Monday, February 15, 2010

Just a Reminder

We all need a reminder sometimes...

Friday, February 12, 2010

Google Buzz Rethink

In my previous post, I tried to give a run down on how use Google Buzz (Gbuzz) in a manner that would allow you to share things with an intimate group of people without exposing yourself to the world. However, after thinking about it for a while, it is apparent to me I was attempting to use Gbuzz in a manner contrary to its intention.

I wanted Gbuzz to be a private area where sharing and communicating as a group was easier than it is with email, but still allow each participant as much anonymity as they wanted. And certainly, I wasn't interested in broadcasting things to the world with Gbuzz. And yes, sometimes just exposing people's names is too much information especially when I'm put into a position of having to decide for other people whether their names are exposed.

However, private use really isn't the intended use of Gbuzz. Gbuzz is really about public communication. I can speculate about (and even appreciate) the reasons why Google would embed Gbuzz in the middle of their private communication Gmail app, but the bottom line is I think it was a poor choice, and I definitely feel the roll out was mismanaged with unclear configuration options and poor documentation. (To Google's credit, they are responding quickly to many of these things.)

The bottom line is that I will leave my Gbuzz account enabled as I feel I finally have a handle on privacy issues and privacy controls, but I will only use it for public postings. I'll only use it for things I'm comfortable having in public.

This will actually limit its usefulness to me. I really have no need for another public platform. What I really wanted was that more private area that I can't seem to find in the google world outside of Gmail. I suppose there are other social applications (like Facebook maybe?) that might fit the bill, but I really don't feel like joining yet another social web site.

Anyway, I'll keep an eye on Gbuzz, and who knows, maybe it will demonstrate its usefulness as a public platform? But for now, I'll just follow Gbuzz developments with interest and maybe play around with the API.

Also, for further thoughts on other services related to Gbuzz that I didn't even touch on, see this piece. And here's a link to the Gbuzz privacy FAQ again. If you want to completely disable Gbuzz, I would pay particular attention to question 15:
Q15: How do I get rid of Buzz?
A15: Follow these steps:
1) Delete your profile by going to, clicking Edit Profile, and then Delete Profile (at the bottom). This will delete all of your Buzz posts.
2) Block all of your followers (See Q10)
3) Turn off Buzz in Gmail by clicking on "turn off buzz" at the bottom

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Some Gripes About Google Buzz

This post is mostly about issues of privacy surrounding Gbuzz.  If you don't care about the private use of Gbuzz and want to use Gbuzz to share everything with everybody on the internet, you don't need to bother reading this post.  However, if you'd like to give Gbuzz a try to share with an intimate group of family and friends without exposing yourself to the rest of the world, then you may find this post useful.

You may have heard that Google rolled out a new product that they embedded into their Gmail application. It's called Buzz, but I'm going to call it Gbuzz for the purposes of this post. Gbuzz is a new "social application" that google is trying to leverage Gmail to launch, and I think they botched this roll out for a couple of reasons. (If you don't currently have Gbuzz enabled on your Gmail account, you soon will.)

I understand Gbuzz is web software, so it will likely see many changes perhaps even quickly. So the information in here (and my gripes) could be addressed very quickly. But we'll see.

Before I go any further, my comments below are premised on how I treat gmail. For me, gmail is a place when I have private conversations. It's a place where I can assume that the people I communicate with don't necessarily know any of the other people I communicate with (at least if I'm careful with email To: and CC: lists), and ordinarily my address book is not exposed to the people I email let alone the whole world.

These are qualities also shared by standard email services, and I assume I'm not alone in how I regard Gmail. I consider these desirable features not just for myself, but also for the people with whom I communicate. And I think it is an underlying assumption of email communication and a generally understood etiquette (which is why long email To: lists are generally considered a no-no when they contain a bunch of people who don't otherwise know each other).

This leads me to my first gripe about Gbuzz. When you first sign into your Gmail account after Gbuzz has been enabled for your account, Google requires that you create a public Google profile. Google profiles are something that Google rolled out a while ago that is associated with your google account.  They are intended as a place where people with Google accounts could provide discoverable information about themselves.

Generally Google profiles have been something that could be ignored while using Google services, but it appears Google is being more aggressive with attempting to expand how many users create (and potentially fill out) their public profiles.  I assume this is in an attempt to convert Gmail users into instant Gbuzz users and thus creating a very large, public social network in one fell swoop.  Perhaps there is a technical reason for requiring public profiles to use Gbuzz, but I can't imagine what that would be nor that these technical reasons couldn't have been surmounted if Google didn't want to require public profiles to use Gbuzz.

Now I admit that your public profile does not need to contain much in the way of identifiable information, but if you are like most people, and use your real name when emailing, and enabling Gbuzz is the first time you've created a public Google profile, then it will at least declare your name. That's not such a big deal right?

(By the way, this is a link to my public Google profile.)

By itself that wouldn't reveal too much except to let people know that you have a Google account of some kind (and even that you might want to keep to yourself depending where you work), but the next step Google has you take is to decide whether you will share your list of following/followers to other Google account holders. Here's what my screen looked like at this point:

This is where I get a little upset because Gbuzz takes your initial set of following as many of the people in your list of Gmail contacts without really explaining the ramifications. If you accept this default option, your profile will now expose a list of names from your contact book in the following list!

Granted these don't necessarily expose email addresses and other personal information.  Just their names and public profiles, but even the relationships alone can be revealing for people. Not just your relationship to them, but also their relationship to you. You are making decisions on the behalf of others and the others don't get a say in the matter. I think making this the default behavior is a poor choice. Google should not be treating your Gmail contacts like something that can be easily turned into a social application's buddy list.  They aren't the same in the least. Your Gmail contacts were generated over months or years under a wholly different set of assumptions than your typical social application buddy list.

You can turn this feature off, but at the moment it seems you only get one chance to do so when you are signing in to Gbuzz the first time. (update: I found a way.  See end of post.) On a test account I have, I turned it on, but I couldn't find a way to turn it off after that. The same was true for the other way around. A setting for this may be coming shortly, but I don't think it will be fast enough for some of us. My recommendation here is to turn off sharing of your followers and following lists.  Your screen should look like this:

My second concern in that in the attempt to leverage Gmail to launch this social network app, Google has conflated the private and the public domains in a potentially dangerous manner without properly warning users. After you've enabled your Gbuzz account, you can now make posts directly within Gbuzz. By default, these posts are public. Meaning they are available to all your followers (which can be pretty much anyone [see below]) as well as on your public profile (again, see my public profile for an example of what that looks like).

However, you can enable a private posting which allows you to select which people are able to see your post. This is done by grouping your followers into new groups that are managed like contacts.  I haven't bothered to appropriately manage my groups yet, so my friends and family lists aren't filled in, but you get the idea.

The good news is once you set this privacy post option, Gbuzz seems to default to it. The bad news is that Gbuzz defaults to public and the user has to take the second step of establishing a private post. I don't think Google has taken sufficient steps to warn people that what they post to Gbuzz can be exposed to more people than they realize if they chose the default public posting.

My final gripe is that while Gbuzz has a way to block followers after they are following you. There doesn't appear to be a way to require potential followers to ask permission before following. So somebody undesirable could follow you for a while without you knowing about it. Now, if you're careful about using private posting, then you can mitigate this issue (see below).

Again, all these things that I consider issues have mostly to do with how I expect Gmail to operate: as a private communication domain.  Maybe other people don't feel this way, but I'm touchy not just about my privacy but also the privacy of others.  It's fine to share things, but people shouldn't be ambushed into sharing things publically either by intent or by poorly designed software.

I feel the roll out for Gbuzz has been poorly done. Too little information is provided to new users (I found out everything I did by trial and error with one public account and multiple test accounts I keep around), and the default for Gbuzz settings should've been highly restricted privacy. Then users would hopefully be made more appropriately aware that Gbuzz is not Gmail and that steps need to be taken to keep information and posts as private as they are comfortable with. Users should have been forced to choose to go public, not to have to stumble into realizing their posts and contacts aren't private by default. By placing Gbuzz in a convenient tab in people's Gmail window, Google has conflated the private realm of Gmail with a potentially much more public realm of Gbuzz. This will likely have undesirable consequences for users.

Here's my suggestion to people interested in using Gbuzz for private sharing with close friends and family, and not interested in exposing everything to the whole world unintentionally.

  1. When signing into Gbuzz for the first time, disable sharing of your following/followers.  Maybe in the future there will be more control, but for now, I feel this is the best way to go if you have a respect for you privacy as well as those of your friends and family.  If you're sharing Gbuzz with an intimate group of people, making your list of following/followers public doesn't add value to the experience.  You all know each other already.
  2. When making your first post on Gbuzz, select a Private post, and create a group that contains the people you most often would like to share with.  This will make this private posting group the default (but keep an eye on it to be sure).
  3. Now if you always use this private group for your postings, you don't have to worry about accidentally leaking information outside that group of contacts, and your posts won't show up on your public profile.  Even if you get new (undesirable or unknown) followers, you will not reveal anything to them without you adding them to your private group.  This creates a de facto permission to follow feature (which is perhaps what Google intended, but they should've made it clear).

If you follow those three steps, I think you will find that your Gbuzz stream is about as private as your Gmail account (assuming you trust the people in your private posting group).

Finally, despite my gripes, I do think Gbuzz has some potentially nice features for staying in touch with friends and family, especially if you already use Gmail.  I intend to give it a try.  I hope you do too.

  1. Gbuzz docs
  2. Gbuzz privacy FAQ 
  3. You can change the setting for publicizing your followers/following list here