18 February 2010

I like doors

Many public toilets in China have no doors. There may be a slight partition to separate individual seats, but in many areas such niceties are absent and rows of users sit communally like sports fans in a stadium. While the average Chinese user thinks nothing of this having been accustomed to such a situation since an early age, most Westerners encountering such facilities experience something akin to mortification and opt to do without. Rose George in her rather excellent examination of the challenges of global sanitation "The Big Necessity" describes her first encounter with what is innocently referred to as an "open-style" convenience:
"This is my first open-style experience. I ask [her guide] if there is an etiquette. Where should I look? What is considered rude? Is it obligatory to say ni hao [hello]? I have no idea, because this is turning my concepts of public and private upside down. I know that some schools and institutions in the Western world have doorless toilets, the better to foster compliance or - in the case of the military - to extract individuality. But I grew up in a culture that provided privacy abundantly and without question. I like doors. At the Happiness and Prosperity service station, I know I will miss them"
- 'The Big Necessity', page 146
A few days ago I, like countless thousands of other people around the world, was prompted in Gmail to sign up for Google's new Social Network functionality, Buzz. I like Google; in the past there may have been valid suggestions of me hitting the Kool-Aid a little too much and still today I am something of an occasional evangelist, normally giving each new product a whirl before deciding that it doesn't really add too much value to my digital life and discarding it after a few days. While I am no fan of Social Networks I still clicked "yes" to take Buzz for a test drive, and then the problems began.

To begin with Buzz autogenerated a Social Network for me based on my Gmail contacts. I use my Gmail for both business and personal contacts, so my default network was drawn from both groups. This default setting also happened for any of my contacts that signed up to Buzz, so many of my business contacts had me added to their network automatically. Secondly Buzz generated a default list of online activities from Google products that I use and broadcasted this activity to everyone it had decided should be in my default network, Picasa uploads, shared items in Reader and posts from this blog. Thirdly it altered my Google Profile, a publicly displayed and indexed "about me" page, from being listed as "Unkie Dave" to my real name, and included a directory of all online activity it had decided to broadcast. In addition it added a list to this public profile of everyone it had decided should be in my network, and everyone into whose network I had been added by default, essentially broadcasting my Gmail contacts to the world along with links to each of their profiles containing similar information about them. While all of these functions could be eventually switched off from within Buzz, the default setting rendered everything public.

So thanks to Buzz my private life was broadcast to my business contacts against my will, my business life was broadcast to everyone, and all of this via my profile was indexed by Google and included in their search results.

And worst of all, for five days it was impossible to opt out of Buzz once you had signed up.

The problem here is not that Buzz was poorly tested and launched too quickly and without enough explanation; Google prides itself on launching early and often, then modifying its products based on real user feedback, "do first and ask forgiveness later" is a phrase you hear often around the Googleplex and the company is synonymous with launching almost-there Beta products. It is also not solely that the motivation behind this was to forcibly and instantly create a giant social network from a standing start that would be immediately monazitable; there is, as they say, no such thing as a free lunch and Google's entire success is based on online advertising, more eyeballs on more products mean more advertising revenue, and after all Google is a business. All of this makes perfect sense according to Google's business model and I find no real fault with it.

For me the main problem with Buzz was the basic premis at launch that people should want to share everything with everyone, that there is no division between different categories of contacts and all your activities should be exposed to the world for all to see. It is the notion of enforced sociality.

Maybe this is a generational thing and for folks who are growing up Twittering on their phones from the classroom and experiencing peer pressure to acquire as many online 'Friends' as possible even though half those 'Friends' will inevitably bully them online as well as off, the notion of the separation of public and private, online and offline, is alien and of no concern.

I, however, value my privacy. Even though I blog, share things that I read online and have publicly accessible photo albums, I do so as 'Unkie Dave'. Its all traceable back to here, as is any comment I make on other people's sites, so I am accountable for all that I do online and do not consider that I use the web anonymously. But I still try to maintain some divisions between my work, public and private lives and I value those divisions.

With Buzz, Google took away my doors and exposed my business to the world, and whether it was to foster compliance, extract individuality, or just make a quick buck, I'm altogether not too happy about that.

I like doors.



At 3:04 pm, Blogger 2BiT said...

Extending your analogy forces me to conclude that you're full of...
Jus' kiddin' ;)

At 12:50 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

@2BiT - hehe. ye wouldn't be the first to say it, and ye won't be the last.


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