18 Months without Google

Last year I wrote a blog post about my experiences giving up Google. I thought it would be useful to revisit this briefly to talk about my experience now it has been a year and a half.

Mainly, not much has changed since that post. I live an (almost) Google-free life. Is my life better? will this lead to enlightenment? Probably not. But also my experience with technology has not got any _worse_.

Why Delete your Google Account?

We’ll start with the big one. I really try to not be loud and evangelistic about this, for fear of becoming “the guy who doesn’t own a TV”. When it does crop up in conversation, people have one of two reactions. First, among lay people it is generally a non-issue. Second, among the computer science and HCI communities I mostly work with, there is a sudden look of panic. They are usually terrified I’m about to launch into a 2-hour Stallmanesque rant. But what’s the point? Everyone knows the reasons to delete their Google account already. Nobody still believes that Google “won’t be evil”. Not even them.

Why Not Delete your Google Account?

Instead, I’m going to argue that you can keep your Google account, if you want, but would like you to reflect on what actual value Google has for you as a user. For me, these are the reasons I might want a Google account:

  • Their search engine is pretty good. As I mentioned last time, DuckDuckGo is equivalent in 99% of search cases, but if you need 100%, and are willing to pay the price for that 1%, Google is still the best.
  • All of your data is linked to a single account. The videos you view on Youtube are associated with your Gmail account, and your Android phone, etc. This may have value for you, but it didn’t for me.
  • Google Docs are good for collaboration. There aren’t really any non-evil alternatives at the moment. I miss that, and it is the biggest cause of frustration for colleagues who want me to collaborate on things.
  • There are lots of apps/games on Google Play I would like to buy, but can’t.
  • Google Scholar is important for academics (in HCI/Comp Sci, at least) – more on this in a bit.
  • Everything is gratis.

My main reflection over 18 months of not using Google products is that it has been so easy. I had thought it to be a massive challenge, a sacrifice, and would change my life, but it really hasn’t. Nearly nothing has changed – I still pay for email (Fastmail has a calendar service now), still have a Google-free Android phone, and am still happy with Firefox, DuckDuckGo and the range of other software I use to replace Google services. No better maybe, but no worse.

This is the thing – I just think that like me, many people use Google products by default. They are easy, nicely designed and are always there. It doesn’t require any work or thought. Based on my experience, it is scary to walk away from that convenience. But actually far simpler and smoother than it seems.

I hear all the cool kids from Readitt and Digger prefer using this 30 year old graphics format to summarise things, so here it is:

View post on imgur.com

I guess I’m the woman on the right, you’re the kid, the rope is Google and the water is… the Internet?

On Google Scholar

I mentioned earlier that I am only “almost” Google free. The only exception is Google Scholar. I don’t use it, but it is important I maintain a profile for academic work. I’d rather not, but in the field I work in, it is extensively used to track publication records and impact.

Last year all UK universities went through a national research assessment called the REF. This is a huge deal because it is used to measure the value of your research, and also informs funding at institutional levels.

The Computer Science panels indicated that they wanted to use Google Scholar to measure citations. Although they didn’t end up doing this, sticking instead with the creaky and spotty SCOPUS, it highlights that there is a culture of reliance on Google services in UK Computer Science.

While this culture exists, I am basically obliged to maintain a Google account in order for my work to be discoverable and therefore citable as part of my continuing career as an academic in this field. This is not an ideal situation for obvious reasons (why do I need a Youtube account to be an academic?), but since publications are meant to be public anyway, I don’t mind the aggregation in this case.

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