Petri: When online progress isn't progress

A man's shadow reflects on a commercial bus

A man's shadow reflects on a commercial bus with an advertisement for Google Mail, in Lagos, Nigeria. (Credit: AP, 2012)

Dear Google,

Lately, I've noticed a worrisome trend. You are becoming the very thing we fled to you to escape.

I have always hated change. Even in 2008, when everyone was getting excited about change as a general concept, I had to be talked into it. Especially online, change too often is synonymous with "replacing something I liked with something I like less." Facebook changes are one thing. Those just give more of our personal data to large corporations, and giving my personal data to large corporations has always been one of my hobbies and/or interests.


CARTOONS: Jimmy Margulies' cartoons | Cartoon roundup

MORE: Viewsday blog | Newsday columnists | More opinion

CONNECT: Subscribe to our e-mail list | Twitter | Facebook


But Gmail interface changes we have to live with.

Google, do you remember how you got so popular? It was because the rest of the Internet was gross and cluttered with pop-ups and complicated interfaces. To get information, you had to pretend to be a P.G. Wodehouse character. "Jeeves," you would say, "how do I fix a carburetor?" and Jeeves would attempt to guess what you were talking about.

Then came Google in its glorious, streamlined simplicity. If you wanted more information about something, you didn't have to hack your way through the jungle of Yahoo or type a keyword into AOL. You just Googled it. Easy. Simple.

Then came Gmail, which offered lots of storage and great spam filtering. It was noteworthy for its lack of clutter. Everything was straightforward.

But now, Google, you are doing a good impression of that woman who is trying to use plastic surgery to transform herself into a big cat, possibly because her husband once made an offhand remark about "liking the look of those big cats," or something.

And, hey, there are other places we can go. Bing's out there. (Don't laugh like that, Google. It's unbecoming.) I have used Bing search on multiple occasions, and only one of them was because I opened Internet Explorer by mistake.

Don't take me for granted, Google. I will get right off this bus that I am taking to pay you for Google Glass - see if I don't! Here are my complaints: First, you used to have a nice, easy-to-understand interface. Now there are all these wacky symbols that I cannot interpret. I clicked what I thought was a very excited octagon, and it turned out I was marking all work emails as spam.

What have you done to all the icons? Yes, I can guess the square in a hat is a trash can, but what's wrong with saying "trash"? You are an email program. It is okay to presume that people can read.

Why can I compose emails only in a tiny window off in a corner? It makes me feel strange and furtive. Why are you hiding the "reply all" button? I am not writing this because I am becoming crotchety, though I worry this might be the case every time I object to a Newfangled Computer Thing. I'm writing because I appreciate good design. And, Google, if you are confused about what good design is, just look at what Gmail looked like a month ago.

Maybe I don't mind the new tabs. "Primary"? "Social"? "Promotions"? It's not a bad innovation, but at this point it's the principle of the thing. Also, what if my best friend were named Dave Groupon? I would resent having to pick through three inboxes to hear from him.

Would it be so hard to ask me before you change things? True, if you asked, we might notice that you are systematically dismantling all the things that we liked in the first place. You're pulling a Magneto on us, turning into the very thing you most despised. It was a problem when Magneto did it in the first "X-Men" movie, and it's still a problem now. Please, stop giving us features we do not want.

I understand that progress is progress. I am, in fact, on my way to pick up Google Glass, and I intend to wear it at the dinner table and give you all my metadata and location data forever. But I still wish you'd pretend I had the illusion of choice about this "progress." That's all I - or any user - can ask for.

Regards, Alexandra

Petri writes the ComPost blog at washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost

advertisement | advertise on newsday

advertisement | advertise on newsday