Sour Grapes (or “The Long, Slow Break-up with Google”)

This is me admitting that I made a mistake.

About three, three and a half years ago, I made a carefully considered decision to go all-in on Google. I moved my primary e-mail to GMail, I moved my blog to Blogger, I bought an Android phone, I moved my RSS feed to GReader, I switched from Firefox to Chrome, I moved my pics to Picasa, I moved my music to Google Play, I sort of tried to use Google Docs, and I was in early on the whole Google+ thing. I had good reasons for doing this. I imagined that Google would seamlessly integrate these products into an environment where everything worked well together. I had visions of a Google online “workspace” where I could arrange all of the various Google services in such a way that I’d essentially spend my entire workday in a Google environment. Most importantly, I really trusted Google’s intentions and their commitment to improve these services or at least keep them running. Google struck me as about as “permanent” as anything on the internet could be.

I can very confidently announce that this experiment was a failure.

My first really bad experience came from trying to use Blogger. Other than linking it to Google+, there were never any updates or upgrades or further integrations. I spent a lot of time on LiveJournal back in the day. LiveJournal wasn’t exactly cutting-edge technology, but old LiveJournal worked so much better than modern-day Blogger it was mind-boggling.  The formatting was so inconsistent that I spent more time editing posts to try to make them look halfway decent than I did writing the posts. Blogging really shouldn’t be that painful. So that was my first break with Google. I poked around, played with SquareSpace a little, and settled here on WordPress. This is a marvelous platform. The fact that it is so much better than Google’s should embarrass them.

The GReader fiasco is what really shook my confidence in Google. I understand that no company is under any obligation to continue to offer services that it doesn’t want to offer, but I’m under no obligation to continue to place my trust in companies that shut down useful services. This was actually quite a bit bigger than just Google closing GReader. They ended their entire RSS architecture, which killed several services that were built on it. Google’s reason for this, and I’m paraphrasing, is that they don’t like the pull model for serving content. They prefer to push it. That doesn’t make me particularly comfortable.

That brings me to my current concern with Google+. I can’t stand Facebook. Google+ had a lot of potential, in my opinion, simply because it wasn’t Facebook.  Google, as a company, at least made an effort to present themselves as something other than “evil;” Facebook doesn’t bother pretending.

When I thought of a Google social network, I envisioned something that would be simple to use, fast, integrated with Android, and wide open. They struggled at first will all of those, but hey, they eventually got most of it sorted. It’s pretty slick. The interface is kind of a messy, but it’s much better than Facebook.  They did some nice integration with Picasa (yay!), but also crippled the online editing functions (boo!).

One thing that I should have paid more attention to was the fact that Google never viewed Google+ as a “social network.” Sure, that was the hook to bring people in, but, in their view, Google+ was an identity engine. It was designed to provide Google and their paying customers with a means to link your online identity back to a real person. In order to facilitate this goal, Google instituted a policy that required people to use their “real” names on Google+.

Hence, the Nymwars.

The linked article does a pretty good job explaining why a real names policy is a really, really bad idea for a social network. It’s bad for users, some of whom have jobs and prefer to be discreet about their online presence, and it’s bad for Google because this policy actually undermines the authenticity of the names they present as real. How? It encourages people who want to be anonymous to generate apparently-real names for their accounts rather than obvious pseudonyms, like, for example, WTF Pancakes. Google’s initial response to the backlash was:

“Google+ is completely optional. In fact, many many people want to get in, if you don’t want to use it, you don’t have to.”

Now, for whatever reason, Google didn’t seem to have a problem with the name WTF Pancakes for over two years. During those two years, I was an active member of the Google+ community. I wouldn’t say that my circle of influence was especially large, but I engaged a much larger group of people than I ever had on any other social platform. I did so under the name WTF Pancakes, and Google seemed fine with it.  In fact, they even liberalized their names policy a little bit to allow pseudonyms if you frequently use that name online.

I’ve obviously invested in this identity beyond Google+, both in terms of time and money. Mostly time, though, as the investment consists largely of registering a few domains. The investment of time, though, is significant. There’s a little bit of an emotional tie, too. I like this persona. So, last month, when Google told me that my name no longer conformed to their names policy, it hurt.

I attempted to go through Google’s appeals process to plead my case. I pointed out the domains I owned, the communities where I posted under this name, my Twitter feed, and so forth, in an effort to convince them that this was a legitimate pseudonym. After three weeks of silence, I received a response that my appeal had been denied and an offer to try again. Unfortunately, there was no information as to what was lacking, so I had to guess. I tried again and got the response, word-for-word. I firmly believe that I am in compliance with their policy, but I suspect that it’s a moot point.

I understand that Google+ is their service and they have a right to enforce their policies as they see fit.  I, on the other hand, have a right to be ticked off by it. Their policy enforcement is, at best, capricious. At worst, it’s malicious. The final post I made on the sight prior to my banishment was an article about Google’s puzzling fundraiser for Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe. Inhofe is one of the most anti-science and anti-gay members of Congress. I don’t know, or ever really believe, that Google banned me for linking that article, but it’s something that’s bothered me this whole time.

When you’re in a relationship and you get dumped, it’s pretty common to say some pretty nasty things about your ex. It helps you get over the relationship if you can feel a little anger. There’s some of that going on here with me.

But, sometimes, after you’ve been dumped, you can look back and see that you were clinging to something that didn’t really work for you and hadn’t for some time. All the little annoyances that you live with because you’re in a relationship suddenly seem a lot worse when you’re looking back on it. That’s how I’m feeling about Google right now.

The bottom line is that I just don’t trust Google anymore. I don’t trust them to keep services I depend on up and running. I don’t trust them to enforce their policies uniformly. I don’t trust them to keep their products light and useful; as cool as Google Maps is, it’s become an unholy bloat-monster that slags my laptop and has one of the more baffling interfaces around.  I certainly don’t trust their politics, which is really weird to me. Not only are they supporting Inhofe, but they’re a member of ALEC, an organization that writes boilerplate legislation for conservative legislators to present as their own.

What I do trust is that they’re committed to turning Google+ and related services into a marketing engine whether the users want their information to be used that way or not. I think that link, more than anything, is why they’re cracking down on pseudonyms again. They’re back to their initial missions for G+: To strongly identify real people and then sell information about them.

I’m not ditching all things Google, but I’m not committed to trying to stay all-Google either. It turns out Firefox isn’t nearly the memory hog that Chrome is. Bing is actually pretty usable. I’m about to buy a new phone and, while Android is still probably my best option, the Nexus 5 and Moto X aren’t the no-brainers to me that they would have been six months ago.

So, finishing up with an extension of the relationship metaphor: Would I go back to Google+ if they decided to accept my name? I don’t know. I miss the community there. It was a great way to interact with some interesting folks and not be bogged down by the real-life family stuff you get if you use your real name and/or Facebook. I think it would be funny to see some of their ads pop up with “WTF Pancakes gives the Diaper Genie 4 stars!”  Maybe I’d go back. I don’t know. I’m finding that, between Twitter, this blog, my RSS reader, and a few other blogs I frequent, I’m not missing the social media thing all that match.  Even if they want me back, I’m honestly not sure I want them.

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6 thoughts on “Sour Grapes (or “The Long, Slow Break-up with Google”)

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