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

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Amid all the coverage of Google’s launch of its fast-growing Google+ social network, some — including New York Times  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 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

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