Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Google says: 'don't be evil,' World responds: 'don't be naive'

A week after Google released it's social networking feature, the public has gone from hype, to hysteria, to full-blown panic attack.

Google's social networking feature 'buzz' made a heck of a debut by merging social networking features into it's G-mail application. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, where users can choose who they follow or have following their 'updates,' Googlers found (some to a shocking dismay) upon clicking the shiny new 'buzz' tab, that they were already following the people they contacted most frequently, and these lists were PUBLIC for all the G-world to see. This list of new contacts could have included prospective job recruiters for competing companies, a cheating spouse's lover, or perhaps a mailto address for erectile dysfunction.

With the outcry from the public, (and now a formal investigation into certain privacy laws) Google has been scrambling to fix the default settings that buzz imposed upon its G-mail users, by allowing clear opportunities for Google users to update, edit, or if you wish delete with a kill-switch any public profile attached to you and your account. Google it seems, has lost the faith, and some respect from everyone: the average user and the tech nerd now asks themselves: what will they do with my data next??

It is no surprise to me, that a product like this was conceived from the company who's mantra is 'don't be evil.' To Google, a company invested in ideals such as openness, and transparency, a product like buzz could have been nothing but positive and productive. It embraces the notion that people can and will find a way to slide in Facebook time, and can still be productive at work. It attempts to bring the world of social networking into our daily work-flow, allowing us to pop in and out of conversations without missing a beat, or an email. Googlers (I among them) would simply defend, that online or not, you shouldn't have or do things you expect to hide from others, period. Perhaps maybe one shouldn't be courting other jobs in secrecy, or other spouses for that matter...

But, the question still remains: what will they do with us? Google has been a leader in innovating the way we interact, communicate and retrieve data. Even now, with all the criticism Google has taken for buzz, Microsoft is positioning itself to counteract the big G by integrating Facebook and Myspace into Microsoft Outlook, its own email client. Jessica Mintz from the Associated press reported wed. that "Microsoft is releasing a "beta" test version of the Outlook Social Connector. The add-onsoftware, which was first discussed last November, adds a new pane to the main e-mail reading screen on Outlook." Sound familiar? Google continues to lead the industry into uncharted territory, and the bigger issues become those of privacy, and the disconnect that no longer exists between our real and online selves. The disconnect that some of us want there.

In speaking with my friends (those that were worried, weirded out, or pissed) the conversation became less about what Google was doing with buzz specifically, and more about what we are becoming, and if we should trust a company like Google to take us there.

A concept like buzz, is the culmination of baby steps we have taken to align the online world with the real one. When we started this Internet thing, Avatars had a purpose, not just to represent us, but to misrepresent us as well. To allow us to participate in an anonymous community. Online social networking destroys the latter part of the avatar's purpose and replaces it with the profile pic: and forces us to show the net what kind of douche-bag we really are. By allowing others to 'tag' us in pictures, post about us in blogs, and read about our trivial musings can show anyone right off the bat what kind of person is behind that pic. Like in the real world, posturing and posing can be seen spotted outright, and yet the genuine traits of a person can be extracted as well. Buzz, and a host of other next-gen networking apps take us to the next level, where we now share where we are, what we are doing, who we are talking to, and when this all goes down. So how do we behave now that we have all this, and who do we trust with this information? The world? our peers? just our families? The good folks over at make a great point and have put together a convenient list of people who have just left home so they can be promptly burgled.

Does a company who's mantra is 'don't be evil' ever think that maybe the magical products and services that they create could easily be transformed into digital weapons? I'm not saying I agree with my friends, I still have my profile up and running. I want to believe that Google can fix this. That they will deal with this fiasco in a way that makes me forget just how vulnerable I've become. To reinstate my core beliefs in transparency and offer insights to us on how we might manage this new frontier. For now, I guess, I'll be OK blogging about it... with my mouse cursor over the buzz kill-switch.

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