December 26, 2007

Google Reader Blinks, and the Mob Wins

As Google's features become more widely adopted, the company will have to transition from developing products an engineer would love to developing products that more mainstream, less geeky users can understand right away.

At times, it seems the company's high and mighty approach to software development can leave many guessing to their intentions, and the motto of "Don't Be Evil" just doesn't cut it any more.

As noted earlier today in my post "Forget About Privacy. Embrace Openness.", the blogosphere seemed up in arms over a recent innovation by the company's Google Reader team to tie in your "friends" list within GMail and GTalk with your shared items in Google Reader. While on its face, this innovation would more easily bring those things you find interesting to your friends, it instead raised holy Hell with those who never considered just who could gain access to a list of items they had made public. It had people screaming about privacy, saying Google had ruined Christmas, and had others demanding to know why someone they had a casual conversation with was somehow called their "friend".

While I believe the revolt was seriously overblown, and that those decrying the sharing need to wake up to the transparency of the Web, it looks like Google had enough bad press for one holiday, and cried Uncle. Tonight, the Google Reader team offered a new blog post, lightly titled "Managing your shared items", that enables you to make some of your "shared" items private. As they write, "Thanks to all our users for helping to make Google Reader better, so please keep your feedback coming!"

"Thanks for all the feedback" in Geek world is a euphemism for "Stop complaining and pointing out our problems!", slightly mixed with the angel dust of PR. And Google isn't a huge fan of bad PR, so they got this one fixed right away. For now... until their next innovation gets voted out by the TechMeme mob and non-expert netizens.


  1. Know the fable about frogs in the swamp watching bulls fight? Matters to them naught who wins ... the battle itself threatens them.

    Which isn't my comment: my comment is that google is as refractory to real innovation as is, say, NSA. Which is a stretch, because I really don't grok google's mandate. ... "computing is for insight.

  2. No, no, no. You need to wake up to the reality of people's anger about the loss of privacy, and more to the point, the sheer aggressive arrogant intrusiveness of geeks making widgets and platforms for social media.

    You don't keep hectoring people about "the openness of the web" and how "information wants to be free" because they cut your service in a heartbeat when you violate their sense of space. Instead, you need to respect this more.

    People's reactions aren't overblown; the egos of the social media makers are. They need to listen to customers, because they bite back hard.

    Prokofy Neva

  3. Prokofy, I don't mind being wrong, but in this case, you had users taking news published publicly elsewhere, stored in a public feed, and at a public URL. That they expected this combination to in fact, be private, was broken.

    There will be violations of privacy in the future, for sure. But I don't think this was a big one. It's more an instance of Google botching the message, when the medium itself was safe.

  4. In the old school, thanking for feedback was indeed disingenuous. But in the new world of social media, companies rely on it. Business models are built around it. And Google has become much more engaged with their various constituencies in the last year, and seems to put a priority on responding to feedback.

  5. "Prokofy, I don't mind being wrong, but in this case, you had users taking news published publicly elsewhere, stored in a public feed, and at a public URL. That they expected this combination to in fact, be private, was broken."

    The public URLs have zero discoverability until you pass them to another user and this was always made clear. This same sort of simple obfuscation is used effectively for most private or narrowly shared material on Facebook, Flickr, Picasa and elsewhere. Are you suggesting that obfuscation as practice for managing content distribution is "broken"? That argument seems overblown.

    Google's real mistake here was conjuring "friends" out of a separate application and providing no direct means to control who you broadcast to. Why should I be appearing on the sidebar of my ex? Why am I sharing posts with the guy in HR?

    The people I want to share my reading interests with are most definitely a subset of those I communicate with using gmail.