Google+ misses an opportunity – Privacy is an important part of openness


Google Plus logoGoogle’s new “Plus” social networking service attracted more than 10 million users within a week of its public beta. That is a remarkable number of people signing up for an unfinished social network when the field of options is already quite crowded.

Why would so many people flock to Google+? The one thing almost everyone that I know references is privacy and control, or at least the hope that it might achieve that end.

Twitter logoTwitter users are happy with the openness of Twitter… You know what it does: It broadcasts your messages to the world in bite-size chunks. No hidden agenda, no surprises… It’s public.

LinkedIn logoLinkedIn is great for professional networking, again mostly public. I don’t use it to share links of cats playing keyboards or cool movie quizzes. For many of us, aside from finding employment, it is a way to stay in touch with people we’ve worked with in the past.

Facebook logoFacebook? Well, it started out as something exclusive and private, then became open and not so private. Nearly everyone who cares about being social is on there, so it continues to march along 500 million users strong.

Why do we need an alternative to Facebook? Much of it started with comments Mark Zuckerberg made in January of 2010. He stated:

“A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they’ve built, doing a privacy change – doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the kind of thing that a lot of companies would do. But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner’s mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it.”

Many are uncomfortable with Facebook’s privacy controls, the wishy-washy attitude toward changes and the attitude their CEO has towards privacy in general.

This is where Google had a golden opportunity to provide something that could scale to the same heights and remedy the grievances many have with Facebook.

When you first logged in, you could see how it was intended to be a blend of public and private, and enjoy the ease with which you were invited to privately share things, just within your Circles.

Pseudonymous circle with zero membersLast week Google began suspending accounts of people who used pseudonyms, which they considered a breach of the Google+ common name policy.

What they seemed to have missed is that the very foundation of privacy is identity. Simply knowing my postal code or birth date is meaningless without a name to associate it with.

Creative Commons image courtesy of Jack Dorsey's Flickr photostream

By requiring people to only use their real names, unless they just happen to be a celebrity, they have eliminated the ability for people to be private in any meaningful way.

It’s important to remember that it’s a social network. Google will not be issuing passports like the nation of Facebook.

Google suggests your pseudonyms could go in the optional Nicknames field, which you can choose to make searchable and public.

This solves Google’s problem, but erodes privacy even further by associating your “real” name with your pseudonym. I believe this is actually destructive to privacy, not helpful.

I hope Google reconsiders their current policy, as this makes them just another also-ran in the social networking game. You don’t need to bully people into disclosing personal information to stop spammers and impersonators.

My advice to Google? Get your lawyers and your programming gurus together and see if you can create a place that is safe for all of us to share in ways we are comfortable with. If you can do that, you have a good chance at being a leader rather than a Facebook wannabe.

Creative Commons image of “What’s in a name?” photo courtesy of Jack Dorsey’s Flickr photostream.