Should We Be Afraid of Google?
(Disclaimer - this one is pretty long, but this is also a pretty big question. As always, I greatly value your input and hope to see a lively discussion sparked by this. If you think I'm wrong, please tell me why! I am always open to different views.)
I got into a heated discussion with a friend of mine a few nights back, and our conversation has been rattling around in my brain ever since. He hates Google+. Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say he can’t find a use for it. Facebook serves his private, real-life socal networking needs just fine, and he sees no reason to participate in the public communities throughout Google+. For him, doing so is just another way to give Google more of his information, which he considers a potentially disastrous thing to do.
Using Google products -- including G+ -- is a personal choice, first and foremost. I believe that the relationship we sign up for with Google is a very important one, and that while we must be watchful and mindful about what we choose to share with Google, the risk is ultimately justified by the benefit we receive now, as well as the benefit we are investing in receiving later. But we have to understand Google better to decide whether we have something to fear, or something to gain -- or both.
Google uses our information to advertise to us.
Google is an advertising company. That is what Google does, and it is what Google has always done. What motivates a company to create better ways to search? Why would an advertising company want to make the best algorithms for aggregating data? This may not be an immediately obvious relationship for most people, but if you give it a bit of thought, it really makes perfect sense. Google wants to know you well enough to serve you ads that you actually might want to see.
A lot of us react very poorly to the feeling that we are being advertised to. Most companies who have something to sell are not interested in who we are or what we want (that is a very recent evolution in advertising) -- they are only interested in getting our attention (often brashly) and then telling us to buy their product. Google understands that this is an incongruous relationship, and that we don’t like feeling marketed to. But advertisements aren’t going away. Companies with products to sell need to be able to advertise, that much we can agree on, but how can they do it without offending us? Google’s numerous and impressive algorithms seem to be an attempt to answer that question.
Google ads are text-based, so they’re generally inoffensive. They don’t flash at us, they don’t make sounds, and they don’t open pop-ups in front of what we’re trying to view online. That alone is enough to make them preferable to flashy ads, but Google wants to go further. Google wants to show us ads we actually might benefit from. This makes sense! If we want a camera, and Google shows us a great deal on a camera, everybody wins -- all three of us: consumer, advertiser, and Google.
Should this make us nervous? Maybe. The way for Google to give you ads you want is to pry into your personal life, so it’s very important to remember what Google’s role is.
I know that when I first started using Gmail back in 2003, I was in heaven. Everything seemed so clean, tidy, and ad-free. Gone were the crazy banner ads of Yahoo or Hotmail -- and oh, by the way, I suddenly had an entire gigabyte of e-mail storage. Back then, that was astronomical storage to receive for free.
But it wasn’t to remain entirely free. Eventually, Gmail began displaying text ads around my inbox. I can’t remember the order of implementation, I just remember that ads eventually made their way into my individual e-mails, too. Not inside of them, of course, just off to the side or above the message.
I’ll be honest. It freaked me out the first time I saw an ad for a camera show up inside of an e-mail message about using cameras. (“Is someone reading my $%^#ing e-mail?! Get out of my e-mail, Google!”) But I quickly realized that wouldn’t make any sense -- how could Google possibly have time to read my e-mails? This is why Google focuses on algorithms. It’s code written by software engineers who know how to teach spider-robots to figure out what you like. Those robots could theoretically tell your friends and family all about your most private communications. That’s pretty staggering when you think about it. Google’s spiders know everything there is to know about you, as long as the data is on the Internet.
Why the risk is probably not something to worry too much about
One, Google’s algorithms are worthless without our input. If we don’t tell Google what we like, Google can’t tell us what we might like to buy. That means, no matter how it’s spun, we are ultimately in control of whether Google can get our information from us. That’s really important to remember. On a social network, especially, we must be mindful about what information we might not like anyone else to ever know. (Remember when your mom would tell you not to write down anything you wouldn’t want her to be able to see one day? The same rule applies online, except it’s bigger than that. Don’t put anything on the Internet that you’re not comfortable sharing with the entire world. Even private communication relies on trust -- the other person can at any time copy and paste or screenshot what you’ve sent to them.)
Two, Google has no reason to tell on us even when we do share really private stuff. Their spiders don’t have feelings and cannot make judgments about our communications or our interests. The spiders just want to properly label our information so that the ads we see will be relevant to us.
Three, Google has to keep us happy. Google makes money by serving ads to us on behalf of companies who need to advertise. If Google were to suddenly betray our trust, they’d lose us fairly quickly.
Why the reward is worth the risk we do take
Google as a company builds tools ultimately to see how we use them, which feeds right back into their core goal, which is to serve us more and more relevant ads. But Google software engineers want to build great tools to build great tools, and that’s important to remember, too. We stand to benefit greatly by using those tools, because we create a market for those engineers to develop within, and because we are participating in the creation of more refined tools. Like collaborative documents, e-mail, and now a potentially world-changing social community within G+.
This is all connected within Google. The tools we use can benefit us greatly, which is a true opportunity for us (and for Google). If the cloud is the next frontier, Google is doing its best to make a place there, and it's a task they seem up to facing. But Google isn't alone in the cloud. There are other products, other companies, other tools. Google needs us to want to settle on their real estate. To keep us, Google has to respect our privacy -- and so far, at least with G+, I think Google has done a reasonable job of convincing us that it understands our obsession with being able to control who sees our data.
And because it’s all free, we can expect to see Google ads peppering the network. But as long as we only share what we feel comfortable sharing, there isn't much to be scared of.