Google Reader Making More Enemies Than Friends

Announced earlier this month, the tweak to Google Reader, an online RSS feed service that gathers blog and Web site updates in a single pane, lets users mark blog posts or articles for sharing. In doing so, those sites and blogs were made available to every person on the sharer's contact list for Google Talk messaging, despite the person's status as a friend, colleague or professional contact.

Reader users quickly bashed the faux pas, urging Google to adjust the slip up.

"What genius at Google thought that this same list, consisting of hundreds of people from all sorts of parts of my life, would be the same list I'd want to share my Reader entries with?" asked one Reader user identified as "Toastie" on a Google Reader user forum. "I realize I am echoing plenty of other posts, but I hope Google will wise up and separate contacts from friends."

"Toastie" was not alone. Another poster, using the moniker "rabidsamfan" noted some of the potential pitfalls of sharing a little too much information on the Web.

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"I don't use Google Reader, thank goodness, but I am appalled at the idea that Google fails to recognize the differences between 'shared' information, 'published/public' information, and 'aggressively promoted' information," rabidsamfan noted. "I am also alarmed by the possibility that the children and teens who are in my contacts list might be exposed to the RSS feeds of some of their uncles, perforce, or suddenly have access to things I have shared with people in GoogleDocs."

Chrix Finne, a Google product manager who writes on the Official Google Reader Blog, championed the Reader change when it first took effect, proclaiming "I like friends! I like Reader! I hope you do too."

But after mountains of negative feedback piled up from friends who felt betrayed, Finne backpedaled and instructed Google Reader users on how to disable sharing with everyone and anyone in their Google Talk contact lists and said users can chare articles with small groups or individuals if they chose. Instead of sharing articles and blog posts, users can share tags, Finne wrote. Tagged articles can be shared with a smaller group, as opposed to only being able to share an article with an entire contact list.

"Each tag you share will get its own public page and feed URL, the same way shared items has a public page and feed; these tags will not be shared with anyone unless you send them to the public address," he wrote. "Once you've shared the tag, simply click 'Edit tags' at the bottom of any item to share it under that tag."

Finne also outlined ways to manage items already shared, writing that lists of shared items can be transferred or cleared and users can start over.

"We've gotten a lot of helpful feedback about our new sharing feature," Finne wrote on the Google Reader blog. "We'd hoped that making it easier to share with the people you chat with often would be useful and interesting, but we underestimated the number of users who were using the Share button to send stories to a limited number of people. We're looking at ways to make sharing more granular and flexible, but in the meantime there are several ways to share items without letting all of your Google Talk friends see them (you can also add or remove friends via Gmail or Google Talk)."

Nolan Bayliss, co-founder of Naymz, a Chicago-based an online reputation management Website and professional networking site said Google's latest flop bears striking similarities to Facebook's Beacon flounder.

In Facebook's case, the Beacon feature resulted in personal user data being shared with advertisers and the user's friends on the social networking site without the user's knowledge. The misstep prompted Facebook to issue an apology and to offer the San Francisco-based site's 55 million users a clear opt in before their data is passed along to anyone. Facebook also released a privacy control that let users turn off Beacon completely.

"How far is too far?," Bayliss asked, noting that unwittingly sharing data and information with contacts opens users up to a lot of risk and can create a "very bad user experience."

Bayliss said sharing the wrong information with someone from a contact list could also be damaging personally and professionally.

"It was a very bad decision to opt everyone in and not give them control up front to control their own data," he said, adding that both Google's and Facebook's flaps are only going to add fuel to the argument over who owns what data online and what expectation of privacy users should have.

"There are applications out there that go way too far," he said.