July 09, 2013

Google's New +1 Sharing Has Some Issues, but It's Not a Privacy Problem

Google made some significant changes to the way sharing works on Google+ today, and all day long I found myself being pulled into conversations discussing the topic, some of whose participants seem upset to the level of semi-ranting ("semi-ranting?" Is that anything like "semi-pregnant?" But I digress ...)

The essence of the changes, which are being announced to users via an initial info pop-up, is that when a G+ user +1s a G+ posting, that activity may now result in that posting being shared out to other users' home G+ streams. I say "may" because there appears to be some sort of (publicly undefined) algorithm in play determining which +1 actions will be "highlighted" (shared) in this manner.

It's important to note that this is definitely not "frictionless sharing" of the sort that has become negatively associated with, for example, Facebook. Merely accessing a post for reading will not share it via this new capability. It takes an explicit action of endorsement -- a +1 -- to trigger a possible new "implicit" share.

And in fact, a form of this has existed for quite some time on G+ for +1 shares on external sites. When +1 buttons are embedded externally, they normally note that they will both +1 and share the page to G+.

So, what Google has essentially done (and this is all based on what I've seen publicly today) is extend the definition of +1 sharing within G+ itself, subject to whatever limiting factors are imposed by that algorithm mentioned above, and additionally by user controls.

And in fact, specific user controls over this have been provided, though arguably in a manner that raises some concerns over potential "information overload."

Users can control if, and how widely, their G+ +1 activity will be eligible for sharing under this new system. By default, this capability is enabled, and set to fairly broad conventional sharing in the context of G+ -- that is, extended circles (people you follow, plus people they follow, subject to visibility restrictions).

The controls allow dialing this down all the way to no new +1 sharing at all, if desired.

However, this is apparently strictly a user outbound sharing control.

From the inbound standpoint -- that is, how many of the new +1 shares from other people will you see -- there apparently is no new specific control, but the normal G+ circles "volume slider" controls apply to the union of conventional sharing and new +1 sharing from any given user -- this is essentially the new definition of G+ sharing per se in this context.

A valid question raised about this -- particularly since the new +1 sharing defaults to enabled -- relates to users being fully cognizant that their +1 sharing may now impact other users' streams, and is the lack of a means for recipient users to explicitly choose between conventional shares and new +1 shares appearing on their home streams a potential problem?

The answers would seem to be quite situation dependent. One obvious factor is how much +1 activity is occurring within the scope that could impact any given user's stream. For some users, the impact could be quite significant. For others, not much at all.

I also saw a concern expressed today by someone worried about "inappropriate material" appearing in their home stream via the new +1 mechanism. Keeping in mind that we're talking about the inbound stream that a user sees, not what they're sending out to their followers, the issue here appears to relate mostly to a concern that Not Safe For Work shares, triggered by the new +1 system, might appear on a workplace computer stream and cause problems for the associated user with their employer.

This is not an outrageous concern by any means, though I wonder how often it would actually be an issue. Perhaps more to the point, if you're following someone who +1s items like that, they may also be likely to directly share such materials anyway.

But frankly, I don't think anybody really knows yet if users will differentially evaluate their direct sharing vs. "automatically shared via +1" activities, especially once this new modality has become more broadly understood.

All that said, my initial impression of the overall situation is that providing users with an explicit toggle or finer grained control allowing them to express some form of "I'd rather not see other users' +1 shares in my stream" directive is a concept that is worth considering.

And while there have been multiple invocations of privacy concerns today by some observers regarding the new +1 sharing system, I simply do not see any valid privacy-related issues.

The new +1 system explicitly does not extend beyond the previously existing G+ permission model. G+ postings that were not previously visible to any given user are still not visible to that user and aren't impacted by the +1 changes.

There has been some concern expressed that the new +1 environment may allow other users to discover +1 activity on postings that they might not otherwise have known about unless they "stumbled" into them.

In fact, I would argue that a major aspect of the new +1 system is to encourage such discovery within circles and extended circles, and that this is a very positive aspect. A +1 action on a public posting is by definition a public act -- it has been since the start of G+. Attempting to impose what amounts to "granularity" onto public acts of this sort -- seemingly hoping futilely for a kind of "privacy through obscurity," just doesn't make sense anymore -- if it ever did (which I personally greatly doubt was ever the case).

So ... where does this leave us? I suggest restricting to private postings those materials and actions (including +1s) that you don't feel comfortable being actually public.

Be aware when you +1 that you may be sharing as well, and if you're uncomfortable with that responsibility for any reason, use the G+ controls to limit or disable the new +1 sharing capabilities for your account.

If you find you're getting what you feel are too many +1 shares from particular users, you might consider moving them into a separate circle and "turn down the volume" for that circle, in lieu of a specific control currently being available to enable or disable reception specifically of +1 shares.

Perhaps most importantly of all, remember that this is new feature -- it's not engraved in granite. If you have feedback about this (positive, negative, or both) please do use the G+ feedback forms -- they really do matter.

And as always, I welcome your comments and other thoughts.



Posted by Lauren at July 9, 2013 09:48 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein