Despite some attempts to enter the fray, Google hasn't done well in social networking. Its Orkut service, which looks a little like MySpace, has been around for years but is virtually unknown in the United States, though it is quite popular in Brazil.
Google in July 2008 launched a service called Lively, which was its answer to Second Life -- but Lively is no longer alive. It was shut down at the end of 2008. During its short life span it allowed users to create avatars and enter virtual rooms to interact with other avatars.
Buzz, another Google attempt at social networking, is more or less a knockoff of Twitter. But unlike Twitter, Buzz hasn't gotten much positive buzz. It did, however, get the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which last week settled its charges against Google, alleging that Google "used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises to consumers." Under the settlement, which is subject to a 30-day public comment period, Google will be required to obtain users' consent before sharing their information with third parties and will undergo privacy audits for 20 years.
But Google isn't sitting still. On the same day the FTC announced its settlement on the Buzz case, Google announced a new experimental feature called +1 which is a lot like Facebook's "Like" button."
Google's +1 is experimental but, if you install it, you are given an opportunity to recommend any Web links that come up in search by clicking on the button next to each link in your search results. As Google says on its +1 Web page, the feature allows users to "give something your public stamp of approval, so friends, contacts, and others can find the best stuff when they search."
It can also be used to get recommendations from Google based on your likes and interests. Just as Facebook does with its Like button, Google plans to get websites to put the button on their pages.
Google goes to great lengths to emphasize that anything users share via +1 is public. This is not a feature to use if you want to surreptitiously visit sites. It's designed to allow you to share that information with friends or the public at large.
Of course, even if you sign up for the service, you don't have to click the +1 button if you don't want to share your preferences. To use +1 you have to be signed in to your Google account. Having a Google account isn't required to use its search feature, but it is required to access Gmail, Google calendar and many other personalized services. But even if you have a Google account, you can always log off or use the private or "incognito" option on your browser, which automatically logs you out during the private browsing session.
Although Google didn't talk about how it plans to monetize +1, it's pretty clear to me that there is money to be made by collecting data about what people like and displaying ads based on this information. This is also Facebook's secret sauce. By obtaining information about its users, it can better target messages, which means higher advertising rates and bigger profits. As long as companies like Google and Facebook are transparent and don't violate their own privacy policies, there's nothing surreptitious or evil about this -- it's the way social adverting works.
But while companies want us to share our likes and information about ourselves, that doesn't mean we have to. Nothing requires people to use +1, the Facebook Like button or any other "social" feature that discloses information about us. While some privacy controls require people to opt-out to protect their privacy, these require that you opt-in.
Nevertheless, I worry that some people may not bother to read Google's disclosures or, if they do, may not be fully aware of the public nature of +1 or other social features as they surf the Web.
Whether you're using Facebook, Google, Twitter or any other service, you should take the time to find out what -- if any -- privacy settings are available. Twitter, for example, is designed to share with everyone. Even though there are ways to control access to posts, most people use Twitter because they want to cast a wide net and don't bother to limit access. Google offers some controls and Facebook, despite its reputation for being an information sieve, actually does let you control who can see just about everything you post, but it's up to you to take the time to turn on those settings.
Never assume that the default settings are the ones that best protect your privacy. The people who run social media companies may be looking over your shoulder, but they're not necessarily watching your back.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from Facebook, Google and other companies.