Google Thinks It Knows Your Friends
By Miguel Helft
That’s how Google announced earlier this month on one of its corporate blogs the expansion of the sharing features in Google Reader, the company’s service for viewing blogs. The feature didn’t win Google a lot of friends.
Several bloggers and users have sounded the alarm about this, with some justification.
Here’s what the brouhaha is about. For some time now, Google has allowed you to share with your friends blog posts you view using Reader. You got to select the items you wanted shared and you got to choose your friends. When you marked a new item as shared, your friends who use Reader would see it. (Technically, your shared items were on a public Web page, so they could have been seen by others who are not your friends, if those people could figure out how to find that page.)
Google is assuming that anyone you have had a conversation with using Google Talk is a friend, so they’ll automatically be able to see and read what you’ve read and marked as shared. You can still manage your friends list and explicitly tell Reader not to share with some of your newfound friends. Of course, you’d have to know that Google had started sharing your items more widely, which many people apparently did not, even though Google alerted them through a pop-up window.
I checked with a few of my tech-savvy colleagues whose shared items I was suddenly able to see and they had no idea that they were sharing them with me.
(UPDATE: Google offers a workaround.)
It seems that the problem is the following: Google is desperately trying to become a force in social networking. It wants to make many of its applications and services more “social,” to, for example, tell your friends what you are reading with Reader or cataloging with MyMaps. But unlike Facebook and other social networks, it doesn’t really know who your friends are. So it is creating a list of friends for you, assuming that anyone you Google Talked with is your friend.
Why Google Talk friends and not, say, those people who you’ve e-mailed with or have in your address book? “With Google Talk, the parties have mutually consented to chatting with each other,” a Google spokesman said in a statement. “This type of mutual consent is not required for Gmail interactions.” In other words, they didn’t want to turn everyone you’ve e-mailed (or spammed) into your friend. Fair enough.
But Google Talking with someone and befriending them is not the same thing. Consider how two of my editors use Google Reader’s sharing feature: To alert another colleague about articles they believe deserve to be noted on the New York Times Web site. Now one of my editors has conversed with Google Talk with former colleagues who now work at competing publications. Do they really want those former colleagues to know what they think makes for interesting reading? Clearly not.
Google could have avoided a lot of flak allowing you to opt-in to, rather than opt-out of, the expansion of your Reader friends list. But it didn’t.
If Google wants to come up with its own social graph, the connections between people that are behind the power of social networks like MySpace and Facebook, it’s going to have to work a little harder — or risk alienating a growing number of users.