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26.8.11

Are We Growing Too Addicted To Google Products? (Or: All Your Base Are Belong To Google)

Google makes great products. That’s why I use Gmail for email, Gchat for instant messaging, Gmaps for directions, an Android phone, Picasa for photos, and Buzz for…. Just kidding. Buzz sucks. But for the most part, Google makes great products. They have historically struggled with social products (if you ignore their success in email and chat), but their latest offering, Google Plus, is pretty great in my and others’ opinions. Though, at this point, it’s like an awesome party which hasn’t quite gotten started yet. It’s early in the night and most of the guests are still having dinner at Facebook’s house. Our Mountain View host has lots of microbrew beers features in the fridge but there aren’t a ton of people on the service to drink use them. 

The big criticism that Google Plus has encountered (beyond the “there aren’t enough people here doing stuff” one) is the company’s insistence that people use their real names, rather than pseudonymous ones. Facebook has the same policy; it’s why that site has become a universal social directory. Google would like Plus to be that too, and I think also has aspirations to become the gateway to “real identity” on the Web, something the U.S. government is pushing for to make the Web a more secure place where it’s harder to obscure your identity to make fraudulent purchases. Commerce aside, real names just make it easier to find and connect with people, knowing they are who they say.

(I don’t want to get into this, but advocates of pseudonymous speech have lots of reasons why forcing real name use is a bad idea. But Google is the decider here. When you open accounts with private companies, you’re subject to their rules. You couldn’t go to your bank and ask to open an account under a pseudonymous name.)
 
Recently, a blogger at ZDNet ran afoul of the Google “real name” policy. Her real name seems like a fake one — Violet Blue — and so Google flagged her Google Plus account for a shut-down. After seeing stories like that of a 10-year-old who admitted his real age when signing up for Google Plus, resulting in that being shut down along with his Gmail account, some folks are feeling worried about losing vital Google services because they mess up something on Plus. Violet Blue turned Scarlet Red with anger describing the possibility of being locked out of all of her various Google accounts over a wrongful accusation. “So now I faced losing business services I not only used, but depend on as cornerstones for my livelihood,” she complained. “Social networks are supposed to be fun, dammit.”

Google says to chill out: “Google Account suspensions are rare, and using Google+ doesn’t make them any more or less likely,” says a Google spokesman. “If a user violates our policies in YouTube, Blogger, Google+ or any other Google product, they may be suspended from only that product or from their overall Google Account. It depends on the severity of the violation.”

In a follow-up interview with CNet, Google made clear that even if Blue’s Plus account had gone black — it didn’t; Google realized it made a mistake — she wouldn’t have lost access to her Gmail, Gchat, or Docs, though her activity on Google Reader and Picasa would have been limited.

Having seen the many, many times that people have had their Facebook accounts revoked for unknown or unfair reasons, I can see why people would be concerned that activity on Plus would trigger a waterfall shut-down of their accounts. But losing access to all Google accounts will only be triggered by something truly egregious — like being under 13 years of age, or doing something illegal, like posting child porn. Google argues that this isn’t an issue that’s unique to Plus — previously, bad behavior on Gmail, YouTube, Picasa or another service could trigger a full account shutdown.

But it got me thinking about how reliant we are on Google services. A long time ago, I wrote a holiday-themed post on who knows more about us: Facebook or Google. I determined that Google was the winner (and would be where Santa would want his elves working to determine if we’re naughty or nice). That was back in 2009, before Google had augmented its services with a social network, and before it came up with Wallet, which would allow users to buy things with their phone (offering Google insight into our shopping behavior). I used to feel reassured that Google’s and Facebook’s had separate but equally intimate knowledge about our online activity. I’m not sure how comfortable I am with the thought that all that knowledge might be stored with just one company.

Beyond the psychic, paranoid crisis over corporate surveillance, there’s a practical question about the wisdom of depending on one company for most of your online activity. After her realization about how dependent she was on Google products, Violet Blue made some changes to her online service providers, moving her bio page from Google Plus to Posterous and Flavors.me, and moving her RSS activity from Google Reader to NewsBlur. (It sounds like she’s still using Google Docs, Gmail and an Android phone, though.)

She exaggerated the potential consequences of a Google Plus shutdown, but her story does raise some questions about how dependent we want to be on one company for everything we do online.

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