In May 2013, Google surprised users by introducing a new design to Gmail, with incoming mail divided into primary, social, and promotions inboxes. Eight months down the line, and Google has just revealed an inkling of the bigger plan, announcing a service by means of which all users of the social network Google+ can send emails to your “social” inbox — whether they have your email address or not.
The announcement has been met with everything from enthusiastic curiosity to alarmist fear-mongering. But overall, the public mood seems to be one of disgruntlement — evidenced among other things by the fact that there is more press about how to opt out of the feature than there is about the feature itself.
So where’s the harm, if indeed there is any?
Apologists have pointed out that this new feature doesn’t do anything that Facebook isn’t already doing (any Facebook user can message you, whether or not they are your “friend”). But a few crucial factors make this a move Google users are unlikely to warm to:
- As anyone versed in e-CRM will tell you, people feel differently about email. A social network is like a never-ending party (or a never-ending corporate function, in the case of LinkedIn). You expect a certain amount of rubbing shoulders with randoms. But your inbox is more like your home: you want to be in control of who spends time with you there.
- We’ve yet to hear how Google plans to prevent this feature from becoming a channel for spam — a valid concern given the massive spam problems caused by Google+’s recent integration with YouTube comments (see below user feedback:)
- The change comes at a time when Google has built up an unfortunate track record for being reckless with its customers’ privacy. Chief among its faux pas was its involvement in the PRISM scandal, which continues to have repercussions for corporations trying to make a living online. Arguably worse in terms of reputation damage was the Google Buzz fiasco of 2010, which ended in a class action suit that ultimately shut the service down for privacy infringement.
- The move is hot on the heels of Google’s controversial forthcoming advertising protocols, which will make use of individual users’ names and faces in punting products and services to their social graphs – unless you actively follow an opt-out process.
- And there’s the clincher: Most of all, what bothers users about this and other Google innovations, is simply that they force one to say “no” rather than asking one to say “yes”.
Yes, you can opt out of Google+’s social mailing service if you so desire — for now. But the populace is losing patience with the Nanny-state-ish attitude Google conveys in its insistent strong-arming and jollying-along of users towards its desired outcome.
In fact, if you replace the word “Nanny” with the word “Google” and the words “aubergine curry” with the word “new feature” in the below exchange (inspired by true events from my childhood) you wouldn’t be far off from the current user/service provider relationship. I’ll do the first one for you.
Google: Would you like to try some aubergine curry?
User: No thanks, I’ll just have lasagne.
Google: Are you sure you wouldn’t like to try my aubergine curry? It’s free.
User: That’s ok. Lasagne is enough for me.
Google: But I made this aubergine curry just for you. It’s going to make your lasagne time so much more fun.
User: I’ve tried similar things, and I don’t enjoy them with lasagne.
Google: Well, you can always opt out. But I’m afraid I’ve already put the aubergine curry on your plate. You’ll like it, you’ll see.
User: F*$#. It’s touching the lasagne.
No one denies that there are useful aspects to deep integration of Google+ across the entire plethoric Google omniverse. And recent reports of over 250 million “active in-stream” Google+ users prove that some people really do like its features. Nevertheless, Google needs to be mindful of the mood of the other 290 million who it counts among its total users – people who interact with Google+ simply because it’s very hard to avoid it if you use other Google products. If the corporate giant continues to be more concerned about aggressively pursuing social marketshare than it is about serving these users’ wants and needs, it may find its customer base “opting out” of Google altogether.**
Lest I forget: if you just want to opt out of the new “Email via Google+” feature, here’s how.
* The only demographic to receive automatic protection from the forthcoming deluge will be celebrities. So some of you will be okay.
**There are still options, after all. I have previously championed DuckDuckGo, the browser that doesn’t collect your data. For an option on email that respects your constitutional right to write about your dog allergies without being offered Labradoodle puppies by your software, try Hushmail.
If you want to try and live without YouTube… Godspeed.