Talking about Google – Barcamp notes

To say that I use Google everyday is an understatement. As soon as I start my web browser Wellington’s weather flashes up on the screen as part of my iGoogle start page. When I actually start desk writing or researching when I’m at my desk I tend to search random topics at least once every hour.

Of course, I use much more than search. There is Analytics for monitoring traffic on my blog, Docs for working on or sharing documents with others and Alerts in my inbox on a couple of topics I closely follow. Looking at my Google Account page I notice the list of Google products I’ve used at least one now stretches to 20.

Concerns about privacy and the market power of the behemoth seldom register. This changed when I attended the NZ Google Barcamp on 25 March. This free-spirited unconference followed the standard Barcamp approach with the program designed by participants on the day.

The degree to which privacy is being compromised and the near monopoly behaviour of Google received a lot of air time. It was all rather inconclusive, with views ranging from paranoid to pragmatic. People mulled on the extent to which Google is driving new notions of public/ private, or whether it just reflects the prevailing ethos on the Internet.

A session on Google Analytics pointed to one of the drawbacks of barcamps. The person who initiated the session, and may well have known something about the statistics programme, didn’t come along. Nor was there with anyone particular expertise in the room. Round we went with our own small slices of knowledge about how to make sense of the powerful webstats application. The session definitely confirmed we were all in the same boat, knowing enough to get in trouble.

At 3.00pm, live from Australia, two Google staff politely rebuffed questions about secret information they knew about but couldn’t share, and shed light on the vast array of products offered. The contradictions in the vast, sprawling company were obvious after they talked about software development processes. Take the Google Wave, which attracted such attention last year, now seems to be on the backburner: it was described as an application looking for a solution. With 20,000 software engineers it’s no wonder Google’s arms are reaching in every direction.

After a day of Googling the sponsors shouted participants a round at the nearest bar – very generous considering the event was free. I didn’t get anything particularly practical out of the event, but I did enjoy the conversation. For now my Google habits probably won’t change, but I’m much more wary of an entity which I can let track my every mouse click (and that of hundreds of millions of other people).

PS Fortunately, earlier in the week I learned one very useful new thing about Google. Speaking at the first e-rider learning lunch in 2010 Alan Royal, from SeniorNet Wellington, told us about a relatively recent extension of Google Docs service: you can now store and share any document. Not just text documents and spreadsheets, but also pdfs, jpgs, ods, etc. If you want more than the 1GB of free storage, you can purchase additional at the rate of $5 USD per year for 20 GB.

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