First Impressions of G+

privacy, friends, usability

I recently started using Google's newly-released social network service, Google+ (or G+).

First, I should say that I left facebook and deleted my account there in May of 2010 after a series of privacy-related screw-ups had me setting and resetting their horrible privacy settings. I regretted leaving as people I don't interact with otherwise were starting to use it heavily.

Google+ seems to me like Buzz++; that is, Buzz on steroids. The central interaction is very Buzz-like with a "stream" of posts from people that leave comments, "+1" things (the G+ version of "like"), etc. And it has things I have yet to use: Huddling for group IM or video chat and Sparks which appear to be ways to keep in the know about keywords (like "Chocolate Cake").

The fascinating part of G+, and the one that has many of us privacy-interested thinkers thinking hard about, is the approach to articulated networks that they're using. You can add anyone on G+ to a "circle" that you give a name to, like "Friends", "Work", "Berkeley", whatever. Then, when you share content, you can limit viewing of it to certain circles or choose to share it publicly.

Here are some thoughts:

  • When you join G+, your Google profile goes from something nice like this: http://profiles.google.com/joehall, to something ugly like this: https://plus.google.com/116963721990743023887/. Yuk... although the pretty one does redirect to the ugly one!

  • The site is right now all about feedback and they have a very cool feedback interface... you click on the give feedback link and then the form tool allows you to mark up the page to point out what went wrong and what you expected to happen. This is great... of course, sometimes you have feedback that doesn't depend on the current page, so maybe that should be an option: "Are you having a problem with the current page? Yes? Can you highlight where the problem is?" This tool also allows you to redact personal information that the page might contain. Cool!

  • Of course, as a FF user running NoScript, the first thing I learned is that to leave feedback, you have to temporarily whitelist javascript from googleusercontent.com, which I always thought is a janky google domain (there's probably a good reason for it!).

  • When you look at your "stream" (the G+ equivalent of an fb wall), it shows you posts from all your circles by default. One consistent feature request I've heard from people on G+ is the ability to specify which circles show up by default in your stream (or maybe create multiple streams). I have a circle called "Random Riffraff" that consists of everyone who has added me to a circle but that I don't really want to read posts from. However, I can't easily exclude these people from my stream without removing them from all circles (or blocking them).

  • There appears to be some group evolution going on in terms of how to best use circles. The best answer I've heard yet is from a researcher (who didn't post this publicly, so I won't name them) who has two disjoint circles for "Friends" and "Acquaintances" and then thematic circles for issues he would like to publish content to (like "Security"). This is a very personal distinction... for example, I'm usually very careful who I agree is a "friend" (I should know them reasonably well and have had friendly interactions with them!). I'm not sure how this will play out for me, but I hope to find something that works.

  • There is news of a "privacy flaw" discovered by the Tim Bradshaw at the Financial Times. The idea is that no matter how small of a circle you may share a private piece of information with on G+, one of those recipients can "reshare" that content publicly, potentially violating the original context in which the poster wanted it kept within. (Dan Wallach and I found this "flaw" yesterday at about 21:15 EDT. :P ) The more I've thought about this, the less convinced I am about it being a flaw. Like email, the ultimate discretion in publishing anything lies with the poster, and like the "analog hole", there's not much we can do to thwart a determined sharer. G+ lets posters limit resharing by prohibiting resharing of certain posts after posting (it should be an option one can select while crafting a post). And certainly, G+ should give consumers of content more hints about how limited of a scope a given post is shared within... I'm not sure of the best way to do that. It does allow you to see approximately how many people something was shared with, and maybe that's enough ("500 of my closest friends" could be an edge case.)

  • We really need some more set operations... like I would like to be able to select all "non-Friends" and add them to "Acquaintances". I'd like to post to these circles but not to anyone in this circle that also happens to be in the other circles.

  • If I don't know you, and you add me to a circle but you seem legit, I won't add you to any circles. If I don't know you, and you add me to a circle but you're clearly not legit, I'll block you.

Firefox and Foreground Cookie Windows

hacks, open source, photos, usability

Today I was reminded of a behavior I'm not a big fan of in FireFox: foregrounding of cookie allow/deny dialog windows when I click on a link in another application.

Here's what happened, and possibly how you can reproduce it:

  1. First, I run firefox with cookies allowed but it must ask me what to do with a cookie each time a new site tries to set one. The dialog looks like this:

    This allows me to allow cookies per-session (until I close and re-open my browser, which I do often) or, mostly, just block cookies from everyone.

    (To see the behavior I show below, you may have to have to start with bit.ly denied cookies in your exception list.)

  2. Ben Adida, great guy, linked to a bit.ly link today on Twitter:

    That link is to http://bit.ly/mevBsM or, expanded, to this news story at the Panama City News Herald.

  3. Here's what happened: about a zillion firefox cookie dialog windows pop-up!

    Words don't really do it justice... so here it is in a screen capture movie: Check out the video on my flickr page or grab the MOV here: https://josephhall.org/misc/ff-cookie-fail.mov

    In words: when I clicked on the link in my twitter client, firefox opens and the firefox cookie dialog for the target site pops up into the foreground, eclipsing the currently focused/active window. The dialog box doesn't stay down out of focus where firefox is, but "pops up" over the window of my twitter client. The kicker is what happens next: likely because of a poor site design at the News Herald, a zillion or so more cookie dialogs open over the first one!!! ... so many more dialog boxes that the Mac window shadowing effect turns pitch black!

    Unfortunately, there's no recourse here but to force-quit firefox.

[UPDATE 2012-07-11T11:20:12 EDT]: This is FireFox bug 515521.

Please Don't Eliminate the EAC

elections, reform, standards, policy

Below is my letter to my congressman, Steve Rothman, asking him to vote against HR 672, which will be debated tomorrow on the House floor and likely up for a vote on Wednesday. While I've been critical of the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) in the past, I've never been so naive as to argue that the country doesn't need it or that they don't do critical and valuable work.

If you feel similarly, please write your congressperson and ask them to vote against HR 672.


Dear Hon. Rep. Rothman,

I'm writing today as a constituent to seek your opposition to HR 672, which will be debated on the House floor tomorrow and mostly likely brought to a vote on Wednesday.

HR 672 would, among other things, eliminate the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and transfer their duties to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Brief background: I hold a PhD in Information Systems and am currently a postdoc at UC Berkeley and Princeton University (thus the NJ address). I have extensive experience in technology policy, especially as concerned with privacy, security and transparency.

In our work we have "hacked" voting machines, designed computer viruses that steal elections and studied the many technical and policy problems that our elections face. Nothing good comes from dissolving the one agency tasked with making sure election administrators have the know-how and technical information they need to secure our elections.

EAC is a small agency that has had a big effect since its creation in the 2002 Help America Vote Act. The EAC has stepped up where the FEC was not able to: on issues not related to campaign finance, the EAC has gradually begin to shine. There is vastly more information available to the public on the functioning of election technology and processes and election administrators now have a clearinghouse for information related to elections. While detractors point to the percentage of funding that goes to overhead, this is because EAC is a very small agency with a necessarily large staff compared to its appropriations.

The EAC works hard and gets little respect for their hard work. Being small doesn't mean they aren't doing very good, important work. It is ridiculous to claim that this agency is a significant waste of money and that "if we can't cut the EAC, we can't cut anything" (paraphrasing the opposition). We are far enough from the debacle of the 2000 presidential election that people have forgotten the precarious nature of our nation's election administration. Eliminating the EAC will not make this any better.

Please vote against HR 672.

Thank you for your time, Joseph Hall, Phd

Converting RSS Feeds to Twitter Streams

blogging, feeds

I don't use my feed reader any more. I don't know why... maybe I just had too many feeds. Maybe it was getting too social with "likes" and such in Google Reader.

I use Twitter much, much more these days. However, some blogs/people will never post to Twitter (or only post an occasional blog post title and link but not post each of their new posts). I've found myself wanting a way to push RSS feeds to a Twitter account that I can follow.

Enter Twitter Feed, which does exactly this. You point it at a feed, then at a Twitter account and it does the rest (and lets you set a number of advanced options).

I've done this with my favorite blog, Serious Eats' Slice blog that covers everything pizza. I set up @SlicePosts to push tweets from their RSS feed to the account such that the post title and link appear when Slice posts.

(Tip: you can use the same email address for multiple Twitter accounts if you have a GMail address. Just put a period (.) between any of the characters in the GMail username and Twitter will think it's a different email address. So foobar@gmail.com becomes foo.bar@gmail.com... GMail will send mail addressed to either address to the same account.)

NQB2 is back... soon.

blogging

Many apologies!  My glorious webhost (Birdhouse Hosting) upgraded it's PHP version to one that rendered the older version of the b2evo blog software inoperable. So, this blog has been throwing up serious PHP errors in everyone's face for a while now.  I've just completed a successful upgrade to the latest and greatest b2evo version and I'll soon start blogging again.  My blogging as dropped off as I post more to my twitter account these days, @joebeone.

I've got a killer pizza recipe and some other stuff to put up here soon...

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