My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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GMail – the good, the bad and the ugly

First, i can’t help but laugh every time i hear the name G-Mail. It’s really the g dash that gets me. I spent years working on a site called the V-Spot. It was explicitly supposed to be directed down there. Well, G- to me automatically signifies the G-Spot. So every time i login, i giggle.

People truly have their panties in a bunch over G-Mail and this *kills* me. My favorite, as noted by master Heer, is that a California Senator is drafting legislation to stop Google. My roommate and i, who met when we were running a workshop on privacy, had a grand ole conversation about G-Mail today. Here’s where i stand.

On a technical level, Google is not doing anything more than any other free-mail site. They are searching through your email for keywords using automated robots only; spam filters on Hotmail and Yahoo do the same thing. The difference is what they do with that information. While spam filters just move your messages to a different directory, Google calculates a metric in which to automatically present you with ads. (For those who haven’t seen the ads, unlike banner ads, they’re uber small and so not invasive; in fact, i couldn’t find them at first.) By default, the ads are given to you and assuming you ignore them, the client knows nothing about you. If you click, it’s your prerogative and i still haven’t figured out what all ends up being sent. But Master Heer is correct – the cookies shit that Hotmail/Yahoo leave behind are *far* more invasive and you can’t get out of them simply by not clicking.

So, on a technical level, i don’t think that poorly of G-Mail. Then, there is the social level. Once again, Google has made me smack my hand to my forehead and scream up, praying to the goddesses to send them a few socially-minded people.

The hysteria should be a first good clue. It doesn’t matter that it’s less technologically invasive – it’s a fucking sociological terror. It makes you *FEEL* invaded, used, vulnerable. At least with banner ads, you can’t make any connections between the ad and your messages. You don’t feel icky. Of course, everyone felt icky when started announcing “Hello, danah” on their front doorstep. There’s a slight similarity here… Both Amazon and Google are making the fact that they have your data transparent to you, reminding you that you’re being watched. Both are using your data to sell you something. The difference is that you go to Amazon to shop… you go to Google to personally communicate. And you don’t want to feel invaded in that process. No one wants the feeling of Big Brother sitting around. And it doesn’t matter if that’s not true. If people _feel_ that way, it sucks. This is the point of a Panopticon. (If you don’t get this, read Bentham’s “The Panopticon Writings”… or, since that’s out of print, try “Discipline and Punish” by Foucault – a must read.)

A friend of mine at the EFF gave me a perfect example of why this makes people feel gross. Imagine that you’re talking about a sensitive topic with a loved one… Imagine that you’re talking about abortion or adoption. Can you imagine the ads that would come up and how you would feel? ::cringe::

My frustration is that people are talking about G-Mail as a privacy issue. This word is super super loaded (right Paul?). This isn’t a privacy issue. This is a vulnerability issue. This is an issue of how people _feel_ not what is actually going on and how it differs from other services. The fact that this feels more invasive is all that matters. If Google thinks that they can educate users, they’re probably in for a big surprise.

Note: That said, i truly believe that lots of people will sign up for G-Mail anyhow. Google appears far more trustworthy than Yahoo or MS. 1 Gig is a super incentive. And i’d bet that everyone screaming foul has their own domain, doesn’t use freemail and doesn’t get that most of the world will give up all of their data for the chance of winning a Porsche. That doesn’t make it right… and i truly hope that Google considers what it’s doing to its brand by this move. While it won’t impact the sign-up rates, i believe that the grossness will affect later inventions and diminish the “do no evil” tagline at Google.

Note 2: I’m definitely with Kevin that there are still too many outstanding questions. (Some of his have been answered here.)

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21 comments to GMail – the good, the bad and the ugly

  • there is a subtle technical difference: spam filters *ignore* your genuine content, whereas gmail’s ad indexer *consumes* your genuine content. technically, the different is trivial. but then again so is the difference between a one and a zero. put enough ones and zeros together and the differences become more than merely technical. same with this. robotic interpretation of email based on content *is* different from robotic ignoring of email based on content, even if the technical mechanisms are much the same.

    if people are in an uproar over the technical function here — the service provider’s interpretation and exploitation of the content of private communications — then i agree it’s worth helping them to see that it’s really the social implications and personal emotions that count here, that there’s no real technical innovation here. but it’s important to recognize that these particular social implications are due to a subtle technical function: the positive consumption of the content of your email by your service provider (in the case of content-based advert indexing), as opposed to the negative rejection of the content of your email (in the case of spam filters). subtle technical changes can have big social consequences (cf. wired ethernet vs. wifi). we need to consider both.

    in the very least, it’s societally helpful that the gmail thing is bringing the social ramifications of this particular technical feature to the fore, even if other providers have had the capability (and been using it) already. better late than never. trite but true.

    moving on, even if the robotic semantic interpretation and exploitation of your personal communications is absolutely constrained to the thread — ie, not available to 3rd parties (legally or otherwise) and not used in other ways by google — there remains the subjective vulnerability issue, as you point out. but i disagree that “This isn’t a privacy issue. It’s a vulnerability issue.” rather, it’s both. the move in the research community to reframe as “vulnerability” issues what had previously been considered “privacy” issues is spot on. but. that doesn’t mean this is not *also* a privacy issue. the two are inextricably tied in a situation like gmail. i’d even speculate that most laypeople who feel uncomfortable with this gmail thing would label this a privacy issue, not a vulnerability issue, even if you, i, and other readers recognize it’s also about vulnerability. for better and for worse, privacy has become a sort of catchall term. so be it. seligman said the same about “happiness” in his interview: happiness is an umbrella for more specific concepts and processes. so is privacy. as long as we try to disambiguate what we mean when we say privacy in intellectual discourse, is think this is no biggie.

  • privacy and vulnerability

    Danah has some good points about the problems with Google’s new mail service. It’s not that their bots filter your mail – so do the virus and spam-scanners your ISP probably uses. It’s that they make it visible to you…

  • Gmail*

    First, Brandon articulates how many of us feel:”In any case, I would think that most of these issues come down…

  • Gmail*

    First, Brandon articulates how many of us feel:”In any case, I would think that most of these issues come down…

  • Ev.

    It’s officially Gmail, not G-Mail. Is that less giggly? 🙂

  • Gmail*

    First, Brandon articulates how many of us feel:”In any case, I would think that most of these issues come down…

  • Ah! Perhaps a little less giggly. A teensey weensey bit. Perhaps i should start pronouncing it “guhmale” (like gnu). That might help. But i’m definitely still giggling.

  • the panopticon is about control. whether or not the subject is being surveilled, as long as he perceives or fears surveillance he will be controllable (to some degree). gmail is not about surveillance or control (of course, modern advertisement — which is at work here — is control, but is effected not through perception of surveillance, so that interpretation isn’t pertinent here). *feeling* icky about a robot transiently consuming your email is, as far as i can tell, a matter of personal boundaries and principles, but not about institutional control.


    Looks like Ms. Figueroa’s impending legislation when coupled with the complaints, is having some impact.

  • This is an issue of how people _feel_ not what is actually going on and how it differs from other services. The fact that this feels more invasive is all that matters. If Google thinks that they can educate users, they’re probably in for a big surprise.

    On the contrary — _because_ it’s about how people feel, and not about what’s actually going on and how it differs from other services, they don’t have to educate users at all. They just have to wait for people’s feelings to change. Just as Amazon greeting you by name was a little icky until you got used to it, so people will get used to the ads they see next to their email being well-targeted.

    Personally, I’ve never really understood why people prefer to see ads that are not targeted and are therefore less likely to be of interest. For example, I love the fact that the nice data-mining folks at Safeway pay attention to what I buy and try to give me coupons for things I might actually want, rather than simply giving me coupons for random things. But hey, that’s just me. 🙂


  • Scott – the panopticon is certainly about being controlled, and the key has to do with *feelings* of being surveilled. The point is not whether or not gmail is surveilling or controlling, but whether or not people *feel* surveilled or controlled. I would definitely argue that people will initially feel as though they are being watched, even if they can intellectualize otherwise. I think that people will play games with this, joking in order to test out the boundaries of their discomfort. Honestly, this is where i side with some of Latour’s non/human arguments. I don’t think that people are going to emotionally differentiate who is doing the surveilling. They may be able to acknowledge that it is the machine, not the human, but i don’t think that this will make people feel that much less icky. Of course, i do believe that the feelings of ickiness will subside (in the uber-modern Philip K. Dick construction of advertising kinda way) as the machines drop into the backdrop of everyday life. Such is the way with most surveillance though. And it doesn’t make it right, just tolerated.

  • Irina

    after hearing a google talk this afternoon, its sort of cool to find this post. i am quite impressed with google for the practice of being open (comparatively) about their processes, regardless of how much paranoia they inspire. Its an interesting example of and attempt at transparancy (ok lets tell the customer what the hell we do with their data to an extent) and a curious over-reaction and serious mis-understanding of that offer by the general public. I wonder how far it will go (I do not believe law can solve things like that, in fact, I believe law can only screw things up… legislature is by nature myopic and biased).

    I am intrigued by the concept of privacy migrating to the concept of vulnerability. Except vulnerability’s taken, sorry guys. As far as I understand one of the popular definitions of trust (gasp… another can’o’worms) is the willingness to be vulnerable. Maybe some part of that privacy puzzle is that despite evidence to the contrary, people put a lot of trust into free mail systems and feel cheated when they perceive themselves being taken advantage of… Trust hasn’t figured much in the privacy debate, but trust and privacy have a lot in common. Too hard to define – is one of them…

    and about targeted advertising… the concept makes me think of the minority report scene with a mix of horror and fascination – the permanent invasion of the perifery of vision. Gmail is a curious thing though…

  • Sanat Gersappa

    I don’t get all this fuss about privacy considering that GMail is a purely optional service.

  • i think the *feeling* we’re talking about is that of being watched and evaluated by some perceived power. the *result* is control by that power or by some other power (eg, puritanical etiquette) masked behind the perceived one (eg, gmail). that is, i don’t think the *feeling* is that of *being controlled*. the feeling is that of being monitored, and the result — whether you feel it or not — is that you are controlled.

    but anyway, for anyone paying attention to this debate, danah and i discussed this last night and ended up down a twisting and (for me) wine-dark road leading to the notion of a phantom panopticon emerging from the unintended collusion of the us govt’s intraborder promotion of a culture of fear of outsiders — which inspires hordes of citizens to swallow the surveillance pill — and the long-established, ongoing trajectory of IT-driven info collection in the private sector — which slowly erodes our personal info boundaries. the result being that — in the case of gmail — we feel like we’re being watched by a power (read: surveillance) when technologically we’re not, which leads to us self-monitoring and regulating our own behavior out of fear (which is the result of a panopticon). upshot: the phantom panopticon. and yet, arguably it is no phantom, since the very real but intangible power behind it is the classic puritan institution, woven into the govt’s fear culture and exploited by commerce’s hunger for info. er. something like that.

  • Gmail*

    First, Brandon articulates how many of us feel:”In any case, I would think that most of these issues come down…

  • funny…every time i type or read “gmail”, even without the dash, i can’t help but think “g-spot.” i thought it was just me!

  • GoogleMonster

    Over the last couple of weeks, I have come across a wide array of articles that are going on and on about how terrible the new GMail service is, and stands to be. It’s amazing the wide range of public…

  • looking

    does anyone have brandons address?

    pleaze i need it for a project

  • 1=1

    google rulez!#