Google Reader Shared Items Are Not Private… They Never Were

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I was listening to, For Immediate Release – The Hobson & Holtz Report – Podcast #305: December 27, 2007, today (it’s one of my personal favourites) and the hosts – Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson – had a One Minute News Item on Google Reader. Right before the holiday break, Google deployed a new online social networking feature in Google Reader that enabled anyone you’re connected with via Gmail or Google Talk to see your Shared Items. This definitely caused an uproar in the online community.

Google Reader Shared Items (for those not in the know) is a feature in Google Reader where you can "Share" any news item. This creates a unified publicly accessible URL where any individual can subscribe to your Shared Items list. You can view mine here: Mitch Joel – Google Reader – Shared Items. I love this feature for many reasons (and one of the main ones is Search Engine Optimization).

Google could have definitely avoided some of the backlash by:

1. Telling people about this new feature prior to launching it.

2. Not making it an opt-out feature, but rather an opt-in.

While these are cardinal rules to break, I don’t really understand the main complaints about this new feature that I’m hearing. According to For Immediate Release some people at a newspaper were using this function to share potential story ideas and now former employees would see this information, or a battered women might be sharing links on the topic but fearful that her husband might now see this.

If you were using Google Reader Shared Items for this, you were using it wrong… and don’t blame Google.

Google Reader Shared Items is one feature in a feed reader, it’s not an online social bookmarking tool like (where you can use password protection or secure tags).

In Google Reader you can do two things:

1. You can Add Star – which saves it for you privately.

2. You can Share Item – which aggregates all of your Shared Items on a publicly accessible URL.

Don’t be upset at Google for infringing on your privacy – because there is no privacy in a publicly accessible link. If privacy is what you’re looking for, you should find a more secure, less public, solution.

Google has some workarounds here: Managing Your Shared Items.

It has always been clear that any and all Shared Items are available on a publicly accessible link – there was never any privacy to it. I recently Blogged about everything Google knows about you here: The Google Complex. If you’re going to get upset about what Google knows, and how they’re using that information, take a read but don’t get all flustered about one feature in one application that was created with the sole purpose of having the results public.


  1. I agree. I fail to see the big problem here around shared items re:privacy. However, I also agree they could have handled the disclosure and opt-in/opt-out better.

  2. Nice post, Mitch. I like how you highlight the ways we can handle these issues more skillfully. After reading this I went to Google Reader and immediately shared your post, just to quietly make a point. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I couldn’t agree more. I’m not sure if it’s just me, but I don’t the big problem with this. I mean, it’s “shared”. By definition, shared isn’t really private. And there is quite obviously a public url.
    I do agree that Google could have told their users, and done the opt-in/opt-out thing better, but in general, that’s the whole premise of having “shared” items, isn’t it?

  4. Thanks for the comments.
    I think the feature was mis-used and when Google changed how it worked, people took it to mean something else.
    To me, this is classic in technology. People always figure out a way to use something unlike it was intended. Then, when the company changes it, the Users freak out and the company is forced to adjust (and, subsequently, looks bad).
    It’s like doing a spec list of an application and then getting a call that the application can’t do a specific task that was not on the list… and the person is mad.
    Technology is programmed… it doesn’t read minds and adapt… yet 🙂

  5. According to ARS Technica: “Many prefer to use the sharing feature only to ceate a personalized web page containing selected items from RSS that could be shared at one’s discretion wiuth friends (the URL is obscured with a lengthy number).”
    From Google’s Reader blog: “We underestimated the number of users who were using the Share button to send stories to a limited number of people. We’re looking at ways to make sharing more granular and flexible.”
    So…it may be public, but is not available easily to everybody, which is how people liked it. Even Google acknowledges it!

  6. Thanks Shel.
    Your comment is exactly why I posted my thoughts. People preferred using it a way that it was not intended to be used, and Google didn’t know that people were using something that was publicly available as a private tool.
    No matter how jumbled the URL is (and the only reason it is that way is because it is being randomly generated), it’s still publicly available and accessible via search.
    I think people are dumping on Google Reader because a feature did not work the way they would have liked it to versus the way it was intended. I also think Google is being amicable in light of this realization.

  7. The telephone was INTENDED to be used as a broadcast device; that’s how Alexander Graham Bell envisioned it. That’s not how people used it. Isn’t it incumbent upon a company to figure out how people are using the product? Should consumers be forced into a box prescribed by an organization? Google should have been paying attention to what people were doing with their product and accommodated it.

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