Beyond Buzz: How Google's New Experiment Endangered Women
Although men are still the leaders in using new technology, women online are a rapidly growing segment, according to Pew Research. But the gap is a wide one, and will remain so as long as social media experiments like Google Buzz are mismanaged.
It was a security leak noticed pretty immediately -- upon Buzz's launch, the software automatically set you to following the people you responded most to via email. It was likely set up as a courtesy, with a group of engineers playing a "look how helpful we can be" card for new tech. It also allowed those who followed you to see those people you most responded to, what was quickly pointed out as an invasion of privacy.
But for one woman, it became more than a minor inconvenience.
I use my private Gmail account to email my boyfriend and my mother.
There’s a BIG drop-off between them and my other “most frequent” contacts.
You know who my third most frequent contact is?
My abusive ex-husband.
A survivor of an abusive relationship, the author uses her blog to speak freely, openly, and most importantly anonymously, about rape and abuse. And thanks to the "security glitch," people she did not want to have access to her personal information could now see things like her name, things that she read and commented on, and other personal and identifying information.
It likely didn't seem like an important thing to check out a head of time, and that's probably because a majority, if not all of the engineering team that created the plan was male, and never had to worry about online privacy factors which are often more important for women.
As a female writer on line, I once started out hiding my identity. From the beginning I have written extensively about women's reproductive health, and have been very open about my pro-choice beliefs.
It's the dirty secret no one mentions: women who write online are way more likely to be attacked than their male counterparts. If we are lucky, it's in our comments, or simply vicious emails that we can delete. Less lucky, and we develop our own "biggest fans." We have to avoid putting up personal information as much as possible. Real names can lead to addresses, playing foursquare can show the more unbalanced where we can be found.
Unlike the men who write, we have to constantly balance between being open enough to be a real person who can connect with an audience with giving out too much information and providing weapons for our enemies.
I should know. A critic of mine once used an ultrasound picture I proudly posted during my pregnancy and turned it into a plea to "rescue" my future daughter from me before I "got rid of her in a late term abortion."
Google Buzz has removed the autofollow and converted it to a "suggest" model due to the intense criticism that they received. "We quickly realized that we didn't get everything quite right. We're very sorry for the concern we've caused and have been working hard ever since to improve things based on your feedback," states its official blog. They've learned their lesson, but this shouldn't have been an issue in the first place.
Much like that unfortunately named recent Apple product, I think that the potential for security issues would have been noticed ahead of time were there more women involved in the design of new technology. Women know what women need online, and not testing a new technology well enough in a way that could specially affect nearly half of your users is as bad as launching a new website without checking it out on all browsers. Women have special technological needs, and the male dominated engineering teams need to find a way to begin addressing these issues before they become a real problem.