Making considered use of Google

Last year my husband and I decided to get a divorce. Not from each-other, but from Google. Not that we weren’t enjoying our relationship with Google, but we realized how dependent on their services we had become over the years. When Google announced they would combine user accounts across their services and build profiles from personal information, the situation started to feel weird and unhealthy, a little too Big Brother.

Like any divorce, it was a painful and time-consuming experience. We decided to self-host email, which meant updating dozens of customer accounts (each), plus professional contacts, friends and family. Then there was the problem of shared calendars, which we’d come to rely on heavily to keep track of our irregular work schedules, volunteer commitments, farm chores, and travel. Finally, there was the reconstruction and consolidation of numerous contact lists that had sprouted organically from various sources and which I spent days reconciling, culling and correcting.

When it was all over I was exhausted and a little bitter. How had I managed to let all of my personal information become so intertwined with these services, and why did the company make it so difficult to extract myself? I erased all data from my email inbox and contacts list, closed my YouTube account, and didn’t log in again for months.

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Recently though I’ve found some uses for Google’s tools that work well for very specific tasks. I can’t see myself entrusting them with 99% of my personal digital information again, but with considered evaluation I’ve reincorporated a few features that augment or support other work.

Email – Gmail’s spam filters are by far best in class, which makes this address the perfect one to use when I have to create a customer account just to purchase an item, download software (or a knitting pattern), or otherwise don’t trust the person asking for my address. (Some services accept phony email addresses but others require verification to a real account.)  I also use this account as the form contact email for the WordPress sandbox site I use for teaching.

Calendar – Of the online scheduling tools I’ve tried, nothing has been as easy to use, reliable and embeddable as Google Calendar, which makes it great for sharing public events. My public Google Calendar feeds the Conferences & Events widget on this site, and I use the tool to manage and view other public and community calendars.

Alerts – With Google’s weight behind Search, they’re well suited to monitoring the web for news and other topics of interest, not to mention professional vanity tracking (keeping tabs on my online reputation). I’ve set up all of my alerts as RSS feeds, making them easy to track in one place.

In an earlier draft of this post, I noted my use of Google Reader for RSS as well. But in a rare bit of internet irony, Google has just announced that they will be shuttering Reader this summer, so I’ll be checking out the alternatives for this important service. Lifehacker and CNET already have suggestions.

Moving forward, I may find other tools in the Google arsenal that I like, and that’s fine. I have decided that I must ask two questions when deciding whether or not to use their (or any other corporation’s) “free” technology for a considered purpose:

  1. What would happen if this information were made public?
  2. What would happen if I no longer had access to the information or the tool?

If I can comfortably answer both of those questions for myself, I’ll use the tool. If not, I’ll find another solution, or build one, or diversify (as I have with contacts, calendars, and email) rather than entrusting all of my sensitive information to one service.

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