The sheer stupidity of technology’s early adopters never ceases to amaze me. Facebook continues to be slammed for its dodgy privacy practices. But Google launches Google+, essentially the same thing, and the shiny-chasers are clamouring to pour in their most intimate information.
“This is basically a giant data mining operation,” freelance journalist and blogger Neerav Bhatt told today’s Patch Monday podcast. “People voluntarily link themselves in and feed even more data into Google than they did before.”
No secret there. That’s the business model for the entire web these days. You pay for services with your personal information, which in turn enables advertisers to target you more accurately.
Social networking services (SNS) are the ultimate expression of this imbalanced exchange. Who you communicate with, when and how, reveals far more than you may realise. Research on Facebook, for example, has shown that you can predict when people will develop a romantic relationship before they know it themselves. Gays can be outed by algorithm. Semantic analysis of the words you use reveals your mood.
Yet you can’t make meaningful use of an SNS without revealing this personal data. It’s kind of the point. Just as you can’t make use of accounting software without first revealing how you spend your money, you can’t use the SNS until you reveal and categorise your family, friends and acquaintances — your social graph, it’s called.
Google seems to have addressed the first problem. The Circles feature in Google+ allows you to categorise your contacts into circles of friends — family, workmates, your hockey team, payday drinking buddies — and you post information only to specific circles. Things are private by default. Mostly.
When I started writing this article, I’d intended to have a go at people who were foolish enough to reveal which of their contacts were “prayer group” and which “rough trade” — and which were both — without reading and understanding the rules. But I think they can be forgiven. In Google’s privacy centre you’ll find 37 written policies. And of course any of those policies can be changed upon Google’s whim. After they’ve got your data.
Talk to any privacy analyst and they’ll tell you that “informed consent” is the key. By all means let people exchange privacy for services, as long as they understand the trade-off. But how can anyone possibly comprehend 37 policies?
Confession time. Despite writing about Google+ last week, despite talking about it on the radio not once but twice, and despite today’s podcast, I haven’t added any data to Google+ and I won’t be any time soon — even though 50 people have already added me to their Circles, categorisation unknown.
I’m no Luddite. But I flushed Facebook from my life more than a year ago because it simply wasn’t clear what they were up to. Google+ is really just Facebook with a Google logo. Any perceived difference — Zuckerberg bad, Brin and Page good — is just surface perception and spin.