X ruined Xmas – a meme in progress

During the early days of Facebook Beacon, bloggers/tech press/etc. started a reasonably serious conversation about the impact of Beacon on user’s privacy. Then the Facebook Ruined Christmas stories began, and this became less of a tech/activist story and more of a story everyone could understand – and it was all over for the all opt-in version of Beacon.

Then about a week ago, Google Reader started its own weird violation of privacy. Reader has a feature called “Shared Items,” where you could select individual posts to be aggregated onto a single page. The key is that this page’s URL was known only to you unless you chose to share it (here’s mine).

Then Reader added a feature where you could see the shared items of anyone you’ve ever chatted with using Google Talk – which if you also use GMail, means people you’ve ever chatted with inside the GMail app, which is so simple to use that it really becomes “anyone you might have occasionally chatted with using GMail.”

The UI looks like this: my shared items section has five people – and while I consider all of them friends, 4/5 I met in a professional context, 3/5 I’ve chatted with exactly once (in one case at least a year ago), and 2/5 I’ve only ever talked with about work, for some value of work.


(Thanks for letting me manage my friends, Google. They never let me do it when I ask.)

Doesn’t really bother me, and I’ve in fact discovered an interesting post this way, but it’s another weird violation of user’s expectations of privacy. This one has gotten comparatively little press, but when someone wrote about it on Slashdot, the title of course included “ruins Christmas.”

A snippet from a Google Groups post:

This is going to sound like hyperbole, but this new feature has
actually RUINED CHRISTMAS for my family! I sent a share a few days ago
that I thought would only go to a few politically-like-minded friends.
I didn’t realize that because I had chatted with him in GChat, it
would also go to my brother, who is of a different political
persuasion… He called me a nasty name and
told me that if I can’t take a little ribbing, maybe we shouldn’t talk
anymore at all, including at Christmas Eve dinner. My whole family has
taken sides over this divisive political issue, and several of them
are not speaking. I kid you not, this is threatening to break up my
family at Christmas.

So now, techies, we have an official way to make your privacy concern heard – talk about how it ruins Christmas. If the generic argument doesn’t work, tell a Christmas story. I don’t know if it’s good for the industry that privacy issues will be easily reduced to ruining Christmas, but it’s good that these abstract privacy concerns can be made into real user stories that gain credibility with the popular press and mainstream readers.

(Aside: Amazon Wishlists added a feature a few years ago that by-default hides the fact that items were bought for you. Guess why…)

Here are some future ruins-Christmas scenarios:

  • MSN’s Santa bot stops talking about non-Santa-like things and users start trusting it again – and then it broadcasts whatever you told Santa you want for Christmas to all of your friends. And to Bill Gates. None of them buy it for you: Christmas is ruined.
  • During December, Yahoo includes this with every search result:

And perhaps not limited to Christmas – maybe we’ll have Myspace ruined Hanukkah, Wikipedia ruined Purim, etc.


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