This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News
by Larry Magid
As far as I can tell, Google engineer Steve Yegge never intended to become famous for criticizing the company he works for. But if you use his company’s search engine to google his name, you’ll find plenty of references to his recent Google+ post in which he called the company’s new social media service a “pathetic afterthought,” a “knee-jerk reaction” and a “study in short-term thinking.”
Those are harsh words for someone to write about his employer, but in a follow-up post, Yegge said that he had never meant for it to be public. He intended it to be “visible to everybody at Google, but not externally.”
Yegge, who referred to himself as “not what you might call an experienced Google+ user,” posted his rant at midnight and made it public by mistake.
I’m not sure what he did wrong. In his follow-up post he said “by the time I figured out how to actually post something I had somehow switched accounts.” But one thing is for sure, if a Google engineer can mess up on his Google+ privacy settings, so can the rest of us.
Whenever you post something on Google+ you have the option to post it to the public or restrict it to specific people that you enter by name. Or, you can select a group or groups of people called “circles.” Directly below the text box is an area where you can “add circles or people to share with.” Once you make a selection and click “share,” your post is seen only by those people.
There’s a catch to in-line privacy settings
But there’s a catch. Whatever option you select will remain the default until you change it. So if you generally post only to specific circles but decide you have something to say to the public, you had better remember to go back and change the setting the next time you post.
To be fair, the icons that represent your choice are big, bold and in plain English. But that wouldn’t necessarily prevent someone from forgetting to check their last setting. If you found that you have made a mistake, Google+ lets you delete or edit the post and change the audience but — as has been said many times before — once something is “out there,” it’s out there.
Facebook recently adopted similar “in-line” privacy settings. It now lets you decide each time you post whether it should be seen by the public or only by Friends, specific people you specify or a list of people. Lists can be ones you’ve set up (like Google+ circles) or “smart lists,” which Facebook generates based on things you may have in common, such as work or school.
With Facebook, you need to look for a small indicator just below the update box that might say “Public,” or “Friends” or perhaps the name of the list of people you’re sending to. As with Google+, anytime you make a change it remains in place until you change it again, so it’s very important to glance down at that indicator to avoid sending something to the wrong people.
But even if you’re very careful in how you use your social network’s privacy settings, I still urge caution when posting something that could cause problems if seen by the wrong people. There is nothing to stop someone from copying and pasting what you post. You can delete something from your profile but you can’t prevent others from posting it to theirs or sharing it via email or other means.
It’s also important to be cautious when sending email.
Several years ago, when I was writing for the Los Angeles Times, I got a worrisome email from my editor about a column I had submitted. Upset, I forwarded it to my wife with the comment “I don’t think he likes my work,” but instead of pressing “forward,” I clicked “reply.” The good news is that he wrote back saying that he loved my work but just had a small problem with that particular column.
And when you do forward, be careful about the “thread” of messages you’re sending on. A couple of years ago my wife forwarded an innocuous Gmail message to my daughter but she didn’t realize that the message was part of a longer conversation that included a plan for my daughter’s surprise birthday party.
Also be careful when you type names in the “to” box. Some email programs and Web services (including Gmail) have an auto-complete function that saves keystrokes but makes it easy to select the wrong person. If President Barack Obama were using Gmail to write a message to his wife Michelle Obama, he could easily direct it instead to Michele Bachman.
Another common error is responding to people on lists. I’m part of a Google Group listserv and when someone posts to the list, the “from” field shows their name. So if you want to respond privately, it’s natural to just click “reply.” But if you do that, the reply goes to the entire list as several of us have discovered when we accidentally broadcast what was meant to be a private response.
In 1968, Andy Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” The future is here, but with the wrong click, that could easily turn into 15 minutes of infamy.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit Internet safety organization that receives support from Google and Facebook.