Yahoo may still have hundreds of millions of users, but it’s no longer at the forefront of web innovation. The company recently announced a number of product tweaks to modernize and standardize its products, including stalwarts like Yahoo Groups. Turns out, many of Yahoo Groups’ users like things the old way. And further, the redesign seems to have exposed user email addresses for groups that were designed to be private. Amidst vocal complaints, Yahoo rolled back the redesign entirely last week, and promised to tread much more carefully as it explores any further changes.
In announcing the concession to user demands, Yahoo VP Communities Jim Stoneham acknowledged that the redesign — which included simplified posting, conversation threading and social networking features like avatars — had been made under the assumption of serving “smaller, private groups,” despite the fact that many people still use the product as an email listserv for large, anonymized groups.
The new design had rolled out to “a small percentage of our 115 million users worldwide” on Aug. 31, according to a spokesperson, and the backlash was immediate: starting Sept. 1, Yahoo employees posted a series of blog posts responding to user complaints until Sept. 29, when the redesign was removed entirely.
Many of the complaints were about removed features that users had come to depend on, for instance the ability to reply only to the sender of a message rather than the full group. However, the most serious complaint was about changes to the way Yahoo Groups treated personal contact information. Moderators and members of groups for HIV/AIDS patients, people with disabilities, and celebrities said they were stunned to see previously private profile information and email addresses exposed. After Yahoo insisted no privacy settings had been changed, user “Marilyn” replied:
On the website for the group, email addresses ARE showing. They do not show for the current sender of the message, those are truncated … BUT… if they had replied to a previous message and have it included in the reply, then that sender’s email address IS showing in full.
A Yahoo spokesperson told me last week that Yahoo Groups had “not seen any large number of Groups members leave” due to the redesign. This was before the changes were rolled back, after which the spokesperson did not reply to follow-up questions. Regarding breaches of user privacy, he said:
Respecting users’ privacy is fundamental to Yahoo! We have made some changes to the experience, such as up-leveling existing membership features that were buried down in lists. This allows people to see who the other members are in the group and who can see the contributions they make to the Groups site.
Yahoo Groups user Brenda Fowler, who organized resistance to the redesign among group owners, told me she knew of 97 groups with 47,380 members that had been deleted because of the redesign. Fowler, who lives in St. Louis County, Mo. and is a “former data-entry person” and a church pianist, runs a Yahoo Group about coping with her parents’ aging.
If there’s one thing we know about web services, it’s that users gripe about redesigns. But the privacy complaints, if I’m understanding them correctly, are a serious breach. There’s also a big-picture story here. While tech critics say giants like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft need to “get social” (and compete with Facebook), there’s real value to offering web services that are not social networks. In this case, anonymity provides a way to openly discuss sensitive topics.
As a member of a group for people with disabilities writes, “The group is not for social purposes. We don’t know anything about each other and don’t want to know anything. We provide advice for very serious problems, not daily nonsense about nothing.”
Here are some of the specific user privacy complaints:
From an AIDS/HIV group:
I’m really sorry to see these changes take place to the list groups that we the owners have worked so hard to make a home for our members. My groups will be deleted since I have nowhere else to move them that I feel can be trusted. My members names and emails must be protected due to them being HIV/AIDS patients.
I have a few groups that total almost 36,000 members and we hate to delete them but [Yahoo Groups community manager] Layla gives us no choice. From her attitude toward the group owners, she is Boss and we can take her changes or leave them, so we will leave them.
From a group for celebrities:
One of the email list we run has many celebrities as members. Our membership list is not publicly accessible or viewable. Members do not post their email addresses.
Overnight we have lost over 100+ members as they scrambled to remove themselves from our list. Thanks Yahoo! A really good job!. I don’t think!
To reiterate we are an EMAIL LIST NOT A SOCIAL NETWORKING GROUP.
If we wanted a social networking group we’d be on [F]acebook, etc!
A group for people with disabilities:
“Respecting users privacy is fundamental to Yahoo! Privacy settings are unchanged in this latest release.”
How is it then that messages are now visible in a group that has archives open only to moderators, and members showing in a group that gives that access only to moderators? This violation of our group’s settings means the group simply cannot operate, after ten years of important help to disabled people. I have opened [Google Groups] as a possible refuge, but [Google Groups] is not nearly the wonderful system that [Yahoo Groups] was until now. …
Knowing who other members are matters only in small social groups, not in a group with 25,000 members! Nor in a group like mine, with several thousand group members for whom maintaining anonymity is essential in order to discuss issues with at least moderate confidence of being in a safe place. Knowing who the members are is of zero importance. Getting the information they need for their situations is vital, however, and now far more difficult…. or actually impossible if group settings are not honored.
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