Google to Gmail and YouTube Users: You’re on Facebook Now!

Decoding the tech world.
Jan. 13 2014 11:17 AM

Google Is Trying Harder Than Ever to Be Facebook

And as a result, its users feel betrayed and manipulated.

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Google Plus shot itself in the foot not long after launching with its “real names” policy, aggressively shutting down accounts that even appeared to have fake names—including William Shatner’s, I kid you not. (The controversy was dubbed “Nymwars.”) The issue did not make a huge media splash, but it alienated the exact highly connected, early-adopter community that Google needed to entice for Google Plus to make inroads against Facebook. I remember thinking that the initial rollout of Google Plus was a significant improvement on Facebook—with better privacy, friend management, search, and commenting—and saying as much to my friends, only to backpedal months later when it became clear that Google Plus was burning its bridges with the technorati. Maybe Google figured it didn’t need them because it could just make all Gmail and YouTube users into Google Plus users and create an instant social network. We are now seeing the problems with that strategy.

Google faces a real problem in trying to “socialize” its properties that Facebook doesn’t. In the case of Gmail, Google Drive, and Picasa, user data is fundamentally private in a way that it isn’t on Facebook. People know not to post anything too secret on Facebook or Twitter, even just to a friends list, because Facebook has become a person’s public or semi-public face on the Internet. Gmail is home to your private life, and every time Google announces that your private life is now going to have a public face, people feel annoyed and violated.

There has been, until now, a general acceptance of the automated process of Gmail scanning your messages and generating advertising based on them. But if your private Gmail activity increasingly overlaps with your public Google Plus activity—to the point of creating Google Plus activity where you previously hadn’t had any—suddenly that automated process looks a lot more invasive.

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In the case of YouTube, users are public already, but they are also anonymous, or more precisely, pseudonymous. Unlike on Twitter and Facebook, YouTubers frequently separate their online selves from their real-life selves. (For a dissection of the dynamics, see my e-book collaboration Here Comes Nobody on pseudonymity and anonymity on the Internet.) So when YouTube accounts were merged with Google Plus accounts and the hammer of “real names” started to come down, YouTube users erupted with petitions demanding that they be able to keep the pseudonymity they’d had for years. As YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim posted, “why the fuck do I need a google+ account to comment on a video?”

So Google has nonanonymous private users (on Gmail) and pseudonymous public users (on YouTube), and it wants both sets to become nonanonymous public users. That is a heavy ask. There are some serious difficulties with Internet anonymity, including abuse and spam. But Google is also bulldozing through very valid concerns with all the subtlety of Chris Christie, leading to incidents such as a trans woman accidentally outing herself when Android confusingly merged SMS text messaging with Google Plus Hangouts.

Google has one cynical defense available to it, which is that everyone (i.e., Facebook) is doing it. And it’s right. Facebook has an even worse record of exploitation, having pulled similar nonsense and worse in the process of commodifying its users—not just with Beacon but also with its repeated softening of its privacy policy. I doubt this race-to-the-bottom mentality will gain Google much sympathy. But Google executives probably think it’s a little unfair that they’re getting flak just trying to lower themselves to Facebook’s level, even while they’ve had better transparency all along. Ah, the costs of idealism. Sorry, Googalina, but life is not fair.

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