google-mail_ahmad-faizal-yahya-shutterstock-com

Ahmad Faizal Yahya/Shutterstock

Voices


Google Is About to Let Total Strangers Email You,” a tech site warned.

Imagine my total lack of alarm, given that, best as I can tell, total strangers can already contact me if they can find my email address, which isn’t too hard since it’s listed publicly in plenty of places.

OMG strangers! was just one of many strong reactions to the news that Google was opting Gmail users in to a confusing new feature. Here’s how it works: Google+ users that you have added to a G+ circle (its version of following) will be able to message you in Gmail without needing your email address. These messages will look like email, but will appear in a Social tab, not your main inbox. Within Gmail, you can disable this feature completely or open it to all G+ users, depending on whether you’re an Inbox Zero or Inbox Million type of person.

Given some of Google’s past aggressiveness in trying to solve “social,” the vox populi saw this feature as an attempt to force people onto G+. In reality, bridge-building between these two services tells us a great deal about how Google management envisions the future of identity and communications.

1. G+’s real value is as a login platform, on and off Google properties

Forget all those +1s and the photo-sharing nonsense (what did happen to the photos I had on Picasa?). This is about getting you to log into Google services. Go back a few years — Google had siloed data on you via Gmail, but most of their products you used without ever sharing an identity. Now they have one account, most likely using your “real name” and a single targeting cookie. Google’s not a search company, it’s a data company. And unified profiles give it so much more usable data.

The same trend is accelerating outside of Google-owned properties. Janrain reported that 35 percent of social login on third-party services is occurring via Google Accounts. This is no doubt helped by the growth of Android and consumer fear that logging in with Facebook will lead to sharing of information with their friends.

2. Communication is about permissions, not email addresses, phone numbers or addresses

Here’s what I think the integration of Gmail and G+ messaging is really about: Making communications about people and permissions, rather than possession of contact info.

If Google Voice was about having a single number attached to you rather than a specific device, then Gmail with G+ is about establishing a relationship graph between two people, and facilitating communications via whatever mode makes sense based upon any number of criteria — permissions, preferences, number of people, reason for communication. It’s why Gmail + Gchat + G+ Hangouts are all merging into a single interface.

I don’t think Google is alone in perceiving this shift. Facebook has tried to integrate more on-platform communication types into its product, but really only Messenger has worked. (Remember Facebook Video Chat powered by Skype? Or Facebook email addresses?)

Current generations of kids aren’t going to have to worry about knowing your phone number or email or street address. They’ll be able to press your name or picture, and depending on the app or need, will initiate a text, call, delivery, whatever. Twitter has been experimenting with various DM permissioning. And why do you think Snapchat’s user base didn’t care much when phone numbers leaked? Because the phone number is the least personal data on a phone, compared to your text messages, photos or other app data.

My bet is that a year from now, G+ will be much more about communications, with content sharing as part of the interaction, rather than a social stream. If you were building Gmail and G+ from scratch today, they’d be the same product. And that’s the logic behind the messaging permission changes.

Larry Page is pretty fearless when it comes to moving quickly. Case in point: When he assumed the CEO role in 2011, an incremental push to review Google’s UX and visual design became a unified sprint touching all major properties. I believe this extends to asking the question, “If we were starting this product today, would we design it in the same way?” If the answer is “no,” then one of two paths result: The product is updated, or a new one is built that’s more suited for the future. That’s what you’re seeing here, and it may just be the beginning of Google’s identity + comms unification.

Hunter Walk is a partner at seed-stage venture fund Homebrew. He says: “Although I spent 9+ years working at Google & YouTube, the speculation here is purely from personal opinion and additional insights from a company we funded at Homebrew, which is solving these sorts of communication challenges inside of business enterprises.” Reach him @hunterwalk and on his blog.




9 comments
Damien P.
Damien P.

Very intersting point of view, far from the rage we've read here and there. I am fascinated by the evolution of what defines ou identity and you are right, this change in Gmail probably doesn't matter much.


Incidentally, you've made a very pertinent side point:

"with content sharing as part of the interaction, rather than a social stream"


The (re)emergence of person-to-person platforms (snapchat for instance) partially replacing FB/Twitter posts seems to be trendy...

JoshuaTalley
JoshuaTalley

Hunter, thanks for not continuing the smearing of this new feature. It's not as bad as most media outlets have portrayed it. When I first signed into Google+ on day one, I immediately saw it as a platform that could serve as an email replacement, almost. As it has evolved, I still see that possibility. This new link just serves to further that potential in my mind.

Tim McCormick
Tim McCormick

Thank Hunter, good points. One clarification, 


> Google+ users that you have added to a G+ circle (its version of 

> following) will be able to message you in Gmail without needing 

> your email address. 


My understanding from articles and from reviewing my G+ settings is that the new system allows /any/ G+ user to, once, send email to Gmail inbox of any G+ user who hasn't opted out. I received a number of these just in the day or two before I changed my settings. 


From my p.o.v. Google actually does not seem altogether smart about what I want from identity and contact. I want multiple identities and fine-grained control of what contacts / calls on my attention, as fully and easily under my control as possible. Unified profiles seem clearly about Google's interest in data-mining and tracking me, not my needs.  I think the conflating of email address with identity has contributed to a big privacy/spam problem for a long time, and to examine/combat that I've long used a system of giving out context-specific 'tracer' addresses, so I can track and manage how they're used. 


Unfortunately, I continue to be baffled at the variety of obvious noise and spam Gmail lets into my "important" inbox (autoreplies, in Chinese, from addresses I've never sent to or received from, really?).  Baffled to not have a simple whitelist option that'd segregate all mail from addresses I haven't previously sent to, accepted from, or whitelisted. 


On the other hand, I appreciate and use Google Voice to manage my phone interactions.  It puts a useful management layer between the caller and the 'actual' contact info at my end, i.e. phone # or device I'm actually using. I can redirect it, set up processing rules, route everything to voicemail/transcription, and easily block numbers from being able to call me again.  


As you suggest, at some point the privacy/contact problem merges into the area of UI and notification design.  Anyone *can* find and (try to) contact me, but user-centered tools will increasingly filter & stage the contact. Most media and tools are still on the dark side of the force, in terms of being designed and incented to break into your attention rather than conserve it;  but there is a countervailing evolution e.g. of better notification design in Android, iOS "Do No Disturb" settings, Ted Selker's work on "Considerate Systems," etc. 


> it's so lonely here. who wants to comment?


Since you asked.. I found it difficult/confusing to comment in this Recode setup. The comment box is LiveFyre, but both the "Sign in" link and "Post comment as.." link lead to an unlabeled login box that doesn't accept my LiveFyre login, or offer login by other networks (e.g. Twitter, G+) as I am used to with LiveFyre. 


Apparently I have to create a Recode.net account, but this is counter-intuitive, since the comment box is labeled as from a 3rd-party comment network, whose main purpose from a user's standpoint is to avoid having to create new site-specific login (redundant work, additional maintenance/info-decay problem, no reputation metric, have to learn new UI/process to do it, etc). The Recode profile asks for my phone number and home address (optional, but WTF?) but doesn't let me put in eg Twitter handle, web site, or self-description. It seems from another era. Also, the "Post comment as.." link repeatedly froze my screen, using vanilla Chrome 32.0.1700.77 for Mac. 


I wrote a comment, then tried login, went into signup sequence that required email confirmation (for me, involves a delay for Gmail's POPmail retrieval).  After confirmation, there was no link back to article, and when I went back there via browser history, my comment was erased. (I'd kept my own copy, because commenting veteran, but probably most people wouldn't).  


I think Recode may need to work on this comment system design some more. It's confusing and has a high effort barrier, likely to heavily suppress participation. 


This is mostly tangential to your post, I realize, except it perhaps can be seen as another, more public case for the design problem of how people are able/allowed to contact each other. I happen to have been researching this point lately (see "Comment Systems as Urban Form: the #OpenComments model" http://tjm.org/2014/01/14/proposal-for-opencomments-online-commenting-system/).  In online matters, sometimes it seems the topic into which all rivers run is Attention. Will fwd comment to Recode too.


Tim McCormick

Palo Alto

tjm.org  @tmccormick 

Mac-Harry.de
Mac-Harry.de

Google enters our entire life:


- Google+

- Windows 8 Trojan via Chrome Update

- Android in the car

- Android @Home


Google delivers everything to simplify our life but you have to pay the price: Your privacy. May be as a European I am more sensitive than you Americans, but I want to be in control of my personal life, my data, my mobile profiels and so on. I cancelled ALL the google services in my life, same with Facebook and Twitter. Call me an old school boy, but with Apple and the Apple Services I have got everything I need to manage my life, my communication and my relations as well. Who the hell needs this crappy Google?

hunterwalk
hunterwalk

it's so lonely here. who wants to comment?

hunterwalk
hunterwalk

@JoshuaTalley yup, i was initially SHOCKED at the feature, then when i saw what it actually was, kinda shrugged

BayportBob
BayportBob

@Tim McCormick  i agree with you on this point i find to be a major one for me:


From my p.o.v. Google actually does not seem altogether smart about what I want from identity and contact. I want multiple identities and fine-grained control of what contacts / calls on my attention, as fully and easily under my control as possible. Unified profiles seem clearly about Google's interest in data-mining and tracking me, not my needs.  I think the conflating of email address with identity has contributed to a big privacy/spam problem for a long time, and to examine/combat that I've long used a system of giving out context-specific 'tracer' addresses, so I can track and manage how they're used. 


i essentially do the same thing, give out a context-specific email address, so that i can expect certain information to arrive in specific places so i don't have to wade through a lot of noise to keep on top of something.


i guess i am happy i don't have an android phone so that i have to live in that type of environment, at least for now.


decent article hunter.

hunterwalk
hunterwalk

@Tim McCormick i thought same re: G+<>GMail but when I went to GMail to change my setting the default was "Only in my Circles"

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 299,923 other followers