Should you trust Google with your identity?

I tell BetaNews writers that when assessing anything ask: Who benefits? Then: Who benefits first? Both questions are top of mind as I absorb yesterday's stunning YouTube changes: Integration with Google+ comments.

Commenting is an ongoing debate in our newsroom. I have long advocated that we eliminate anonymous responses to stories. I'm identified. Why shouldn't commenters claiming I "pull ideas out of a monkey's ass" also be identified? I stand naked in the light, while they cower in darkness. But in wake of whistleblower Edward Snowden's stunning disclosures about NSA spying and corporate giants seeking more information about us -- yes, I wash both hands after peeing, thank you very much -- my views about anonymity are changing. I can't control the NSA but can exercise limited restraint with Google. I begin by asking about YouTube identified commenting: Who benefits first?

For What Matters

I started writing about tech in 1994, and one axiom proves true nearly two decades later: Companies lie. They claim new products or improved ones are for you. But publicly-traded entities have a different ethical obligation: To make money for shareholders. You are a means to that end. My longstanding observation: The first benefit rarely goes to the customer -- but, rather, to the company.

Yesterday's Google blogpost announcing the changes puts forth: "When you’re watching a video on YouTube, you’ll see comments sorted by people you care about first. If you post videos on your channel, you also have more tools to moderate welcome and unwelcome conversations. This way, YouTube comments will become conversations that matter to you".

Really now? Who decides what comments matter more to me? Some Google algorithm weighing my interactions with Jon Snow versus PointyEarsAlpha481? Maybe I don't know PointyEars, but he really has something meaningful to contribute. Maybe I Circled up Jon Snow because he married my sister and I felt obligated. But we're friends by appearance only.

"Conversations that matter to you" is feel-good lingo that directly ties to a broader Google marketing campaign. For example, there is a contest where Nexus device users share "what matters" to them. Google+ hashtag #whatmatters gives peek into the contest and response.

You the Euphemism

For more than a decade, I've harped about you being the Grand Poobah of marketing euphemisms. When something is about you it matters more to you. Apple's use of "i" in its devices reads lowercase but sounds like the capital letter when spoken. I-Pod, as in my Pod. The fruit-logo company has long used "you" in product marketing, a tact Google started effectively imitating last year. When done well, people feel good about products, but that "you" is as much, or more, about Me the Corporation.

If you strip back Google business ambitions for the contextual cloud computing era, identity is core. Knowing who you are. Overture, which Yahoo bought 10 years ago, pioneered the search keyword business model Google later perfected and handsomely profits from. Google wraps keywords and other paid contextual content around searches, which generate nearly all the company's revenues. Search-related revenues accounted for more than 90 percent of the $14.89 billion during Q3.

As computing shifts to mobile as the first devices, identity and location matter more to Google and its partners. For example, two years ago, mobile devices accounted for about 6 percent of YouTube traffic. Now: 40 percent. According to IAB, mobile advertising revenues surged 82.8 percent last year. Combined analyst reports put Google ahead, accounting for 50 percent or more, depending on who crunches the numbers.

The more Google knows about you, the more effective and targeted advertising can be -- hence lofty investments in free services like Google Now. But the information giant creates social and economic shantytowns by giving away for free stuff others pay to produce. As someone working in the news profession, I am firsthand witness.

Google doesn't create content, but its entire business model cannibalizes others' valuable intellectual property. In August 2009, I first harped about Google's free-wheeling ways on my personal blog ("Can You Charge for News? Ask Google") and four months later followed up here ("Can there be a free web if no one makes money?")

First Benefit Google

Free is a weapon of mass destruction, which potency increases when identifying the survivors. Who you are. Who you interact with. What you search for. Where you ask the question from. Identity and location.

Returning to Google's proposition that YouTube comments will become "conversations that matter to you", they matter more to the search giant. Linking you to someone else increases the potential benefits to Google and its partners. If you look at recent Google+ changes tied to search and other services, answer to the "Who benefits first?" question is clear.

Who does Google think you care about: "You’ll see comments at the top of the list from people in your Google+ Circles, from creators, and from popular personalities. Comments with many likes and replies will rank highly as well".

Not for the first time, Vic Gundotra, Google senior veep of engineering said during the October 29th launch of new Google+ features: "We know who is important in your life". On Twitter, blogger Paul Thurrott quipped: "That sounds like a threat :)". It's not that in context, but the point nevertheless is clear.

Last week, Google started handing out vanity Plus URLs like candy. Yum, just in time for Halloween. But are they treats or tricks? There are plans to use Google+ profile photos for caller ID on Android phones. Then there are changes to the search privacy policy, such that Google can attach your profile to advertising. You can opt out, which I had to do twice.

These changes are all about identifying you to others, and in process lending credibility to Google and its partners' products -- all wrapped around content taken for free, given away for free but handsomely profited from. Obviously, end users receive benefits for being identified, with search being the most actively used service and YouTube not far behind.

The newest gimme is Google Opinion Rewards, where you take surveys, the company pays in Play credits and the reward is the personal information you reveal. This thing is pure gold for a company seeking to create profiles for targeting ads around contextual search.

Two years ago I asked: "I sold my soul to Google, can I get it back?" Google holds contract on my identity. But should I trust the company with my identity? Should you?

Photo Credit: HomeArt/Shutterstock

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