Ragged Clown

It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing…


Google Makes Little Girls Cry

#occupygooglereader is a cry of from the heart of Reader readers everywhere who quietly enjoyed the trickle of articles shared by friends real and virtual on Google’s wonderful RSS Reader.

It was a a small feature and I bet no more than one in a hundred used it. I liked to tap the little share with note button at the bottom of articles that moved me in some small way. I had no idea whether anyone ever saw my notes but it felt good to write them. My notes were messages in bottles bobbing insignificantly in an ocean of comment but were terribly meaningful to the lonely guy who scrawled them and tossed the bottle into the retreating tide.

It was obvious the Google would do away with the share feature on Reader as soon as Google+ appeared on the horizon. I looked forward to it even. Bottles tossed in the ocean are romantic and all but how much efficient for the guy on the island to get a modern communications pipeline with hangouts and +1s and circles?

Long before circles were the preferred shape for social exchange, I had a little debating circle going with a small number of close friends. We covered many of the trending topics of the day – Invade Iraq? 3-1 against! Impeach Clinton? 3-1 against! – and we covered all the greatest topics in the history of thought. We covered philosophy, science, theology, economics, politics everything – intelligent design? 3-1 against! The Basis of a Sound Society? Ah! Sadly, we never resolved that one.

Come to think of it, we were often 3-1 against. The 1 once requested reinforcement from an old college buddy but we turned him down (3-1 against!). In the end, real Social Networking (capital S capital N) killed our little circle and after 6 or 7 years of passionate remonstrations, our clamour faded to silence.

Through an accident of history, my official social networks coalesced into very distinct circles. Twitter is all about software craftsmanship; Facebook is for long lost nieces, schoolmates and pirates; Linked In for former colleagues. I haven’t really figured out what Google Plus is for yet but I have a secret wish that it’s for serious debate. I even created a circle for it but my Debating Circle is so far unsullied by any actual debate.

Google+’s circles seem perfect for debates. If you debate on Twitter, who knows which frothing wingnut or moonbat will join in and no one wants to discuss moral philosophy with their crazy uncle on Facebook. I tried it once with the frothing wingnut sister-in-law of a friend of a wife in South Dakota (the sister-in-law, not the wife) but in the end the wingut’s head threatened to explode with anger and the friend shut down all the fun for fear of losing her inheritance.

It’s funny to watch debates on Facebook as it’s probably the only place in the world where wingnuts actually hang out with moon bats on a regular basis. The debates get quite surreal quite quickly. With just one Extropian or Randian on your friends list [and don’t we all have at least one of those? -ed] and the discussion will go asymptotic before it even gets started. Facebook is the new polite society where you can’t discuss sex, politics or religion and anyone who does is instantly flagged as moral leper to be shunned by the righteous and the clean. Google+, with its tidy little boundaries seems like the perfect breeding ground for a self organized leper colony and I live in hope that, one day, the disease will take hold.

I expect that much of the outrage among fans of the share with note button on Reader comes from the sense of loss of a safe place to talk passionately about important topics free from self-censorship for fear of offending someone. If we are all reading Conor Friedersdorf, there is a good chance that we have sympathy for his arguments or at least care enough to disagree passionately without causing or taking offense.

I let loose freely on my blog but, even here, there’s always a nagging doubt that someone will take umbrage at an overlooked subtlety or you’ll cause outrage in an over-sensitive boss or sister-in-law when they find out that you are a secret pirate [present bosses and sisters-in-law excepted of course! -ed].

It’s not just that Google deleted a safe venue for debate that causes the sense of loss that the#OccupyGoogleReader people are feeling. It’s the fact that Google has snuffed out countless little debating circles that have grown organically over the years. They can reform their networks on Google+ but they won’t be the same. Even switching from one Google+ account to another, I will probably lose about half of my network. My new network will be more refined of course, without the tyre-kickers and the people that added me to their circles before they got bored with clicking the you might know these people button but I still resent Google a little bit more today than I did yesterday.

But I don’t resent Google nearly as much as the next group of aggrieved netizens that I’ll mention here.

Imagine yourself as an eleven year old girl.

You’ve been flirting with and over GMail and Buzz for a couple of years now. You have just started middle school and your real life social network just got much bigger and more exciting. Girls in middle school represent the very pinnacle of human social interaction and you are a child of the cyber age so it’s natural that your virtual life would reflect the one you live in meat-space. Your killjoy parents think you are not ready for Facebook so gmail and Buzz are the only social games in town.

One day you come home from school for a fresh round of flirting and middle school bitchery on the interwebs and you notice – quelle horreur! – that Buzz is gone!!! OMG!!1! :(((((((((((( What’s a modern little girl to do??!

But wait! What silver lining is this? Google wants me to join Google Plus!!! There’s a banner right there that says so!! Oh happy day!! :-))))))

My dad has told me a 100 times that I shouldn’t enter personal information on the interwebs. He even has a fake birthday for that very purpose [29 feb on a leap year. It’s surprising how many sites that breaks! Even my own employer’s! – ed]. But this is Google. They have a very important looking notice that says I mustn’t lie or bad things will happen. What can it hurt to break my daddy’s rules just this one time and type my real date of birth just once…..?

This is what happens.

You get a scary notice that Google has taken away all of your friends. All of your fun; all of your LIFE. All gone. If you were an eleven year old girl and Google just shut down your social life, what’s the first thing that you would do?

You would cry.

Can you imagine what it’s like for a girl just starting middle school to lose her online presence? Ever had your WoW account hacked and lost everything? Ever lent your gameboy to a cute little mexican girl at a football game and have her delete 6 months worth of your pokemon adventure? What if your Flickr account got deleted? I was eleven-years once. I would’ve been devastated and I wasn’t even an eleven-year old girl.

Google is in a tough spot. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) doesn’t allow web sites to collect data from kids under 13 but, as surely everyone except the congress-critters who passed the law knows, the law is a nonsense.

In fact CR found that over 5 million of Facebook’s 7.5 million-plus underage were as young as “10 and under.” … That’s not the worst of it. CR also found that underage kids using Facebook were unsupervised by parents. The site claims ‘not wrongly’ that this exposes them to “malware or serious threats such as predators or bullies.”


Telling middle school kids that they can’t interact with their friends online is like telling the tide not to come in. King Canute himself would have known better.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Some people wanted that law.

“We urge Facebook to strengthen its efforts to identify and terminate the accounts of users under 13 years of age, and also to implement more effective age-verification methods for users signing up for new accounts,” Ioana Rusu, the regulatory counsel for Consumers Union, wrote in a letter to Zuckerberg.

We need a modern Canute to demonstrate the futility of ineffective laws. They are worse than futile. They teach kids that the law is to be laughed at. Everyone else already knows.

Google could have done better though.

Their message doesn’t say

We are sorry but those nasty democrats in Washington made us forbid you from using Google+… but carry on using Gmail which you and 99% of your eleven-your old friends have been using for years to communicate with each other and with your teachers and soccer coach and piano instructors.

It doesn’t say

We are taking away GMail and Google Docs but we’ll give you half an hour to download your contact lists and your homework projects so you don’t have to cry some more on Monday morning when you explain to your teacher that Google ate your homework.

Wait! What? You didn’t read the terms and conditions? What are you? Eleven-years old?


It says

You do not meet the age requirements for a Google Account. This account will be deleted in 28 days unless the birthday you entered was incorrect and you submit proof that you are 13 years old or older.

Forget the sugar and spice. Little girls these days are 90% social networking and 10% pictures of ponies. Google just cut out a big chunk of their hearts.

Google, like most technology companies, probably has little designer teams with persona profiles pinned to the wall. Personas, for the uninitiated, are representative archetypes of a user population.

They have names like Chuck and Beryl…

Chuck works at the hardware store and lost the use of both his thumbs in a bandsaw accident so he needs the channel selector to respond to a whack with his fist.

Beryl is forty two year old secretary who thinks an email is not a proper email unless you attach an Excel spreadsheet…

Personas are a great way to get inside the heads of your users and imagine how they see your products. Full-ceremony personas come with a life history and a profile photo and a list of their favourite charcuterie. Design teams have earnest conversations about how Jennifer will only click buttons with rounded corners because they remind her of that Laura Ashley dress she wore to Aunt Mathilda’s wedding.

Google needs a new persona. The profile picture will be of a little girl crying big, cheek-sopping tears because Google took away all her friends.

Chelsea used to be a fun-loving cherub but, these days, she just cries. Chelsea loves playing with dolls and talking with her friends about ponies. She doesn’t use gmail any more though because we took it away and made her cry.

They’ll update the persona over time. In 20 years, it will a picture of a bitter, thirty-something woman who still refuses to use Google+ because of that one time that Google took away all her friends. The marketing people will come up with some cheesy category for them like

generation lost – the generation who carry iPhones and use Bing and Facebook and drive Oracle self-driving cars because they still refuse to use Google products because they still remember that one time, 50 years ago, when Google ripped out a piece of their soul.

Maybe they could work it into one of those cute logos? The second ‘o’ could be a sobbing little girl in pigtails, the ‘e’ could be a teardrop and the descender of the ‘g’ could represent the happiness draining away from every little girl’s life.

In all fairness, I should note that Google did provide one way for our sad little girl to escape from social purgatory. If she can persuade her parents to lie about her age – and type in a credit card number for authentication – she can come back into the Google fold.

I swear the button to commit this sin was an eye, winking.

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10 responses to Google Makes Little Girls Cry

Kevin November 5, 2011

PS. I like the new design of Google Reader. I read an article on A List Apart recently that described how we prefer rounded corners because our ancestors on the savanna didn’t have square corners. Those same ancestors were probably also surrounded by smiling stock art photos of vanilla happy families. I love the fact that Google is willing to call bullshit on all that. It’s a different aesthetic, is all.

Kevin November 5, 2011

PPS. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the #occupygooglereader people either. Legacy software imposes costs and creates inertia that prevents Google from moving forward. I do have a little sympathy for their loss. Just not a lot. Google+ is better and it will eventually take up the slack created by the “share with note” vacuum.

Matt November 6, 2011

Are you suggesting that Google has wronged kids, or that our lawmakers have? Sound like you’re saying both. What would you have done if you were Google?

Stuart Thompson November 6, 2011

Mr. Google is an amazing butler, one of the best, but cosmos help us all if he decides to stage a coup and not open the door when you get home.

Do you go to your own library when I need of reference, or does Mr. Google run off and get the book for you? What if he disagrees with a particular book? Might it meet with an unfortunate accident? Does he run your schedule and check your mail too?

Don’t get me wrong. I love Mr. Google. I just hope Elijah is able to figure out Giskard a little faster when the moment comes.

Kevin November 6, 2011

Lawmakers, certainly. The California legislature recently passed a law requiring children to wear helmets while skiing and made parents guilty of something or other if their children didn’t comply. Brown vetoed it – helmet wearing is something that parents can enforce for themselves and the principle of subsidiarity says they should.

COPPA fails the basic test of a proper law. It does not prevent the thing it was designed to prevent and therefore brings the whole of the law a little further into disrepute. It is one of those laws that does almost nothing to reign in bad actors and causes otherwise responsible companies to do unethical things. By drawing a bright clear line where none exists in the real world they have shriveled an ethical spectrum into a binary. Where, pre-law, ethical companies would have to think about the consequences of 15 year olds using their services now they can just shrug and say “law says its ok for anyone over 13”. The law took away the opportunity for ethical reasoning. It also took away a lot of activity for twelve year olds – like emailing their piano teacher and using online tools for homework. Lawmakers have wronged kids.

More selfishly, they wronged me as a parent. I had made a judgement for my child: doing your homework on google docs and emailing your piano teacher – I’ll allow that; Facebook and google plus? I will not allow that because you are not mature enough to deal with it. If I were a different parent or had a different child, I might have made a different decision but now I can’t. Actually, wait. Yes I can. The law is stupid and I can ignore it like 90% of the rest of the population will.

Google is in a tough spot but there are a thousand shades of grey between No Kids Allowed and Everything Goes.

They could have pleaded their Don’t be Evil stance in a court of law. Instead they chose to wash their hands of the whole thing. 2000 years of tradition says that hand-washing is unethical.

IANAL but, as I understand it, the law requires a parent’s permission before storing data on 12 year olds. Hey! That doesn’t sound unreasonable!

But Google didn’t do that. They shut down the account and then made me swear on my credit card that she was over 13. Not Google’s fault if those evil parents try to sneak their kids some illicit email, right? Was it so hard to ask my permission instead? They get to comply with the law, I get to exercise some parental prerogative, my child gets to email her friends about ponies and congress gets to puff up their chests and declare a job well done.

Let’s assume though that Google’s armies of lawers are right. The law frees Google from the obligations of their motto and there is Certainly a strong precedent for handwashing – Pilate’s washbasin never really caused him any legal trouble. Google could have given me custody of my child’s content – her homework projects, her emails about ponies and time signatures – but instead they took them away unless I was willing to lie. They knew that I would lie to retrieve my daughter’s emails. I can hear ther conversations in my head:

Lawyer #1 : but won’t this no tolerance approach create heartache for tweenage girls across the whole nation?
Lawyer #2 : nah! They’ll just get their parents to lie for them, but at least we’ll be off the hook! :evil cackle:

But none of this is my point. My point is the demographic whirlwind of angry little girls working their way through the ages with the memory of that day that google took their fun away. Google will have to live with that for a long time.

Kevin November 6, 2011

To Stu’s point, the idea that Google would stage a coup might be fanciful but an ever more muscular government deciding what its citizens are allowed to do is not.

This trivial (unless you are an eleven year old girl) little episode is a good practice run to help us know whether Google is on the side of the angels when bad governments pass laws.

Kevin November 6, 2011

From that thread, it looks like they are not just cutting off discussions about ponies and homework – they are deleting letters from Santa and grandparents too! Have they no heart?

“there are associated implications for data and privacy involved.”

Spoken like a lawyer.

Kevin November 6, 2011

That thread gets better. Apparently Google ran an ad suggesting that new parents create an account and send memories and photos and milestones to their newborn to catalog the sweet moments of the precious child’s life. When the child is old enough to appreciate the treasure trove of memories, Google will delete them all.

Jeffrey Fredrick November 7, 2011

Eliana now has an email address on yahoo, because Yahoo allows parents to authorize a minors account.

Unlike Facebook, Google or Apple. All of which will not allow an account by a child under 13. (Apple did with the mobile.me family account but doesn’t with iCloud.)

This policy gets worse when you consider a site like Khan Academy. What if you happen to be homeschooling your 11-year old daughter and would like to track her progress on Khan Academy? Too bad:


Look again at the icons they have for rewards, then realize that you have to be over 13 to have an account that will allow you to login.

I agree with Kevin that such laws weaken morality. (Another 3-1 against?)


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