Unusually apathetic response from Google to 'sharing' complaints

An experiment started two weeks ago by Google to leverage its Talk application as a way of sharing news feeds from Google Reader, has been met with some derision. What may be more surprising, though, is the company's response.

On the surface, it might seem pretty straightforward: If you've opted to share portions of your Google Reader feeds list with selected friends, then friends on your Google Talk and Gmail chat will be able to receive what you're sharing. That was the intention of the company's introduction on December 14 of an interoperability feature that links shared friends on one Google application to shared friends on another.

"One of my favorite uses for Reader is to share interesting stuff with my friends," explained Google's Chrix Finne at the time. "I click 'Share' whenever I find an interesting item, be it hilarious or serious. This way, all my friends can subscribe to my shared items (and I to theirs), and we can easily see if a friend has found something interesting. This can be inconvenient, as I have to distribute my shared items link to my friends and vice-versa."

So to eliminate the inconvenience of distributing lists manually, Finne explained, the feature would enable those lists to appear in one tier of the Google Talk window.

But in the wake of Facebook's now-infamous Beacon debacle, many users saw the feature as a misappropriation of their personal data. Over the past few weeks, Google's discussion thread for its Reader app has been buzzing with what hundreds of comments, a great many of them angry complaints.

One critical problem, it appears, is that while some people are often treated as "friends" for sharing purposes, a subset of that list may actually be friends...especially in the case where Google Talk is used to chat with one's boss.

"I want this turned off and like, now. Now my business associates, my family, my parents can all see my shared feeds and I have no control over that at all," wrote one user. "I was using the shared feed for myself as a way to backup important RSS feeds, not to share with people I hardly know who happen to be in my address book. This is an awful, awful feature, an invasion of privacy and a feature that no one wanted in the first place. If we did, we'd share the link!"

"There are degrees of privacy (or lack thereof)," another user responded in agreement, "and Google jumped about 30 notches in one swoop."

Not all comments were negative. One user wrote, "I absolutely love you for finally making this real! I've been waiting for this for more than a year now. This is just plain great!"

But immediately below that was this comment: "This is hands-down the worst feature I've ever encountered, and if it isn't removed or amended soon, I'll have no choice but to delete everything from Google Reader and never use it again, which is really unfortunate. I have parents, relatives, business associates, all who use Gmail, in my contact list, and the only way to not share with them is to remove the contact? That's insane."

While Google has yet to be tempted by the lure of being completely unresponsive to its user community, a response from a product representative on December 17 is being treated as unsympathetic. Not everyone sees the lists you've opted to share, it explains, just those people with whom you've actually conducted chats on Google Talk who also happen to be Google Reader users.

"The 'share' feature was always intended to imply some amount of publicity," reads the response from the person whom the group's profile describes as merely "Graham." "That's why we used the term 'share' and had shared items marked as public by default on the Settings > Tags page."

The response to Google's response was intense, including this: "Wow. This is a politician's answer...i.e., answers that don't address our specific questions/complaints."

"Sharing is great, but not when you have no control over who you are sharing with," another user wrote. "The old system was very simple to use, adding a button to share with Google Talk contacts faster might have been nice. But total broadcasting whether you want to or not...that's just wrong."

On December 18, Google's Graham announced it had implemented a way for users to stop sharing their lists with everyone. But it involved clearing out those lists entirely, and starting to build a new one that uses special tags.

"I never want to share items with everyone in my contact list," responded one user to this added feature. "I only want to share them with the friends who I sent my shared feed URL to. You are making it more difficult to do the thing that I want to do all the time and easier to do the thing that I never want to do."

As of this morning, much of the Google Reader user community's response was characterized by this: "Had you let us chose to turn this on, and who to share what with, it could have been a great idea. But by simply opening the doors we thought we had locked, to let anyone see everything that we read and consume, you've violated a great deal of trust that we as your customers have."

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