Google's recent Google+-inspired changes to the interfaces for Google Reader and Gmail have led, as redesigns invariably do, to lots of online hand-wringing. Part of that is down to our resistance to change, but it's also because those changes remind of us an uncomfortable truth: we are not actually in control of these services.
Picture by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
We're all used to what happens when any major web site (Google, Facebook, Twitter) updates its interface. There's an instant outcry, as people complain that the new option is hideously ugly, doesn't work correctly, ignores what made the service useful in the first place, or all three of the above. Hacks describing how to revert to the "old" version quickly begin circulating, though it's rare for any of those to work in the long-term. Then the counter-arguments begin, as supporters suggest that the whiners haven't given the new option a chance, haven't recognised what is trying to do, have no grounds for complaining about a service they are not paying for, or all three of the above.
Because it's so easy for us to voice our complaints through social-networking services — often the very services whose design we are complaining about — it frequently seems like their impact is amplified. That noisiness in some ways reflects the hollow nature of many of these whinges: high-profile campaigns to get people to abandon Facebook or Twitter or Google+ have yet to ever result in the number of users declining. But that noisiness, and our willingness to divide ourselves into "this sucks!" and "everyone complains about change" camps, often means we don't take the opportunity to really think about why it is that we're so unhappy when these changes take place.
It's fairly clear that a good proportion of the human race will complain about change under any and all circumstances; there is no other explanation for the continuing popularity of talkback radio. But in the case of web-based services, we're not just dealing with products that we passively consume (or feed with an occasional irate phone call).
These are sites we have invested considerable time in, whether that's uploading photos or building our list of feeds or collecting together contacts. When the way they operate works, it's hard not to take it as a personal affront. And the experience is disquieting, because it reminds us that for all the time and effort we have put into building our experience, we don't actually control how that experience is realised. If Google (or Facebook or Twitter) decides to change the way it operates, we're powerless. We haven't paid for the service with money, so we can't complain to consumer affairs; but we have paid with time, and if we decide we dislike the service, all that time will have been wasted. We've lost control, and it makes us angry/annoyed/twitchy.
The same phenomenon is evident when Google makes even minor changes to its general search interface, such as its recent removal of the option to force the inclusion of search terms using a plus sign. It's not that you can't get fairly similar results by learning new tricks, but it's another reminder that when you search, Google is showing you what it wants to show you, not necessarily what you want to see. Those two categories overlap often enough to make it a useful service, but it's not your service. You are not in control, and being reminded of that is an uncomfortable feeling.
Recognising this phenomenon may not change our behaviour. There's plenty I don't like about Google Reader's new design, but none of the obvious alternatives even come close to meeting my own personal needs. But recognising why the change annoys me stops me being so distressed about the process. It's also good news for my Twitter followers, since I'm less likely to moan about stuff. But note I said "less likely", not "never going to". We're all only human, after all.