Apologies to those of you following me on Google+: this post is a rehash of conversations I had this weekend on the service.
The original conception of the Facebook “Wall” was based on the whiteboard college students hang on their dorm room door. Students who lived in your dorm could walk down the hallway and jot messages for the room residents on those whiteboards. (“Ultimate frisbee on the quad at 4pm today” or “Dinner tonight?”) Any student who walked down the hallway could see those messages. When you’re 22 and your most significant life experience is college, your dorm room hallway is your main community of neighbors and friends. As an adult who has graduated from a few schools and had a few jobs, you’ve got multiple hallways. That’s the problem Google+ Circles attempts to address: letting users define their “hallways.”
Now, a student would write something much differently on her best friend’s dorm door whiteboard than she would on a flyer she plastered on every public corkboard on campus. The way we talk and what we share differs based on who we think can see and hear those things. From what I can see so far, Google’s doing its best to recreate that sense of who-can-see-what-here in Google+.
On Google+, you can choose to publish a post that only certain individuals or groups can see. By default, every post on G+ has a “Share” link, which means anyone who sees it can re-publish that post to people or circles they choose. (You can pull down a menu and choose “Disable reshare” if you want, but assume most users don’t change the default.) So, by default, I could share something with two friends on Google+, then one of them could turn around and re-share that post to the public. Of course this could and does happen in real life, and when it does with sensitive information, it really stinks. Often, it’s less about malice and more about cluelessness; the friend you shared with didn’t realize you didn’t want him or her to broadcast it publicly.
This weekend Google announced that they were going to disable public re-sharing on limited posts to prevent people from violating that social contract. That is, if I wanted to make a post public, I would have done it myself. If I didn’t, then YOU shouldn’t be able to. Moreover, my sharing a post with a limited number of people is a social signal that I don’t want anyone to share something publicly.
Update: it appears the change is in place. I was not able to share a limited post publicly. When you click on the “Share” link on a limited post you get a reminder to “be thoughtful” about who you re-share with.
Unsurprisingly, my TWiG co-host and supporter of defaulting to public, Jeff Jarvis, disagreed with this decision. His argument is that the moment you share anything with anyone, you should assume it’s public, and that Google’s change gives users a false sense of safety. Jeff wrote:
If I read on G+ that you skipped work today and I share that, who’s to blame, me or Google? Well, you say, that’s why Google enabled sharing to be disabled. But I can turn around and tweet that information or blog it or email it to your boss or—shocker—not use technology at all but tell the boss when I see her on the street.
The problem is that Google+ is now giving the false comfort that sharing can be disabled. It can’t be.
Oh, yes, I think it’s a good thing to put conditions and caveats: when I tell people something confidential, I make sure to label that. I try to tell only people I trust with that confidence. But I also know that it is out of my control once I’ve said it. Isn’t that why we are all careful not to see terribly sensitive things in email? And if we do and if that secret gets forwarded, should do/do we blame the technology or the person?
It’s true: if you have secrets to share and can’t trust the people you’re sharing with, there’s little technology that can help you. Even if that Share link isn’t there, every restricted post is only a screenshot, copy-and-paste, or offhand comment on a podcast away from being public.
That all said, if you are in the business of creating a superior social network, you want to recreate a sense of private, semi-public, and public spaces. If I’m having a private conversation with a friend over coffee in real life, he can’t go on television and replay a video of that conversation on-air. The ability to share a limited post to the public is the equivalent of that.
Google+ developer Trey Harris explains the app’s attempt at creating a real-to-life model:
Privacy online is a hope rather than a guarantee. All secrets I share, no matter what protections I put on them, can be shared further; otherwise they couldn’t have been shared in the first place. You can cut-and-paste, take a screenshot, paraphrase.
But the goal that circles and sharing controls try to address isn’t to limit the technical possibility to share. It’s to add online the social controls we take for granted in real life. I speak one way in front of a small group, trusting that they won’t repeat my coarse language in public. I tell my closest friends I had a scary lab result and am waiting for a biopsy; I tell them I’d like them to keep it to themselves for now.
This trust is implicitly assumed in real life, yet completely absent in most online social-site interactions. The flattening and equivalence of “friends” is one reason. Once a person from my gaming group is included in a message about my scary lab result which I’ve shared “only with friends”, her first thought is going to be, “why is he telling me this?” And her second thought will be, “I guess he doesn’t care who knows it.” And her third might be, “my friends should be reminded they should get tested, I’ll forward this on.” No malice, but my trust was violated.
The second reason follows the first: subtle hints, the fact that we pull someone aside before speaking, our hushed tone, our glances around us, our plaintive look, communicate that we don’t want what we’re imparting shared. In real life, we know we’re skating on thin ice when we have to say out loud, “keep this between you and me.” The in-band disclaimer shows that we aren’t sure of the level of trust, or that our listener might misunderstand how privately we hold the information shared. Online, we have none of the subtleties, the in-band disclaimer is our only option, but with the ease of copying, “do not forward” warnings can come across as ludicrous and crass at best.
Technology cannot enforce secrecy and privacy. Still, I say things in email and chat and Twitter direct messages to my closest associates I’d never say on this blog, because the tools allow me to do that, but most importantly, because I trust those people. No Twitter client lets you retweet direct messages, and my personal and professional life is better because of that decision. Good on Google for helping users keep non-public posts just that.