Bullet Point: Dear Google, you too need to talk to librarians

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So the Buzz on Google Buzz is decidedly not so good. I’m not going to spend any time on features, or impact, or the idea of integrating social networks with email. This has all been nicely covered elsewhere. Instead, what caught my eye was a decidedly and deservedly profane piece I read on Gizmodo titled “F*ck You, Google.” Be warned, the * is not used throughout the piece, but read it anyway.

The gist of the piece is a mid-twenties woman who has worked hard to protect her identity as she blogs about issues she cares deeply about, and can draw some very unwanted attention from the wrong people. Buzz is thrust upon her and her first friend, automatically now seeing her other friends, and RSS annotations through Google Reader. Worse still she now is friends with commentors on her “anonymous” blog because she routed mail to her blog to her GMail account.

OK, so this would seem like a straight line that Google needs to talk about librarians because we care about privacy. But the real thing I’d like you to think about is that librarians need to talk about privacy to our members in a much more forceful and complex way. How many workshops and discussions do you have with members about Facebook’s privacy filters (probably a bunch), and how many do you have with them about the potential dangers of this kind of information in the hand of third parties and the long term implications of cloud computing (probably fewer)? Do you ever help members do a privacy audit where you walk them through their online life and point out potential issues and problems? Are you ready to do that?

I have met too many librarians who take a myopic approach to privacy. That is, privacy is so important to our members that we don’t even let them decide what information to keep or share. We just wipe all our records after some time so they don’t get caught up in the Patriot Act web. What’s worse, we feel that by creating an environment that protects privacy (by eliminating choice) we are protecting the members, when in fact the information they would expose to us is so inconsequential compared to their other activities it almost doesn’t matter.

Does it matter that we delete any identifying information on our systems when every keystroke they send to our sites can be captured by their Internet service providers? In fact we may be creating an illusion of privacy that does our members a disservice. We must not have a black and white approach to privacy – either you have it or you don’t. Instead we need to learn from Google Buzz that the best of intensions, without a matched deep understanding of the complexities of interconnected systems, can lead to disaster.

This also means that you need to have a pretty sophisticated technical understanding of cloud computing and interconnected systems…not to be a techy, but to implement your values.

Rather than waiting for Google to provide object lessons, we need to see our environments (physical spaces, online services, etc.) as a place that protects privacy by exposing complexities and education, not by creating an air of anonymity. By being active and activists in the area of privacy (not removing the choice) we do our members more good. We also have a stronger position to knock on the door of Google and say we are nervous and here to help.

So while I’m on the Buzz subject I have some more unrelated questions:

1. As a librarian when you heard about Buzz did you first ask yourself how can I use it to promote the library instead of, what are the implications of this tool for my members?

2. When you look at Buzz do you ask yourself how can Google make this better, or how can librarians do it better?

Just some thoughts for a winter day.

7 responses on “Bullet Point: Dear Google, you too need to talk to librarians

  1. Jim

    1. No, when it first popped up into my gmail I thought it seemed like an annoying overlap with my feed reader and/or google wave. Then I thought it seemed like a solution in search of a problem.

    2. I looked for the “turn off buzz” on the bottom of my gmail screen and clicked it. Yea! Now my email is back to just being email.

  2. Jenny

    My first thought was in fact, how can we use this. Then I remembered oh right, it’s a Google product, my institution does not allow use of Google apps “for business purposes.” Thanks. THEN as I was poking about in it for my personal use I saw what was going on with the ridiculous automatic follower relations and scrambled to get as much of it undone as I could (note to Jim: turn off buzz just turns off your SEEING it, the follower relationships persist until you turn them off one by one.) Despite the stronger controls that Google belatedly released, it looks to me like I could still have new relationships foisted on me without my consent so I will have to be constantly vigilant.

    I agree that we fret over privacy to the exclusion of giving users useful options. We often get asked “hey, can I get a list of all the books I borrowed?” to which we cheerfully reply no, because then the FBI could see it. I’d much rather our answer was “yes, we (or you) can set that up in your account, but just to let you know, then the FBI could see it if they thought you were a terrorist.” I’m betting 99.9% of our users would not be worried about that. Because, they are pretty confident the FBI doesn’t think they’re terrorists. How many terrorists do we really think we’re serving?

  3. Lisa Laskaris

    I think many of us (librarians) know the job of keeping information private for our patrons and public is more complex than we talk about. I also think that we can only do what we do, what is within our control and limits. Does it create an illusion? Possibly. But also possibly, it is one more way that information cannot be gathered. I don’t know that this is myopic as much as it is (again) doing what we can when we can. Should we give them back the choice of recording what they do? I’m not so sure that is the answer.

    We are fighting many battles on different levels of privacy. Educating to the complexities of what is involved in these issues would be difficult. My own feeling is patrons who are worried about this might be willing to take the time to grasp the complexities, but many more would not care or understand. This isn’t a reason *not* to have that discussion, however. I think it would be valuable if it could be done in a way that would be meaningful.

    The librarians I know, when approached with new technology, play with it awhile. Our first questions are always, “How can this help our patrons? How can we make this tool useful for our own outreach? How can we learn this to provide some service?” Some tools shake out to be useful, some come and go quickly, some stay for awhile. It is difficult to understand initially which will do what. Part of our jobs is to work with them and learn them for their possibilities. Part of that process is to see the problems, the difficulties and the issues and take measures we can to offset one more way to protect the information for patrons we serve.

    Thanks for that post. Great topic.

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