After the initial buzz of excitement over Buzz, there’s been more of a buzz about privacy worries – so much so that Google has announced that it’s making the option to keep those automatically-generated lists of followers and followings private rather easier to find, along with allowing you to block people from following you whether they have public profiles set up or not.
These are certainly improvements, but it’s a long way from the opt-in that most privacy advocates suggest as default for any service. Yes, you have to turn Buzz on and create a profile (although why the link at the bottom of my Gmail account said ‘turn Buzz off’ when I’d already clicked the ‘just my inbox please’ link instead of the Buzz link, I’m not sure). Yes, your social network is pretty effectively defined by the people you exchange email with; that’s why Xobni’s Outlook addon can create a very effective social network for you – but Xobni keeps that information private. Yes, the value of any social network is the size and interconnectedness of the social graph – lists of who you know, who knows you, who you follow, who follows you – and yes, building that automatically is clever; but it’s also pretty dumb.
Exposing the connections is useful to save you the bother of making and approving all those connections by hand; it’s great for Google because they can say their network instantly connects millions of people. But is making that public by default a good idea? The algorithm can work out who you exchange messages most with; if that’s an ex who’s stalking you, the recruiter you’re negotiating with or the competitor you’re about to take a job with, that’s your business. Google is falling into some of the classic geek fallacies (particularly the idea that friendship is transitive).
But what Microsoft repeatedly does is bring out products with features designed to solve internal Microsoft problems. The ignore feature in Outlook 2010 where you can silence the conversation about where to go for lunch on a day when you’re not even in the office? The Outlook Social Connector that shows you a picture of the person who you’re going to a meeting with, in case you don’t recognise them? SharePoint My Sites that tell you what projects someone in your company has been working on? Replacing VPNs with IPv6-based DirectAccess? They all solve problems that Microsoft faces much more than other companies do.
Microsoft listens to external customers; it has an enterprise council of customers who explain things like how BitLocker To Go isn’t any use if it can only read and write encrypted data on Windows 7. Development of apps from Office to IE is increasingly driven by crunching the numbers on what features customers already use. But just as Apple has only one customer it listens to (one Steve Jobs), so Microsoft has one main customer; the 90,000 people who work in its various business units worldwide. With that many employees and divisions, it’s likely that any problem Microsoft has at least a few paying customers have too, but when you see Microsoft being its own case study for tools like Data Protection Manager and Exchange, the tail is rather wagging the dog.
Whether it’s because they’ve hired so many ex-Microsoft people (from Vic Gundotra down) or whether it’s simply because Google has reached a certain size, more and more new Google tools seem aimed at solving Google’s own problems. Wave? Ideal for repeated communication between geographically distributed engineers who are so ADD they can’t wait till their co-worker finishes typing in the whole instant message (squirrel!). Buzz? Build a network of the people who are communicating in Google to see who’s a good fit for this product group or that internal development project. (Or possibly find a use for Jaiku after two whole years, which is definitely more of a problem for Google than the rest of the world). If you look at it this way, it’s not that Google is tone deaf about privacy and consent; it’s that it’s so useful internally to have the network built and published automatically that making the interface for disabling that clearer never became a priority until it hit the complexity of the real world. There’s a reason Facebook profiles have options including ‘it’s complicated’; but from inside a big enough company, it’s easy to think that everywhere else works the same way.