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Does Google+ solve the privacy problem or make it worse?

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Amid all the coverage of Google’s (s goog) launch of its fast-growing Google+ social network, some — including New York Times (s nyt) technology writer David Pogue, in his recent review of the service — have argued that the new platform improves on Facebook in terms of privacy protections, because it allows you to filter your friends into groups via the “Circles” feature and only share with them. But is this really a big improvement? Not everyone is convinced that it is. And some critics say the way Google has structured its new network could actually make things worse, because the company misunderstands what privacy means in a practical sense.

In his review, Pogue says Google+ shares so many features with the other social network that it looks like “a shameless Facebook duplicate.” But the New York Times writer says there is one big difference between the two that makes Google+ much better, and that is the Circles feature, which he calls “towering” and “brilliant.” Because you can share specific things with specific followers or friends, says Pogue, the service is inherently more private. He adds:

In one fell swoop, Google has solved the layers-of-privacy problem that has dogged Facebook for years… Senators embarrassed by their children’s drunken party photos. Potential employers reading about your crazy nightlife. Girlfriends learning accidentally about their beaus’ proposal plans. All of it goes away with Circles.

There’s just one problem with seeing this as a huge advantage for Google+, however, which is that Facebook has had something similar to Circles for some time. In the beginning, the network had Lists that users could create in order to share specific items with a certain group of friends (Pogue mentions Lists in his piece, but says this feature is “buried, and a lot more effort to use” than Circles). But more recently, Facebook created Groups as a way of making this ability even more obvious, and easier to configure (although some have had privacy issues with it as well).

Social networking fatigue and the paradox of choice

While some users like Pogue seem to love Circles because it is so easy and intuitive — in part because of the cool graphical interface created by former Apple designer Andy Hertzfeld — others have said that the process of filtering hundreds or even thousands of people into groups is time-consuming and somewhat frustrating. This is an example of what psychologist Barry Schwartz has called the “Paradox of Choice” problem, where giving someone too much choice actually makes it less likely they will take advantage of a feature. Some argue Circles could suffer from this as well.

I’ve actually noticed this myself, despite having used Google+ for only a few weeks now: I’m already putting people into the default circles, such as the broad Following group or the default Friends group, because I can’t be bothered to decide where else to put them. In some ways, this is another example of what some call “social networking fatigue” : so many people to sort and photos to tag and status updates to read that it becomes overwhelming. The result is that many people will likely never take advantage of Circles, just as many people have never taken advantage of Facebook lists or groups.

In a recent Quora post, former PayPal (s ebay) and Facebook engineer Yishan Wong argues that the way Google+ is structured actually makes the privacy of the service worse than Facebook in practical terms, and this could be exacerbated for those who don’t make full use of Circles. Wong’s main point is that Google+ makes a lot more of your activity public by default because it is structured as an “asymmetric” network like Twitter — in other words, people can follow you without you having to follow them — rather than a symmetric one like Facebook where following has to be reciprocal.

Privacy of information vs privacy of behavior

The problem, says Wong, arises when someone posts a comment or status update on Google+, which is then available for anyone to comment on — even people who the author of the original comment has never followed or put in a Circle. While Facebook doesn’t allow anyone you don’t follow to comment on your status update, Google+ does. The result, Wong says, is that “strangers consider it perfectly normal to insert themselves into a conversation between you and your friends any time you make a public post,” something users may find uncomfortable and even disturbing (commenters can be blocked, but that takes an extra step):

The core failure here is that Google does not understand privacy in a social context. Google understands privacy in an information-security way, i.e. privacy means maintaining the security and integrity of confidential data. But privacy in a social realm… has less to do with maintaining integrity of information — rather, it strongly revolves around the concepts of circumspection and discretion.

Wong’s view of how Google+ handles this kind of practical, day-to-day privacy (as opposed to the protection of user profile information) may not be shared by everyone, and as a longtime director of engineering at Facebook, he may be biased against Google. Several other users have posted comments on Quora saying they disagree with him about whether the structure of Google+ is a good thing or a bad thing. Some users, they argue, may not mind that strangers can comment on their posts, and in fact may want to get input from people outside their normal Circles.

But will most people fall into this category? That’s not clear. If most people don’t use Circles properly, either because they are suffering from social-networking fatigue or the “paradox of choice,” then will they be turned off by the influx of strangers who can comment on or share their posts? If they do, Google may find itself in the midst of its very own privacy brush fire, just like the giant social network it is trying to compete with.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Josh Hallett

29 Responses to “Does Google+ solve the privacy problem or make it worse?”

  1. Sling Trebuchet

    There isn’t any privacy in Google+
    Google are zapping private profiles.

    Google+ is public performance art. ‘Privacy’ amounts to preventing random members of the audience from heckling.

    As for real privacy:

    I don’t know how many of you gentle readers have ever had a deranged online stalker. If you had, you’d not lightly – if ever again – put real name and background up for the universe to trawl over.
    What would you do? Enter a silent order of nuns/monks and never speak on the Net again?

    I look at the names of posters in this thread. These might or might not be your real names. It does not matter. Your opinions are just as valid no matter what the label is.

  2. Both this article and Wong are mistaken in a few ways. First, Wong’s assertion about strangers being able to comment on the updates of people they don’t know/vice versa…to say that this makes Google+ less secure than Facebook is folly, although I’m not surprised a facebook employee would say it. The article states this is something users “may find uncomfortable and even disturbing.” No, actually, I’d say they’d find it just like Twitter, which having been in G+ since the very early days, I can tell you it has received just as many comparisons to.

    But on a grander scale, the article as a whole misses the mark by thinking that Google+ is like Facebook at all. G+, although a social network on its face, is actually about conquering the world, and it’s doing a pretty darn good job of that. G+ is about bringing everything you do on the web to one place, and that one place is now controlled by Google.

    Fortunately, I’m okay with this because I really like Google. In the earliest days of G+, watching users live edit a Google Doc being created to teach people to use G+, watching the doc shared and spread through people’s streams, watching photos uploaded directly into the cloud via Picasa (now Google Photo), one could see a much bigger picture unfolding. That picture doesn’t need to be like facebook or replace facebook. It’s something entirely different…much much bigger than Facebook.

  3. Ricardo Proença

    The problem with Yishan Won (and the people that share is opinion) is that they are using Google+ with a Facebook mindset instead of a real life social network mindset.
    Several comments already stated this, pointing towards the situation that if you share something in Google+ you must choose to which person or group of persons (circles). That’s how you interact and manage your social network in real life.
    Since you can’t have a middle ground in Facebook, (persons are your friends or aren’t your friends) and people are afraid of a privacy debacle, they don’t reproduce in it your real life social network. Because of this constraint Facebook is used this way:
    a) People only add (or tend to had) their closest friends;
    b) People only share a really small subset of things.
    These things tend to reinforce each other to diminish the value of Facebook’s social graph – Facebook only knows a specific set of your social graph and a specific set of your interactions.
    You can say that Facebook now has groups and lists but they aren’t a core part of the Facebook experience hence it isn’t a natural way to use Facebook.
    Google+ is built to manage and to allow every (or almost every) type of social interaction that you have.
    That’s why the circles feature is so important – because it allows you to structure your social graph as you structure your real life social network. And core to the Google+ and the circles feature is the notion of privacy.
    Check Google+ Help and you can see that the word “privacy” or “who can see your post, photo, etc” is pervasive in every feature of the service.
    Google understands that only by going this route it can beat Facebook in the social network space – by mimicking your real life social network.

  4. I think the premise behind Mr. Wong’s criticism is kind of off-base, and I think that there is a pretty wide-spread misunderstanding of how circles work…I’m pretty disappointed that GigaOm is perpetuating it, rather than clarifying, especially since Google+ has the flexibility to replace Facebook AND Twitter AND LinkedIn–ergo REDUCING, not increasing, social fatigue.

    Yes, the asymmetric relationship exists in Google+ where people can follow you as they would on Twitter. Like Twitter, if I post anything publicly, I expect comments from anyone and everyone–a public forum.

    From there, I can escalate the relationship to make it reciprocal, adding my encircler into one of my circles. This would give them access to information I post to only one of my circles, much like when I decide to post on Facebook and not Twitter.

    Taking this a step further, If I want this person to only see my public and professional persona, I can put them in the appropriate circle, preventing them from seeing my personal side. This would replicate the effect of posting to LinkedIn without posting to Twitter and Facebook.

    If the person is a good friend, I can add them to a circle of only my bestest friend, replacing networks like Path.

    And, get this, let’s just say that someone who encircles you happens to be a coworker who is also a close friend, you can add him to all three circles–the “Facebook,” “LinkedIn,” and “Path” privacy settings–so that he can see all aspects of your online social life, since he’d be in those social circles in real life, too. What a concept!

    Furthermore, if you’re a power-user, Google Circles are an integrated list, so you can share stuff about, say, local monster truck rallies to only people you know would care.

    And yes, I concede that creating and managing all these circles can be exhausting, but I figure that you’re already taking that kind of trouble if you’re *that* concerned about privacy! The only two features I wish Google would add would be the ability to make circles public so people can opt-in, like updates from niche subjects for professionals, and the ability to subtract a circle so that everyone BUT that circle can see an update. Otherwise, though, I see Google’s Circles as a work of genius–an online reflection of how we truly interact IRL…I hope you can better explain that in the future!

  5. Sometimes oversharing is a feature. At least I sometimes like to imagine that a certain someone might be interested enough to evesdrop on my conversations. But if Google+ gives me the power to prevent this, can I still allow it to somehow happen “accidentally”, as if I don’t know how use Circles?

  6. Overall, a good article. The comments about having too many people to put into an appropriate circle strikes me that you have spam connections, not relationships. If you can’t be bothered enough to categorize your important relationships so that the right messages get to the right people, especially when GOOGLE+ makes it as easy as possible,the problem is not the tool but that just collecting contacts for the sake of collecting them seems to be. Just a thought.

  7. OhioStater

    Also, it seems people don’t share anymore, no matter the network. The reputational risks are too high as if everyone is running for president.

    Google Plus needs events and person to person messaging; it doesn’t need brand pages, advertising or games. The main reason people like Google Plus is it doesn’t feature annoying games.

    Facebook needs games, whereas Google does not. Google is wise to keep Google Plus clean.

  8. OhioStater

    Yeah, I think the Twitter asymmetric aspect is a small problem that Google will work through. It’s highly likely they will copy many aspects of Facebook once they establish themselves as a legitimate contender. Even better is if Facebook copies some aspects of Google Plus.

  9. I totally agree with A S on this. The underlying question is a good one, and there are certainly some valid questions about whether or not it’s good from a privacy standpoint to have a single company store your web browsing history and email (as well as social graph, profiles, and photos) the way so many people are on Google+. And sure, Facebook’s got badly-implemented versions of similar functionality that was introduced after the fact; getting designers’ or privacy experts’ perspectives about whether or not Google’s better and more fully-integrated UX will make a difference would be interesting. And it would be interesting to know how ‘real people’ (as opposed to us techies) react to the idea of Circles … and whether they’re cointinuing to use them after the initial experience. But to me this article reads like “ex-Facebookers without expertise in privacy say bad things about Google+”. Not your best work.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jon. I think if you take another look, you’ll find the post isn’t just about an ex-Facebook staffer’s views on Google+. There are other elements that relate to the question of Circles and whether they will help or hinder Google+ adoption.

      • maybe at some point you need to step back and take a look at your two pieces and take the criticism people are giving you and try to understand why you are getting all these criticism. Both articles have more critical of your writing than your normal articles. There is probably a reason for that, so instead of defending your self in the comments, try to actually understand why the are criticizing… maybe there are holes all over your pieces.

  10. Jack C

    Like it or not, more robust tools like those you describe are both here to stay and absolutely essential. If anything, I’d argue they don’t go far enough.

    The fact of the matter is, we’re still in the very early stages of the mainstream social web. As the amount of social content increases and as the practical implications of exposing that sort of data becomes more clear, the tools needed to control that information must also change (i.e., become more robust). Also, it is worth noting that new tools often seem complex, even if they quickly become second nature.

    Social communication is a handshake; a bidirectional, if not multidirectional thing. Of the friends I have linked in Google+, who is interested to read my reaction to a recent Clay Shirky post? Clearly, we want to (and ought to) be able to control who is eligible to see our posts, but eligibility does not necessarily imply interest. Being able to filter incoming information by Circle is a start, but I’m not sure that is (or will remain) entirely sufficient. Returning to the earlier issue, as the quantity of content produced increases dramatically, so too does the need for better options for recipients to control/filter incoming social data.

  11. Social networking fatigue isnt a problem with google+ because as you add friends you put them into one of a few groups or you can put them in multiple. it takes no time to decide if some is family, a friend, someone you dont really know, or whatever other circle you have

      • no it actually does not take time…. If one is that pressed for time, you should not be on a”social” network. That is what email is for…

      • Kokoro Dudu

        Hi Mat,

        I wonder if you have been reading the comments people have made about your posts. Your comments here also don’t make sense. Putting friends into circles doesn’t take time because you add them when those friends are added not some type of chore you do at month end or when you have 1,000 friends.

        Facebook list is hard and a chore because the Lists are not readily seen and by the time you get around to it, you are already 500 friends deep.

  12. Let’s be very clear about something here. Google’s Terms of Service for Google+ are indeed better sounding that Facebook’s. They afford more privacy and more protection that you get on FB.

    But you once again need to understand what kind of company Google is and why they’re so happy to give us these great services ( GMail, Plus, Maps, Docs, etc. ) for free…*Google is an advertising company*. Nothing more, nothing less and every single one of it’s services is based around the idea of collecting and then mining data to serve better ads.

    They scan your email content to better target, they use map data to see where we go to serve better ads and they most certainly are mining Google+ for anything and everything they can…in order to display more targeted advertising.

    If I sound alarmist on this subject, i’m not. I don’t have any issue whatsoever with my content being used, behind a curtain, to sell me things. The value I personally get from Google and it’s services far outweigh my privacy concerns. But know exactly what you’re getting in to before you sign up.

    I also firmly believe the general public doesn’t give a shit about privacy…at last until the media tells them to be alarmed that their data is going to be repurposed and sold on them. Google may have rights to the photos I post on Google+, but do I fear they’ll start a stock image agency and make money off my hard work…*not in the least*.

    Anyone else have anything to contribute to this? Or have a contrarian opinion? I’d love to hear it.

    • You are spot on with this. GOOGLE makes its money on search advertising to such a large degree that it is not pressed to directly monetize the other services. Just look at the absence of ads on GOOGLE+.

      LinkedIn on the other hand has tightened the screws from two sides regarding monetization: they drive you to have to get a premium account to really use the tool for networking (no longer can you find open messaging) and now they stream “news topis” on the opening page, something I find really annoying and degrades the product.

      GOOGLE has been brilliant to know screw up the home search page and clutter it. If it works don’t fix it. Facebook and LinkedIn feel the need to keep adding features and bells and whistles until they totally screw up the original product. I trust GOOGLE will be a bit more clever than that. Keep it clean and simple….

  13. Dear Mathew,

    I usually like reading your posts since the time you joined Gigaom, but I am EXTREMELY disappointed by this particular post. This whole article is based on a HUGELY flawed premise of Yishan Wong on Quora. Mr Wong equates a public post on G+ to “standing on the sidewalk with your friends having a conversation”. You took this flawed analogy and wrote a whole article on it.

    You know as well as anybody else that, a public post on G+ is NOT a conversation with friends. It is the equivalent of say, posting a comment on this article on Gigaom wherein any stranger can reply and participate. A conversation with friends on G+ is when you post a private message to your circle of friends.

    Amongst all the positive reviewes and articles about G+, you may have been tasked to write critical pieces about it. There is nothing wrong with that. But the two critical pieces I have read from you so far (one yesterday and one today) are both based on flawed premises. If you really want to write critical pieces about G+, there are plenty of real weaknesses in the product that you can write about. Just drop by the Google-hosted discussion forum for G+ where many beta users are giving feedback on a daily basis. You will find enough material to write half a dozen valid critical pieces.

    For the love of your professional credibility, please stop writing these flawed pieces. I feel sorry that I am having to write to you like this.

    Your well-wisher,

    A S

    • Thanks for the comment, A.S. I’m sorry that you think my pieces are flawed. I didn’t say that I agreed with all of Yishan Wong’s criticisms, but I think they are worth hearing about — just as I thought my other Google+ pieces have raised points worthy of debate. I think there are others who share Wong’s views about Google+, and they deserve to be heard as well, even if we don’t agree with them.

      • Yes, but the points that you have raised in both pieces have been flawed. It’s obvious you were trying to be critical and in someways it makes sense, since 90% of the articles are positive you want to try to stand out. But you are trying way to hard and its hurting your reputation. If you want to make a point at least make sure it is sound and your own opinion. Instead of taking other peoples words (which are baseless to begin with) and trying to make a whole article out of it.

  14. Anthony

    “The problem, says Wong, arises when someone posts a comment or status update on Google+, which is then available for anyone to comment on — even people who the author of the original comment has never followed or put in a Circle.”

    This is simply not true. Yes, someone can put you in a circle without you putting them in a circle, but unless you make your post public (which it is not by default), they won’t see it because you aren’t sharing it with a circle that they are in. There is lots of negative misinformation about Google+ in this article.

    • Little bit later it is mentioned that he speaks about public post. So his criticism is about strangers inserting themselves in to a conversation between friends in public post.
      I find that its not a spot on but close to the truth criticism. Problems is that all comments seem to inherit parent post visibility. For example I posted a photo in public. Girlfriend started to flirt with my about this photo and it happens in public, but I don’t want to. I do want public to see a photo but I do want to make some conversations under it private for some of my circles.
      Currently Google+ does not allow this.
      There are many other cases where control over privacy is too simple and does not allow a more fine grained privacy control.
      Like for example, on your profile page you can see who you follow. You can choose both who sees it and what circles are shown in it. But joke is that those choices are tied together. I can’t make it so that public at large sees only people I follow(ie celebrities for example) while friends also see all my other circles.

      So I think at the moment Google+ has issues with privacy not being fine grain enough leading to Facebook effect of things being more public then we want to with some stuff. On other hand we can choose to share it less public but then it is too private then we want it. We do not have fine enough control over it for many situations.

      • I agree with your argument here, and you are right. Google needs to fine tune it’s private and public, photo,stream, and shared settings. And the hard part is not implementing this, but also making sure it sustains an open environment while doing so. Which is also what Facebook is struggling with right now. While Facebook is walled and operates on a friend request model, Google plus is not. And that is what makes it even harder for Google to implement.

    • The privacy via SHARING to circles is not the privacy that is of concern. Facebook has that functionality, its not as easy to use, but it has it. Where Google+ DESTROYS Facebook in the privacy realm is on your profile page. You can VERY EASILY edit what information goes out to what circles. It is super easy, straightforward, not buried in 5-6 pages deep inside settings. It is up front, easy to understand. you click on your email, choose Friends and Family circles. Click on your phone, set it to family circle only.