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January 3, 2013 / playforth

Google Plus or Google minus?

There’s no such thing as a free social network. The question is whether we are prepared to pay the price – whether that’s in money, or in the currency of our privacy, intellectual property, freedom from advertising, aesthetic control etc. It’s a personal decision and can largely be made on a case by case basis: I accept the Twitter terms of use (including the possibility that they may reuse or sell my posts, and restrict my ability to do the same via third party apps) because I receive enormous social and professional benefits in return. I pay for an app.net account because I’m excited by its potential and I value the ad-free community and the open API. I don’t use Facebook very much (although I still have an account) because, for me, the costs – in invasive advertising and promoted post scams and the annoying interface – are greater than the benefits. I don’t use Instagram but in general I feel like this about recent events:

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So up until today I was probably fairly smug about the whole thing, believing that if you signed up to a social network or a web service without checking the terms of use, and without realising that ‘free’ always comes with a catch, then you were being naive.

But then there’s Google+. I like Google products and services, a lot. I have an Android phone, a Nexus 7 Google tablet and my browser of choice is Chrome. I use iGoogle, Gmail, Google Reader, Google Listen, Google Calendar and Google search on a daily (probably hourly) basis. I liked Google+ when it came out and thought it would probably turn into something great once membership reached critical mass (aka once all my friends were posting their baby photos and event invitations there instead of Facebook). But it didn’t really happen and I sort of forgot about it, except for using the Hangout function occasionally. It didn’t seem to matter, as most people I knew were still posting the important stuff on Twitter and Facebook as well/instead, and if they were blogging I was getting updates via RSS already.

I was aware that something was happening to search that made it a lot more ‘social’, that G+ profiles were starting to pop up high in (Google) search results, that ‘+1’ buttons were everywhere. Being a librarian I wasn’t too keen on the manipulation of search results to be more ‘customised’ (ie more limited), but being a librarian I was pretty confident I could get around it. What I wasn’t aware of until today was a seemingly minor feature which auto-adds Google+ event invitations to your Google Calendar (whether you’ve responded to them or not). As I say, I’m a fan of Google and the way that everything syncs and integrates and generally makes my life easier. But I do not want things in my calendar that I haven’t added myself or given specific permission for, especially not events that I’m not even attending (this is no criticism of the specific G+ invites involved which I’m sure will be absolutely lovely events, I just can’t go!) It’s a kind of madness when your personal time management tools are no longer personal and don’t reflect your actual appointments, but I should have known, of course: there’s no such thing as a free social network.

There is a setting in Calendar to turn off this feature, but the default – as with so many syncing and sharing features – is to allow it, and I’ve realized that ignoring the bits of Google I’m not making use of is no longer an option. If I want to keep using Google tools but still have some control over my data I have to engage with G+, and this is obviously the intention. Having failed to win people over to their social network by making it irresistibly good, Google are making it inextricable from the rest of their services (already new Gmail accounts come with a G+ profile which can’t be deleted, although it can be disabled).

I don’t pretend to be an expert on the Google business model, or to offer a critique of it. But I think it’s good for me to face the reality of my dependence on what they offer, and what they take in return.

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