7:09 am

So you didn’t read the comments, then, Pete. The point being they own your email, and they don’t have to give you access to it. All your email, unless you’ve archived it locally. Just something to be aware of.

18

Adion 07.06.11 at 7:30 am

Isn’t Facebook the quickest commodification of new parts of humans lifes even done?

19

Ray 07.06.11 at 7:57 am

I’m surprised that anyone is surprised (by Gmail owning your mail). The mails are stored on their computers, not my computer, so…

20

Zamfir 07.06.11 at 10:10 am

Ray, my money is stored on a bank’s computer, and no one uses that to argue that I don’t own money. Both bank and google have the technical power to destroy my money and emails, but apparently google also has a legal right, in some particular circumstances. Which is a serious difference.

Of course, banks make parents sign, instead of the kids. But I doubt anyone would think that banks have a right to the money of people who do not meet their terms of service on a technicality. At best, they have right to close the account and return the money.

It really would be somewhat surprising to me if google has the legal right to close the service without “returning” the mails. And I am pretty sure it shouldn’t have that right, even if it has now.

21

Ray 07.06.11 at 10:39 am

Banks and gmail aren’t really analogous.

To even talk about ‘returning the money’ – this was money that you lodged with the bank, their records are of transactions between you and the bank.

Opening a gmail account is more like getting a phone. You are paying for a way to communicate with people. Gmail is like agreeing a contract with your phone company that says “Give me a phone number, and record all of the calls I make using that number so I can review them later”. If you stop paying for the phone number, would you expect to be able to access all the recorded calls?

22

Walter 07.06.11 at 1:10 pm

Google owns our emails, yes…so…? Like Ray said, the banks owns your money! Concerned about this whole privacy thing then I’d suggest closing your bank account, fake your own death and become a wanderer.
Google+ has impressed me a lot so far. It is easy to use, and circles are VERY easy to set up and I control who sees what – with ease.
It took me about 10 minutes to get to grips with Google+ where after years of facebook use I still sometimes wonder who can see the stuff I’m sharing.
As soon as this thing goes public I’m ditching facebook.

23

Eszter 07.06.11 at 8:45 pm

Ross Smith – You seem to be forgetting that Facebook was a closed system at first as well. And Google does have a large critical mass of users through GMail. G+ won’t be closed forever. And once it is, it may be organically integrated with the other Google properties. I’m not sure if the following has changed for non-G+ users, but in my account (I’ve been on Google Plus for about a week), the plus is now easily accessible in GMail as well and any Google page I’m on (including search, which is weird), links to + and GMail, etc. show up on top of the page. I suspect what will happen is that once they’re ready, all GMail users will have access to G+ and may well start using it. More on why a bit later. I’m working on a separate post.

And Henry, fyi, I’ve sent you an invite.

24

Emma in Sydney 07.06.11 at 8:52 pm

Ray, if you fail to pay for your post office box, the post office can stop you from using it. They give you a chance within a certain time limit to pick up your mail, though. They don’t just keep/destroy it. If Google does that, it’s something to know when making a choice about email providers. If you knew it already, good for you. ‘I don’t know why anyone would be surprised’, is only a statement of your own view of your superiority to the rest of us, and not really helpful.

25

Don 07.06.11 at 9:30 pm

I’m not worried about Google (or any company) not letting me read my data from their servers.

I’m worried they won’t let me erase it.

26

ben w 07.06.11 at 11:37 pm

There is this problem with the circles on G+, and one’s personal info in one’s profile: anyone in any circle is on the same level. So if you designate something as viewable by those in your circles, that includes, for instance, those in your “following” circle. But that circle is (one assumes) just made up of people whose updates you want for whatever reason to be able to see, not people you’ll want to be able to see your address—unlike those in your e.g. family circle, for whom such sharing makes much more sense.

This could be remedied if there were a per-circle option, “treat as public”, or something like that.

(The preceding ganked from Nick Coghlan.)

27

Anderson 07.06.11 at 11:50 pm

They give you a chance within a certain time limit to pick up your mail, though. They don’t just keep/destroy it.

Bingo. I have no idea why anyone would defend Google on that point. Close the kid’s account if you must, but what law *compels* them to withhold and destroy the e-mails? Title, section and subsection of the United States Code or Code of Federal Regulations, please.

28

ben w 07.07.11 at 4:43 am

much of the buzz that was generated when plus came out will largely be gone by the time they allow more users in (rendering it moot).

Well, it’s now open to anyone with a google account.

29

idlemind 07.07.11 at 9:08 am

Legally, it appears that Google would have no problem providing email service to children if they obtained parental consent and followed specific privacy and disclosure rules as given in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. It’s just about the only US law protecting privacy on the internet, but you have to be under 13 to benefit. If it transfered the control given ones parents over ones privacy to oneself at adulthood, it would be a model law for data privacy in general. Check out the summary near the bottom of this page.

30

Jon 07.07.11 at 9:22 am

The difference between Google+ and Gmail is that Gmail was always part of the existing email infrastructure. As far as the rest of the Internet was concerned, it was just another mail server. Gmail users could always communicate with non-users without any barriers. G+, in contrast, is its own closed network; G+ users can’t communicate (via G+) with non-users, or vice versa. So the strategy used successfully to spread Gmail, growing the user base slowly via invitation at first, won’t work with G+, because a social network (more or less by definition) needs a large critical mass of users before it becomes really useful. Facebook’s biggest advantage here is the sheer number of people already there.

That’s not entirely accurate, actually. Google made a very smart move in making it easy to share stuff through the service with people who don’t already have an account. You just add their email to one of your circles, and suddenly they receive everything you share with that circle in their email. Of course, they can’t comment on it without having a G+ account themselves. Luckily, there’s a button at the bottom of the email that lets them sign up in about 3 clicks…

I predict the service will grow very rapidly through viral transmission once Google takes the governor off. They already are having to turn the invite tool on in fits and bursts to keep demand from overwhelming the server. And it’s not like Wave and Buzz, where people seemed to have lost interest and moved on by week 2. If anything, G+ is picking up steam.

Whether that will be enough to win against Facebook in the long run is anybody’s guess. But I don’t think Facebook is entirely safe, either. Size alone doesn’t guarantee a win against a company like Google.

31

Ray 07.07.11 at 9:25 am

Close the kid’s account if you must, but what law compels them to withhold and destroy the e-mails?

You can’t say “okay, I don’t want to have an account any more, just send me my email”, any more than you can say “I don’t want to have a phone number any more, but when people try to call me, put them through”. The emails are inseparable from the account. And if they aren’t going to let the kid access the mails, surely it’s better that those mails are destroyed, rather than kept on Google’s servers? (see Don @25)

Any analogy that compares email and physical objects – like items in a post office box – is going to have serious problems.

32

eddie 07.07.11 at 9:41 am

Only about 1 in 50 east germans was on the google plus of the day;

http://eastgermany.info/stasivid.htm

33

Ray 07.07.11 at 2:20 pm

I’m wondering what triggered ‘awaiting moderation’
Too many posts seems unlikely, I don’t think I’ve been insulting, and haven’t brought up I/P.
Checking to see if I work for Google? As if they’d ever tell you…

34

Ray 07.07.11 at 2:21 pm

Oh, I see, it was the ‘at’ symbol. Here we go again then

Close the kid’s account if you must, but what law compels them to withhold and destroy the e-mails?

You can’t say “okay, I don’t want to have an account any more, just send me my email”, any more than you can say “I don’t want to have a phone number any more, but when people try to call me, put them through”. The emails are inseparable from the account. And if they aren’t going to let the kid access the mails, surely it’s better that those mails are destroyed, rather than kept on Google’s servers? (see Don at 25)

Any analogy that compares email and physical objects – like items in a post office box – is going to have serious problems.

35

Ray 07.07.11 at 2:22 pm

No, wasn’t that. Weird…

36

Ray 07.07.11 at 6:44 pm

Now I’m really confused. Anyone care to tell me why my comment didn’t pass moderation? I don’t have a huge emotional investment in the post, so I’m not going to start screaming “censorship”, I’d just like to know the reason…

37

Anderson 07.07.11 at 9:19 pm

The emails are inseparable from the account.

But that’s not true at all. I can save my e-mails onto a disk; that disk is not “my account.” Your telephone analogy is too dissimilar to help here.

38

Kathy 07.07.11 at 11:20 pm

Ben writes:
There is this problem with the circles on G+, and one’s personal info in one’s profile: anyone in any circle is on the same level. So if you designate something as viewable by those in your circles, that includes, for instance, those in your “following” circle.

If you post something (send it to the stream of) ALL of your circles, then, yeah, anyone can read it.

If you do not including your “following” circle on a post, then those folks can’t see it unless they are in a circle where you have shared info. Even so, that person (who is in both circles) can’t share the post outside of the circle.

But that circle is (one assumes) just made up of people whose updates you want for whatever reason to be able to see, not people you’ll want to be able to see your address—unlike those in your e.g. family circle, for whom such sharing makes much more sense.

What circle? You define who goes in what circle, not Google. You don’t even have to use the default circle set (family, friends, acquaintances, following). There is no “default everyone goes into this circle” mechanism. You have to click (or select all) and drag people to put them in a circle.

This could be remedied if there were a per-circle option, “treat as public”, or something like that.

There IS a “public” posting option. It’s not a circle – it’s an option you can chose when you post something new. However, you cannot repost as public (share) a limited post that someone else made.

The basic errors in your post suggest that you haven’t used Google Plus.

Finally – it’s important to note that Google Plus is not reciprocal like Facebook. Just because you put someone in a circle … does not mean that they will see your posts. It means only that you will see theirs. In this, G+ is more like Twitter.

However, you can easily see the stream of all of the folks who have added you that you have not added back … that stream is called “incoming.” Or, you can choose to never look at it.

G+ makes it very easy to “consume” information from the various parts of your life and makes it very easy to “selectively send” information to the various parts of your life. In that, Fallows is 100% spot on.

39

David 07.08.11 at 7:27 am

@Ben W – each entry of your profile is individually privacy controlled. my “friends” circle can see my phone number and address and no one else, my education is viewable by everyone my circles, etc.

40

Harald Korneliussen 07.08.11 at 8:46 am

Google takes data liberation seriously (in fact, I think maybe they invented the name). They want to make it easy for you to pack up your data and leave – unlike Facebook, Flickr, and most similar services. You can also generally get access to the data they keep on you (as opposed to your own data) and tell them to delete it.

The occasional blunder aside, Google makes an effort to ‘don’t be evil’ (not ‘do no evil’ as it’s often misquoted. This means that if you want to risk getting private and personal on the net, Google is a far better bet than its competitors.

41

Ray 07.08.11 at 9:02 am

Anderson, I would respond, but my comments are being stopped, at random for all I can tell…

42

Consumatopia 07.09.11 at 4:59 pm

You can’t say “okay, I don’t want to have an account any more, just send me my email”, any more than you can say “I don’t want to have a phone number any more, but when people try to call me, put them through”.

No, the parallel would be “I don’t want to have a phone number any more, but let me have all the previously recorded calls.”

Actually, no, the parallel would be “You’re taking my phone number away, so let me have all the previously recorded calls.”

Any claim that the ability to access old calls/emails is inseparable from the ability to receive new calls/emails is inarguably wrong.

43

Anand Manikutty 07.11.11 at 9:57 pm

Privacy is always going to be a problem on the Internet (whether it is Facebook, Google+ or whatever) and this is because of one little thing : side effects. The programming language community has been thinking about the problem of what a computer program should and should not do. I am using the term “side effects” somewhat more broadly than the general usage – by side effects, I am referring to anything that a program (or a function call) does that I did not specifically ask it to do.

Generally speaking, a program or a system should have no side effects. It should not do what it was not specifically told to do. And side effects can certainly be benign, but some are really nasty. People are particularly concerned (and justifiably so) when the side effects of a program impact their privacy. An example of a privacy-related side effect is what happens when you open a new tab on Google Chrome – it shows you the list of the “Most Visited” sites. But if a person is browsing at work, he or she may not want their office-mates to know what their “Most Visited” sites are. That side effect alone is enough to make me not want to use Chrome.

While privacy related side effects of programs/software systems can generally be limited, it is not always the case that those who implement the system care about the issue sufficiently to do all they can to limit users’ concerns. It is pretty obvious that a privacy preserving system can be implemented. For instance, people would be shocked if they opened up a new tab while browsing on their bank’s web site and the new tab showed them their most frequently made credit card transactions (Yes, I have not told my wife about that new Audi TT). The software systems of most social networks have side effects. Whereas by creating a profile, users tell Company X to publish some information to a small number of people that they consider “friends”, or at least, “friends on social network X”, the side effect is that the information is published to many more : a far greater number of people than just the people who have been added as “Friends” get access to that information.

The side effect problem is generally speaking prevented by following good software architecture practices, but it is not clear that all that could be done has, in fact, been done in the case of social networks. The fact is that in the case of social networks, it is to the advantage of the social network company to do very little/be very tactical about privacy. What can be done about this? Me, I just wrote my own browser (I call it the DeviLBrowser). It is a simple wrapper around Internet Explorer. It may not have all the bells and whistles of other browsers (it simply offers one choice on the main page. no tab browsing is possible), but that is a deliberate design decision. Allowing the user fewer choices forces the user to focus on what is relevant.

One has the choice to not put one’s information on any of these social networks. But like with jams, the problem with the Internet is that there is too much choice, and people can’t always be expected to always make all the right ones.

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