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.

The Google user who wrote this piece may or may not be a Brony, but in any case, he'd like to keep it to himself.
The Google user who wrote this piece may or may not be a Brony, but in any case, he'd like to keep it to himself.

Courtesy of Mooshuu/Flickr

Once upon a time, there were two sisters, Googalina and Facebookella. Googalina, the elder, was precocious beyond measure and famed for her breadth of knowledge and savvy business acumen, which brought great wealth to her family. Her counsel was widely sought, her skills in endless demand, and she gained the confidences of many. Facebookella lacked the sheer brainpower of her elder sister, but had been gifted instead with unending charm and social prowess. Facebookella became the grand dame of countless salons, bringing people together while discreetly learning their secrets.

David Auerbach David Auerbach

David Auerbach is a writer and software engineer based in New York. His website is http://davidauerba.ch.

And so the two sisters complemented each other, yet each became increasingly jealous of the other. While Facebookella made haphazard attempts to increase her mental prowess, Googalina clumsily attempted to coerce her acquaintances into sharing more of themselves; when they demurred, Googalina began to make more of her private dealings public, in an attempt to create an aura of social success. Googalina’s friends were repelled by such transparent opportunism and felt betrayed and manipulated. Why, they asked, was she betraying the principle she had always espoused: “Don’t be obnoxious”?

If only this sad tale were just fantasy. When Google Plus launched in June 2011, some observers touted it as a “Facebook killer,” but it’s been anything but: Nielsen reported that in March 2013 the average Google Plus user spent just seven minutes on the site for the whole month, compared to over six hours for a Facebook user. As a result, Google has upped the stakes by “socializing” its existing user accounts, turning Gmail and YouTube users into Google Plus users whether they like it or not. The latest move has been to permit any Google Plus user to email any other Google Plus user—meaning anyone with a Gmail account—by searching by name, not by email address. That’s the case even if you’ve never touched Google Plus, unless you explicitly opt out of the feature. (Disclosure: I used to work at Google as a software engineer, and my wife still does.)

All of these heavy-handed moves are designed to drag private Google activities into the public sphere. I can only conclude that Google has been simply tone-deaf to the intuitive sentiments of most Americans, leading to an increasing amount of aggravated users and press. Exposing Gmail accounts is all the talk now, but there was a great uproar a few months ago when Google began to “encourage”—in the Godfather sense—YouTube users to swap their anonymous usernames for their real names.

Let’s say I have a YouTube account named “BronyKing” linked to my regular “David Auerbach” Google account. A YouTube message would now pop up encouraging me to click a button that will sign all my comments on My Little Pony videos not with “BronyKing” but with “David Auerbach.”

Denying this request generates this message: “OK, we’ll ask you again later.”

Screenshot via YouTube.

Screenshot via YouTube

And BronyKing will see this overbearing message again and again, because BronyKing will use his real name on YouTube when hell freezes over. But not all possess BronyKing’s stalwart pony heart. YouTube user MarryMeStuhlbarg finally caved after being nagged to use her real name every time she loaded up a Boardwalk Empire scene with Michael Stuhlbarg. [Editor’s note: This really happened.]

This incessant nagging is a spiritual violation of the “opt-in” model. (Here are some Redditors going ballistic over it.) Plenty of Google employees are themselves frustrated by such antics. I know this not because I used to work for Google, but because it is impossible to be a human being and not be annoyed by this sort of harassment. Like Carrot Top, sauerkraut juice, and “My Humps,” pushy UX—user experience design—is something so noxious that only an inhuman automaton would not be provoked by it.

So, Google really wants your account to have your real name, be linked across its sites, and be accessible through searches on your real name. Google Plus is an identity service, one where all your activities are linked to a verifiable real-life identity and published as such. Having linked your real-life identity to your content, Google can do things like use your YouTube reviews next to your name and face in advertising endorsements, another recent move that was met with similar backlash. It is all too similar to Facebook’s ongoing strategy of trying to monetize your content—beginning with Facebook Beacon back in 2007, which tracked your online purchases and promoted them to your friends, without your permission. Beacon was shut down for being too blatantly invasive, but Facebook has since achieved most of Beacon’s functionality via more subtle mechanisms, and Google now wants a piece of that action too.

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.

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.