5 November 2013

Your Google+ identity is now your business card

Google are apparently hellbent on making your Google+ profile be your publicly visible worldwide profile. With this goal in mind, starting in 2014 Android phones will be displaying your Google+ profile information as caller ID when they receive a call from you. Your Google+ user icon, name, and other information will show up for whoever you call.

Not worried yet? Well, consider that my work phone number is a VoIP system which forwards the call to my cell phone. It’s a very common arrangement at IBM, where so many people work remotely or are mobile. It’s probably the same at many other big companies, not to mention schools and other organizations.

So, let’s imagine a few scenarios here.

  • You’re a teacher. You call a parent, and on their screen they get that amusing profile photo of you drunk off your face at a party.

  • You call your bank to ask about a loan. After the call, the bank manager idly taps the Google+ profile that appeared on his phone, and up come all your postings about the fancy new car you just bought.

  • You call in sick at work. Your manager notices you checked in to a restaurant half an hour ago.

  • You are a realtor. You call back a client, and they see that amusing fake name you put on your Google+ profile, and decide not to answer a call from Mr I.P. Freely.

Yes, I think it’s safe to say that this new policy is a privacy disaster waiting to happen. And like with Facebook, you’re opted in by default, and have to explicitly opt out.

Sure, you could not associate a phone number with you Google account. But if you do that, you can’t use the SMS-based 2-factor authentication to keep your account safe from hackers. You also lose the genuinely useful caller ID functionality.

Yes, you can opt out. But again, you lose the caller ID. And let’s be honest, we know how this is going to work, from playing Facebook Privacy Whack-A-Mole: sooner or later Google will ‘accidentally’ reset your preference, or add some other feature that unexpectedly makes your Google+ profile show up places you weren’t aware of.

So in my view, the only reasonable option now is to treat your Google+ profile as the worldwide public business card that Google obviously wants to force it to be.

If you’re not a heavy Google+ user, the obvious option is to remove almost all your info, and use some other social network. But if you want to keep using Google+ for its discussions, sharing and other features, you’ll probably want to create some other profile with which to do so.

Now, you could just create a whole separate Google+ profile with a new Gmail address and so on. But that’s a pain in the butt, and I think there’s a better option: create a page for yourself. As business people say, you are a brand.

Pages have a number of advantages. You can have lots of them, you don’t need additional accounts in order to manage them, and you can call them anything — no requirement to use your legal name. The downside is that switching between your Page identity and your main identity—which I’m going to call your worldwide public profile—can get a bit confusing. So, make sure you set a distinct profile photo for your page and your world profile. You might even want to set up multiple identities in your browser, so you can have a window for each while you get it all set up. You could also use a completely different browser for the page.

The main downside of Pages is that right now, it seems that the list of people a Page follows is always considered public information by Google. Or at least, I can’t find the setting to make it private.

Tip: When using Google+, the fastest way to switch between your page and your worldwide public profile is the drop-down menu you get by clicking your profile photo at top right.

Now, you’ll probably want to transfer your friends and other circles from your worldwide public profile to your page. But there’s a catch. A lot of Google+ seems to filter out pages you own from your search results. For example, you can’t just share a circle with one of your own pages; by default, your own pages don’t show up. (Or at least, they don’t for me.)

However, there’s a workaround. Once you’ve created the page that you’re going to use for personal stuff on Google+ and switched to using Google+ as that page, i.e. “managing the page”, you can then find your worldwide public profile on G+ and add yourself to the page’s “Following” circle temporarily. Now go back to using G+ as yourself, and go to your circles and look at who has added you. You should be able to find your page in the list, and add it to your Following circle.

Now that you have a temporary two-way circle relationship between yourself and your page, you should find that you can share something, search for your page by name, and have it show up.

So, you can now open one of your circles, and share it with your page (and only your page). You can then switch to your page, look at your notifications, and see that you shared a circle. You can then click through to the post, open the shared circle, and add the members to a circle that belongs to your page.

Once you do this, you’ll quickly discover that Google have implemented a hard limit on the number of changes you can make to your circles each day. So you’ll probably have to move over one circle per day until you’re done. In fact, if you have a lot of friends, you’ll probably have to do them a few at a time, because the limit appears to be 50 changes per day. (Seriously, Google? Nobody has more than 50 friends they might want to add to a circle when setting up their account?)

Of course, this is all a colossal pain in the ass. Google could ameliorate the pain by providing some tools, but right now they don’t support moving circles from personal accounts to pages, and they removed the circle import/export tools that existed back in 2011.

So I expect that what will actually happen is that another batch of active users will be driven away from Google+, but the user numbers will go up because of the influx of placeholder accounts. So, a win for Google in misleading statistical terms, but a big loss for Google+ users.

It’s also pretty easy to say what Google should have done: They should have implemented a “caller ID” info box as part of your Google profile, and prompted you to update the defaults (or delete the info) next time you logged in. But that wouldn’t have forced everyone to use Google+, so I guess it wasn’t an allowed solution. Apparently forcing people who don’t want to use Google+ to sign up is a much more important goal than meeting the needs of people who do want to use Google+.

© mathew 2017