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Google Groups on the Fritz

Last year, when I set up a discussion group and mailing list for users of my RubyFrontier Web framework project, I made a choice between creating a Yahoo group or a Google group. I went with Yahoo Groups even though I’m not terribly fond of the interface and features. Now I’m happy I didn’t choose Google, when I discovered that Google Groups are suffering from an annoying glitch.

Two important Google Groups features are the capability to create and publish custom Web pages and the fact that you can upload, store, and share files. It appears that these features – called “Pages” and “Files” – have broken for some groups. I first noticed the problem while trying to access some Pages for a Google group I belong to; but as I write this, the Is Something Broken Google group (part of Google’s Help Forum) is filled to overflowing with threads where users complain that they can’t upload or download files and that they can’t view pages.

The most frustrating part of the problem, for many, is the lack of response from Google. Indeed, there is no direct way to contact Google about such matters. Clicking the Contact link that appears when pages fail to load tells the user that you can’t email Google about anything but abuse and legal matters; the alternative is to post on the Help group, which is exactly what users are doing, with no sign that Google folks are paying any attention.

This issue is making many Google Groups users, those for whom the Pages and Files features are an essential aspect of a particular group, feel that their Google Groups experience is broken, or that they have effectively lost important data. Even if the problem is cleared up soon, which of course it may well be, it illustrates a peculiarly telling confluence of circumstances:

  • Web applications are great, and free Web applications are really great. But Web applications are software, and software can develop bugs – not to mention that the networked nature of Web applications can result in other glitches (such as, a server can become unavailable). It’s natural to put your faith in a Web application, as if it were a service that seems like it will always be there, like electricity or running water to a house; but, just like those services, things can go wrong, and when they do, there’s a feeling of anger and loss, as if you’d been robbed of something.
  • The Web is not backup. It’s convenient, but something stored “in the cloud” is no less likely to vanish than something stored on a hard disk, and since you have no direct access to the server and you’re not in charge of how it gets backed up, you have no recourse when it does. Users who feel they’ve lost data because of this incident have misunderstood how to use the Internet; your sole copy of something should never be on a remote server.
  • Google’s Web applications have a lot of users. That means that when things go wrong, there can be a lot of complaints. So there can be a very big spike of very angry noise very quickly.
  • Google’s famous “Don’t be evil” slogan can backfire at moments like this. Users are explicitly accusing Google of evil even though Google hasn’t particularly done anything; it’s as if users felt that “Don’t be evil” were somehow equivalent to a hybristic attitude (“Unlike everyone else, we are utterly infallible”). Maybe Google should have chosen something less pretentious, like “Do your best under the circumstances.”
  • The public memory is notoriously short. Google Groups has always had problems with the Pages and Files features. This isn’t really a new problem at all, as a look through the older Google Help Forum postings reveals.
  • The real failure here, in my opinion, is communication. Google feels like a remote behemoth because it is acting like a remote behemoth. There is something distinctly Microsofty about the inability of users to get Google’s explicit and direct attention on this matter. Google should make itself open to bug reports via email, or at least through a Web form where the user is sent a personal (even if canned) response within a day or two.

All of that said, I’m just as furious as everyone else. For the groups where I’m dependent on these features, their loss is effectively breaking my use of those groups. Google’s silence on the matter is giving users the impression that the company doesn’t care about Google Groups. Google needs to take action to correct that impression, and soon.

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