Obligatory Google Buzz post

Cross-posted to the Air-l list.

In a discussion about Google Buzz, surveillance and privacy, Christian Fuchs said:

Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently remarked about Internet privacy: “If
you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you should
not be doing it in the first place”, which points towards a lack of
understanding of the online surveillance threat and privacy issues.

[He really did: see here]

Absolutely, and there is something more to this jaw-droppingly blasé statement as well. I don’t think it’s only a result of Google’s desire to facilitate and track and cross-aggregate everything everyone does on the internet ever (which is clearly the manifest destiny of Google, and several others).

We also had this today in the WSJ:

After taking steps to stem the public backlash against its social-networking service Buzz, Google Inc. is planning further updates and considering changing how it tests new Buzz features.
 
Google product manager Todd Jackson said in an interview Monday that the number of people initially uncomfortable with the service underscored that the company’s approach of testing Buzz among its employees hasn’t been sufficient.”

“Getting feedback from 20,000 Googlers isn’t quite the same as letting Gmail users play with Buzz in the wild,” Mr. Jackson said. “We needed to launch to the public and get feedback from users.”

Um…

(Thanks to Michael Zimmer for tweeting the link)

As various commenters have pointed out elsewhere, Google’s apparent “lack of understanding” of the threats to privacy has an identity politics as well. At least in my head (and tell me if I’m crazy), the ideal, undifferentiated internet user says: “I mean, I live my life online and it’s fine. I don’t care who knows which Starbucks I’m using my Blackberry at or which of my business contacts I compare Geek 2.0 conferences with or what Business 2.0 book I’m buying.” All very obvious – the assumed, unrecognised privilege that goes with a certain class position, geographically myopic worldview despite the desire for global colonisation, and so on.

But this assumption of a universal ‘we’; the complete carelessness about the idea that public exposure can do harm; the shrugging off of the social complexity of social media, and so on, also have a gender politics.  In some of the *critique* of Googlebookspacetube, so does a similar shrugging off of the messy mix of pleasure, affinity, and risk of social media participation; and indeed the insistent bracketing off of concrete lived experiences, so we can get at the main game: Economics. The World. History. Everything.

But back to Buzz. Most obviously, as the widely circulated (but now password-protected) “Fuck You, Google” blog post on the Fugitivus blog so clearly demonstrated, even in the affluent West, if you have ever had a stalker, an abusive ex- or current partner, or live in a community/family where it might not be safe to be outed as gay, there are plenty of things you might not want people to know you’re saying or doing. It doesn’t mean you “should stop doing them” – or saying them – on the Internet.

What would a social media platform look like if it listened carefully from the beginning to what users are actually doing with the platform -  collectively constructing a wide and often overlapping range of uses, communities, etc., including a nuanced set of publicity/privacy settings. What if the provider provided the tools to do that, and didn’t come crashing in in the middle of the night to redesign everything and randomly release ‘features’ that have no obvious relationship to the practices of users? 

To finish by returning to the subject of business if not capital-E Economics:

I understand that there is actually no business case for blanket privacy in the free-to-use, advertising-supported business model that drives Google, Facebook, and Twitter (indirectly), but I’m not sure there isn’t a business model (where “business model” might or might not include a profit motive) that could work quite well and treat user communities with more respect – including respect for the knowledge and expertise they have developed through their work as users. I still think Flickr had it more or less right in some ways (especially in the areas of privacy settings and community governance) – but theirs is a Freemium business model (where you have a choice of a fairly full-featured free account, or a paid ‘power’ account).

I genuinely mean this as a devil’s advocate question: given the helplessness of users in a free-to-use model, are we better off as customers than we are as users? How might we ask to be addressed as citizens as well, or instead?

5 thoughts on “Obligatory Google Buzz post

  1. Thanks for speaking on this Jean. This is very much aligned with my thoughts.

    Google Buzz is another example of a specific viewpoint, taken by a specific culture of people, that suggests one life: one identity on and off and everywhere. It is presumed not only to be inevitable but positive. Its not – its simple, its privileged and its technocratic. Some people have no choice but to manage competing expectations.

    Embedded in this ideology is a sense that it is okay to relinquish control over our identity to the information curators of our digital lives. It is a sense that these people get to rewrite the social contract of information storage at their whim.

  2. Thanks Jean for these thoughts! Nice to see someone taking a bit time in thinking of these things a bit further and not just jumping for joy everytime another new social site opens (although, I admit doing that occasionally :-/).

    I feel that some services should make the privacy settings at least as clear as possible. This isn’t that much my problem, but I’ve heard from many “ordinary people”, meaning those who aren’t born with a birth certificate with a Google account already installed, that they are mostly concerned about the privacy issues. And these could be more easily handled if these things were clear enough.

  3. Hi Marko – agreed. To which I would add not only clear enough, but in fact the other way round, so that we opt IN to various layers of publicity as we find our way into each new platform or service. Much gentler, but probably total fantasy of course.

  4. Bit late on this, but great post. The stuff about class/identity politics and Google’s blindnesses here is spot on.

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