By Allen McDuffee
Monday, June 28th, 2010 — 8:34 am
‘Indicative of the media’s inclination to monetize every last bit of our information,’ advocate says
Before you call your spouse over to see the newest cute kitten video on YouTube, you had better check twice to make sure no indiscretions will be exposed on your YouTube homepage.
As part of an effort to make YouTube more like Facebook and other social networking sites, a re-design of YouTube’s homepage for registered users may reveal some of your deepest, darkest email secrets.
The new layout, rolled out over the course of the spring, while you’re logged in displays all of the individuals you’ve emailed with in a large text box front and center on the homepage, in the hope you will connect with them and expand the matrix of viewers of your (and their) videos. But the unsolicited suggestions to connect with exes, former employers or where adult purchases may have been made, isn’t a welcome intrusion for many particularly when it’s based on a history of online correspondence that was presumed to be private.
The apparent motivation for the change is to find new ways to encourage more page views and increase the likelihood of viewers clicking on Google’s advertising. Combining YouTube and Gmail—both Google, Inc. products—maximizes the audience potential (and therefore advertising revenue) exponentially. (Full disclosure: Raw Story uses and earns revenue from Google’s AdSense service, a program which provides contextual advertising to pages like this one.)
Google did not respond to a request for comment about the change.
Jennifer L. Pozner, executive director of Women In Media & News and author of the forthcoming Reality Bites Back, said that “While Youtube’s shift wont make as great of an impact as Facebook’s draconian privacy rules, it is still indicative of the media’s inclination to monetize every last bit of our information whether we feel comfortable with it or not and whether it’s useful to us or not.”
The new layout has been immensely unpopular among users, registering hundreds of negative comments on the YouTube blog and sparking some to take their protests to other social networking sites, including a Facebook group called The New YouTube Sucks!!, which encourages members to offer their testimony of the problems associated with the new homepage.
For many, the new version forces social networking on a site that many joined purely for the purpose of entertainment.
One user wrote this about the new version in a YouTube help forum:
“I have 380 friends on YouTube. I had no reason to deny friend requests until now, so I didn’t see any harm in it. They had no major affect on my channel or homepage, and every now and then they might recommend a good video to me. Now, however, every single activity of all 380 people is flooding up my feed, and I have to scroll through everything just to see if my subscriptions have uploaded anything. Did Mega64 upload a new video? I’m not sure, because 20 people have favorited 20 different videos, none of which I actually care to watch.”
This annoying scenario can quickly turn into an embarrassing one for those who took advantage of the auto-connect feature, which would unwittingly dredge up videos of people in your past and place them in your stream on your homepage.
But no matter how many annoying or embarrassing occurrences there may be, it’s not likely that Google will face any sustained protests from users, according to Cato Institute research fellow, Julian Sanchez.
Sanchez, who works on technology, privacy, civil liberties, and new media issues, said, “What they ought to do, rather, is make very clear on each site that a user’s identity on one can be linked to the others, and give people an opportunity to think twice about which connections they may not want made.”
What’s problematic in all of this, according to Sanchez, is “the reminder that online identities a user might have conceived of as distinct are in fact linked. To create such links against a user’s expectations is a privacy violation, but here Google isn’t actually creating the link so much as drawing attention to one that already exists.”
Sanchez pointed out that all of this might serve as a helpful reminder that “someone who’s got your Gmail address can already find your YouTube videos—and if you don’t want that prospective employer seeing last week’s drunken karaoke session, maybe you should think about opening a separate account.”
He continued, “Even when the link is preexisting, there can be an effect on privacy in practice, insofar as it effectively announces the existence of an account that an email contact might not have bothered to search for manually.”
However unsettling this may be, it oddly may be a step in the right direction for Google, according to media technologist and social media consultant, Deanna Zandt.
“At least they’re asking, that’s a start,” says Zandt.
“One of the major failures of the release of Google’s Buzz product was that it didn’t do a whole lot of asking; thus you ended up with women inadvertently sharing things with abusive ex’s because those ex’s were their most contacted person,” Zandt pointed out.
Buzz is Google’s social networking platform in which Gmail users had their contact lists automatically made publicly available unless they opted out—many of whom did not immediately know such an option existed.
But even with the ability to “opt-out,” it might just be time to get over any notions of true privacy.
Zandt, author of Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking, says, “What we all need to wrap our heads around at this point is that privacy is not a binary option anymore—there’s no absolute private and absolute public. We have nuanced and varying degrees of privacy (we always have, it’s just more apparent now), and the social networking applications that claim to enhance our lives better be working hard and fast to represent those nuances accurately.”
Some say Google hasn’t been sensitive to the privacy concerns of its users. In a December 2009 CNBC interview, CEO Steve Schmidt said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” He continued, “But if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines, including Google, do retain this information for some time.”
But the company did pull out of the Chinese market earlier this year, saying that they could no longer comply with the country’s extensive censorship rules. Google accused China of hacking its popular Gmail service, which may have been intended to spy on anti-government activists.
Google first faced intense scrutiny over privacy issues on a broad scale surrounding the company’s popular Gmail service, where advertisements would appear in the sidebar directly related to the content of the email. Google insists that the only reader of Gmail is the account holder and bots are used explicitly to increase the relevance of advertisements.
YouTube, created in 2005 by three former PayPal employees, was purchased in 2006 by Google Inc. According to YouTube, 2 billion videos are viewed each day and hundreds of thousands of daily video uploads means that 24 hours of video are uploaded each minute.
Allen McDuffee is a New York–based journalist. He recently launched a blog called Think Tanked.Start Slide Show with PicLens Lite