Wednesday, 16 April 2014

So many cyclists

I've taken to cycling the nine miles uphill, often into a south-westerly headwind, to work to increase my levels of fitness a bit further and because I enjoy it. This morning I got caught in a pelaton going through Fountainbridge. There were four/five of us, and it actually got quite hairy at times, with us jockeying for space in the advanced stop zones, and then weaving in and out of each other based on our different rates of acceleration and then speed, while we all cycled defensively to protect ourselves from cars doing stupid things. And then going along Gorgie Road I ended up bunny-hopping with another cyclist. We ended up nearly crashing as I went to overtake as he was getting ready to turn right. Luckily I realised what was happening and eased back behind him.

Have these near-misses with other cyclists is becoming a bit of an issue in Edinburgh. And it's because of the fantastic news that Edinburgh far surpasses other cities in Scotland with 4.8% of journeys to work being done by bike since 2011.  The constant increases reported by the Spokes traffic count data, and my own anecdotal experience, suggest the numbers cycling have increased massively since 2011 even. I see cyclists during every trip I make across the city, by whatever means, these days.

However, this increase, and the increased risks of collisions between cyclists, and between cyclists and cars is just crying out for us to Go Dutch/Copenhagenize. I'll give the council their due, they are investing record amounts. We are going to get widespread 20mph limits across the city (although they need a complete change in driving culture and attitude to be successful). But we now need to see bold decisions to take space on our roads away from motorised traffic and give it to pedestrians and cyclists. The network of paths on old railway lines in north Edinburgh is great to use at slow speed, and if you need to go to places along them. But I've had too many near-misses with dogs and pedestrians, including one very nasty accident that severely injured me, on shared paths, so I now avoid using them as much as possible. However, it depresses me that I can watch Gorgie Road be resurfaced and returned to exactly how it was - a series of parking bays linked by non-segregated cycle paths - which basically means every journey I have to cycle at 20mph out in the middle of the road. I still have to have three-month battles with the Council to sort out problems like this. The inner tube map of segregated cycle paths basically does not include the city centre as you basically take your life into your own hands traversing roads like the urban motorway that the Council have allowed Queen Street to become. 

We live in a cycling city. Can we have the infrastructure to match it now please?

And in other news, I was nearly knocked down by a car yesterday evening crossing Henderson Street as a pedestrian here, but that's another story.

Thursday, 20 March 2014


A bit off the urban planning track, but I know far too much about pensions. I’m on the management committee of a housing association in Scotland and the whole sector is having to make some very difficult decisions around pensions now because of the Scottish Housing Associations Pension Scheme (SHAPS). The Scottish Housing Regulator is all over this as it could actually bring down the whole housing association movement in Scotland.

What being heavily involved in this has meant is I now know an awful lot about what pensions mean to individuals and to employers, and I’ve ruminated quite a lot on the social and policy side of pensions. Therefore, Gideon’s announcement on pensions in this week’s budget very much worries me, as it does lots of other people.

Essentially a pension collectivises the risk of not being being able to earn an income due to old age. If it’s a state-pension that collective risk is borne by future tax-payers. If it’s a defined benefit scheme then that risk is collectivised among members of the scheme – alas SHAPS has collectivised too much. If it’s defined contribution then the annuity you should buy collectivises that risk among the private customers of an insurance company. As most people are highlighting, the danger is that people will not buy an annuity and will be left in penury during their retirement. Oddly enough, in the committee of the housing association, a couple of current pensioners talked about how you used to be able to cash in DB superanns and going on shopping sprees, leaving their pot now a lot more reduced. Also, the risk of old age will no longer be pooled among the annuities held which could mean that the annuity market will collapse, or operate much less efficiently. Essentially this is individualising the risk of old age.

My experience of pensions really made me realise what an utter mess UK policy is. In particular, we have not had an open debate about how much income people should have in older age and how that should be distributed. In particular, whether the pensions system should be redistributive. One thing that really angers me is the statement often made that DB schemes are unaffordable because of increasing life expectancy. This utterly fails to recognise health inequalities. Someone on a low income will enjoy their meagre retirement income for a few years after retirement. In fact, with the increasing retirement age, they’re likely to die on the job. People on very high incomes are likely to live a very long time into their retirement, drawing down an enormous income. This is what is not affordable. This is why, much as I’m very glad I’m in a final salary scheme, the inequities they produce are shocking. They essentially put existing income inequalities into a photocopier that travels through time – magnifying existing inequalities far into the future.

Gideon’s changes make this worse for DC schemes as essentially your DC pot for the very wealthy will just become extremely tax-efficient savings scheme and people will be able to cash it in on retirement (removing a chunk of funding from the collective pool) and live off their saved bankers’ bonuses etc.

This is why, what really angers me about the pensions announcement is it’s individualisation of the risk of old age. Looking after people should be a collective effort. We are a very rich country and we can afford to give everybody a good income in their retirement that reflects their earnings. However, if we fully collectivised provision (through a proper state pension) then we could start asking questions such as: should lower income people pay in relatively less reflecting their lower life expectancy? Should higher income people pay in relatively more to reflect their higher life expectancy?

As a start, I think everyone who joins a pension scheme should have to have a one-day training session from an actuary on their pension paid for by the provider. When I joined by DB scheme I just knew it was good. I did not know what I was actually getting at all. I’ve had ample training and now know some of this. A pension is the largest, most important financial product anyone ever buys and generally as consumers we know nothing about it. 

Sunday, 2 March 2014

It’s not what you know but how you know it

I’ve (literally) just finished* my evidence review for the JRF on poverty and social networks that I’ve blogged about here, here and here and sent it off for their feedback (which I’ve just received some of, all generally quite positive *phew*). Because it’s still drafty, I’m not going to release it to the world for a while yet, but I did want to blog about the methodological thoughts it’s led me to have, and this links to the title of the post. The phrase “it’s not what you know but who you know” really demonstrates the “folk” interest in the links between social networks and socio-economic mobility. However, now I’ve read a load of this evidence, methodologically, it actually seems to be more about how you know about these social networks. This is for two specific reasons: methodology, methods and disciplinary contexts; and bigger epistemological experiences about experience and how this is “collected” by the research process.

On the first point, the review was the first time in a while to read a good chunk of North American social science. I’ve read about the “methods wars” between qualitative and quantitative social science in America, and the feeling that the latter had won; I’d also listened to American delegates at the International Interpretive Policy Analysis conference bemoan the dominance of the rational actor model and quantitative methods. But I’d really not realised how dominant quants where. Successive were based on big datasets, with endless methodology sections explaining how survey instruments were used, with big scary equations that, as a qualitative researcher, I didn’t have a clue about. What struck me about them was they usually ended with, firstly, a lot of uncertainty about their findings and secondly a lot of unanswered questions. So, for example, some regression models would support theories, others would contradict them; when you controlled for different factors the overall conclusion was “meh”. And the unanswered questions didn’t help – invariably there would be the conclusion “but we cannot understand causation here”.

Which brings me to one of my favourite methodology books I’ve read for a long time, Mike Savage’s Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940. It’s essentially a history of social science methods in the UK from 1940 and it’s the historical approach that I love. To go back to the title of this whole blog – urbanity and history – that I chose three years ago, it’s always struck me how social scientists don’t get history, or even have much of a sensitivity to time. Savage sort of makes this point – the technocratic sociology that emerged in the 1950s was a study of the now. I often find it funny – and I’m guilty of doing this myself – how the strictures of social science writing mean that people will present evidence that is decades old in such a way as to suggest its contemporary, without any reflection on how the social world might have changed since then, and reflexively, how that knowledge has since changed the world that is now the object of study. The presumption is the knowledge is scientific and presented in the linear, “standing on the shoulder of giants” way. What I love about Savage’s book is it highlights the social context where the methods of modern British sociology/social science, particularly the survey and semi-structured interview, emerged from.

So, why does this all matter, well for me it brings us onto the second bigger epistemological question. The best way to talk about this is how it emerged in the evidence review itself. In terms of that folk idea of “it’s not what you know, but who you know” is the idea that if poorer people know wealthier people then they will do better in life. It also leads to the more negative idea, which I’m deeply uncomfortable with for its use in “underclass” discourses, of “cultures” of poverty – that experiencing poverty around others in the same situation lessens your chances of leaving poverty because you behave like them and this excludes you from wider society and opportunities. A lot of this sort of theorisation lies behind the “neighbourhood effects” literature I read for the evidence review; I discussed the problems with this in this blog post. However, I want to go back to a striking theme running through the neighbourhood effects literature: basically, most quantitative studies that try and find a neighbourhood effect either find a very small impact, or none at all, or the data is too messy to form consistent conclusions. Qualitative studies tend to find there is an impact, people recognise it when they work or live in the neighbourhoods. This is a contrast discussed in a very well-title article by Atkinson and Kintrea – Opportunity and despair it’s all in there (£) – and in the critique of neighbourhood effects by Tom Slater (who critiques the distance of the quants researchers from their research subjects).

In this quants study of neighbourhood effects in Scotland, van Ham and Manley suggest that it might be down to the geography that we measure neighbourhood effects on. Usually we have to do statistical analysis at the level of census super outputs areas or datazones, or similar administrative boundaries that have quite large populations (1000+). Like any “contagion”, if neighbourhood effects are diluted among a large population then they will have less of an impact. Van Ham and Manley suggest that we might need geographies of just a few hundred people to find a neighbourhood effect. However, this leads me to question (prompted by a point someone made at a Poverty Alliance panel in Glasgow on Friday 28 February) whether this then is a neighbourhood effect – surely if the geography becomes really small then we’re talking about a sociological or socio-psychological impact; residence is just by-the-by as the social network could be anywhere? All points raised in the quants neighbourhood effects literature.

However, I think we are talking about a bigger epistemological point here that we need to recognise fully and debate and play with. For example, this study for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found no quantitative neighbourhood effect on young people’s employment opportunities from postcode discrimination, a neighbourhood effect, whereas this qualitative study also for the JRF, found that young people who live in deprived neighbourhoods that are distant from local labour markets and geographically isolated have reduced geographical horizons for their job search strategies, a neighbourhood effect. These different findings, I think, can only be explained by differences is how we know, no what we know. These are different experiences of young people in deprived neighbourhoods understood in different ways.

As a qualitative researcher I use my research to illuminate how socio-structural factors – particularly socio-economic inequality and status – have an impact on people’s lives. However, a problem for me is that a broader focus on “lived experience” of conditions such as poverty can easily lapse into the personal and focus on individual deficiencies or strengths, effectively blaming the poor, rather than emphasising the socio-structural forces that limit people’s opportunities and psychological reactions in any given context. This is a criticism that is levelled quite often at neighbourhood effects researchers, but most I know put the socio-structural first and want to understand neighbourhood effects as something that makes the situation that much worse. At its most problematic though, this individualising of experience and “witnessing” of negative experiences does lead into the sort of nonsense the Centre for Social Justice come up with – the production of ignorance – and deflects us from an emphasis on socio-structural causes. This is very apparent with the recent debate in the UK on changing the definition of child poverty and the conflation of cause and impact in the proposed measure (as well as initially coming up with something that is unmeasurable). I'm also always left with a nagging feeling that without the devolution of taxation and welfare matters to the Scottish Parliament and Government, policy-makers up here falls way to easily onto person-blaming, behavioural policy answers in areas like public health and social work, rather than the more obvious fact that if a few people had a lot less income and wealth and a lot of people had a little more, then a lot of problems we have would be far less severe. We get away with this victim-blaming because we can frame it in our lovely, fluffly, Scottish social democratic discourse

And I’ve just realised I’ve written myself into a corner. What am I saying? It seems that a lot of methodological choices in the social sciences are actually deeply circumscribed by the disciplinary and cultural context you find yourself in. If I was in the US my career would’ve probably have done nowhere because of my aversion and inability to wrangle big datasets and produce equations that are penis extensions. However, in the UK, with a methodological pluralism that welcomes qualitative research at the ethnographic end, I need to be careful that my research does highlight the structural, and doesn’t presume that cultural changes are all that are needed in society to produce more positive outcomes. 

* I finished the review on Thursday 27th, started writing this on Friday 28th and then got way-laid by a gin and tonic. I have now finished writing it.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Poverty and social networks - key concepts

Social networks across the literature there is no single definition of social networks, they can vary from knowing a neighbour to say “hello” to, to having strong ties to kin and friends that individuals can rely on.

Social Capital the concept of social capital is used widely in sociology and political science. It focuses attention on social networks that offer benefits for members. There are two key conceptions; firstly derived from Robert Putnam’s work. This focuses on the extent of network membership and the amount of trust within networks. Societies with high levels of this sort of social capital are seen to be functioning more effectively than those without. The second is derived from the work of Pierre Bourdieu and critically aligns social capital with the unequal distribution of economic capital in society. It focuses on networks as means to gain influence and access to resources in society to accumulate further resources.

Poverty the report is based upon the JRF’s definition of poverty used to frame the research programme:
“when a person’s resources (mainly their material resources) are not sufficient to meet minimum needs (including social participation).”
In using this in data analysis we have chosen the consensual measure used in successive Poverty and Social Exclusion surveys in the UK. In secondary data collected for this review various measures of poverty and low income have been used, with varying strengths and weaknesses, including: UK income measure of two-thirds median equivalised household income, or equivalent; income-based poverty measures of other countries (US, Netherlands, Norway); the Market Research Association’s Social Grades; the National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification; and commonly tenure, or employment status as a proxy for poverty or concentrated deprivation.

Weak ties/strong ties the sociology of Mark Granovetter focused attention on the strength of relationships within social networks. His early work identified large numbers of weak ties among professional employees that enabled them to access information about work opportunities and advancement. This has been contrasted with the limited networks of strong ties that people in less skilled labour markets rely on to change between similar level jobs.
Similarly a distinction has been made between the “bonding” social capital within less affluent communities that helps people get by, for example, being able to call on people for childcare, and the “bridging” capital of more affluent communities that helps people get on by, for example, being able to access work opportunities or advice.

Reciprocity many social networks are based on reciprocity – the return of favours or resources granted. Reciprocity can be individualised or generalised. Individualised reciprocity is the giving of resources to an individual with an explicit agreement that there will be a reciprocal exchange. Generalised reciprocity is the provision of resources to individuals within a group with the knowledge that someone in that group will return resources in exchange at some point in the future. Networks of generalised reciprocity are thus high-trust networks.

Neighbourhood effects is the theory that there is an effect on an individual’s outcomes from living in a neighbourhood with a concentration of people with a certain characteristic, above and beyond the individual’s own characteristics. To put it simply in this case, it is the theory that experiencing poverty in a deprived neighbourhood is worse as the neighbourhood itself reduces the chances of leaving poverty.

Mixed community there is no single definition of a mixed community, but across the literature reviewed mixed communities were either mixed in terms of tenure, particularly in the UK where this can be a proxy for household income; mixed in terms of the incomes of households; mixed in terms of ethnic diversity, particularly in Netherlands and US context. UK evidence on mixed communities is mixed between evidence from neighbourhoods built as mixed through regeneration programmes and similar, and communities that have become mixed through tenure diversity as a result of the Right-to-Buy policies.

Digital divide is a contested term, but is largely understood to be the divide between people who have ready access to information communications technologies and those who do not. Two digital divides are more commonly identified: a socio-economic divide where less well-off people cannot afford the up-front of on-going cost of internet access; and a cohort divide where older people are not comfortable using newer technologies.

Web 2.0 and social networking web 2.0 generally refers to websites and other resources that allow people to create their own content on the web include blogs, video-sharing sites, audio-sharing sites, noticeboards and micro-blogging. Social networking, through sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter is a subset of web 2.0 technologies that specifically allow people to share information with social networks.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Poverty and social networks...what works?

I’m now beginning to get to the stage the JRF want me to be at for my evidence review – thinking about what works; or what policy interventions might you used to develop social networks and social capital to help tackle poverty. In my previous post I used the mixed evidence around neighbourhood effects to question whether mixed communities policies might mean people in poverty might gain more links to more affluent people. Since then I’ve not read any evidence that counters that. In fact, evidence from the US Moving to Opportunity programme suggests that people who were given vouchers to move from deprived to more mixed neighbourhoods often then felt lonely and isolated from previous social networks. There was also depressing evidence from Dutch studies that although less affluent people wanted to mix with their more affluent neighbours, the latter did not reciprocate, or were not there to reciprocate.

So, the picture is much more complex than the idealistic concept of a less affluent person befriending an affluent person and suddenly being inspired to be less poor. What there does seem to be consistent evidence on though is the role of informal, unstructured meeting places in neighbourhoods which allow people to mix and build up trust. In particular the role of primary schools and parents bumping into one another when they drop their children off seem to be key in a lot of the studies of mixed communities for the development of social networks between affluent and less-affluent people. Similarly, good quality community centres and parks offer a similar, if more limited role.

Trust building is important. The US work on social capital, led by Putnam, puts a lot of emphasis on the development of trust in developing networks that help a society get on. I’ve not seen any convincing evidence of this in my review, but what does seem to be the case is that trust helps reduce stigma and prejudice against marginalised groups.

One of the markers for trust within groups is a high-level of generalised reciprocity – in a twitter discussion I referred to this as the sociology of buying rounds in a pub. Basically, if a group has very little trust and there are lots of you, people won’t buy rounds for the fear that they won’t have a drink bought for them the same drinking session. If you have trust and generalised reciprocity then rounds will be bought knowing that you will have a drink bought for you sometime in future. It would be really nice if the sort of trust developed by passive acquaintance in public spaces could lead to generalised reciprocity.

However, I doubt this would happen in a society as socio-economically unequal as the UK because poverty and low income reduce generalised reciprocity as people withdraw from reciprocal networks or are excluded because they cannot offer anything back.

Which doesn’t neatly bring me on the internet and libraries. Hey-ho. Anyway, let’s see if I can shoe-horn a connection back in. So, the JRF also want us to look into the “digital divide” and whether the affordances of new information communication technologies could help develop social networks, and social networks which can make a difference. So far in the evidence: use of email helps develop loose ties that help you get on; social media tends to help build strong ties that help you get by. Also, interestingly, people in poorer neighbourhoods who have less access to the internet at home, are not affected by distance to their local library in their internet use – they will overcome geographicalbarriers to use the internet.

Which got me thinking about the role of libraries in developing social networks within communities, and I found this rather nice evaluation of the Big Lottery Fund Community Libraries Programme. Reading through it I was immediately reminded of a quote from a former community worker I spoke to during my PhD who described the Ferguslie Park Community Library in the 1980s thus:

“I say the local community library who were…I’ve I mean the first time I’d ever been in a library in my life where they played really loud music during the day but it was great because it meant there wasnae this kind of, wasn’t seen as an educational establishment it was seen as a community establishment and that was a really important factor”

And I think this sort of library could be a really important resource for alleviating and tackling poverty through developing social networks: providing space for learning activities; provided cheap rooms for groups to meet; providing an access point onto services or the “bridging” capital (people that matter like Councillors or MSPs/AM/MLAS/MPs) to make changes in their life.

However, this is a big change is the nature of what a library is – moving a big way from the Victorian philanthropic ideal of the library as a space for self-improvement by immersing oneself individually in good reading matter. This is thinking about the library as a community space, seeking to foster community, and lend out books. The evaluation of the Community Libraries Programme highlighted how this change of use for libraries had a big impact on staff – some felt energised and developed a great deal, others thought something had been lost in their role as librarians.

This got me thinking about a good response I had to my first encounters with community policing in Scotland. The police in Scotland, and particularly the bits of Lothian Borders Police I saw in my PhD, did community policing really well – working closely in partnership to deliver preventative action against low level criminality. When describing this to someone, they agreed, but countered that there was a danger police officers would become social workers, which they definitely should not be. And is the danger that librarians become community development workers or social workers and libraries are just community centres with books, left after all the community centres are closed? Or, if we are going to radically reshape services to coproduce them, should every public sector worker be a community development worker with the requisite training and supervision support?

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Call for chapter proposals: After Regeneration: lessons for urban policy from connected communities

With Dr Dave O'Brien I'm working on developing a book proposal based on the work of the AHRC Connected Communities programme over the past few years. Here's the call for chapters: 

After Regeneration: lessons for urban policy from connected communities 

Connected Communities has funded over 280 projects and is working with over 400 community groups. The projects are diverse, reflecting different communities, different places and different academic traditions. A new book seeks to capture how these projects, given all their different aspects, have contributed to debates, discourses and practices of policy. In particular, the book seeks to relate Connected Communities to urban policy. Urban policy is undergoing rapid and major changes as the era of urban regeneration, associated with New Labour in the UK, has come to an end. The context for urban policy making is now uncertain, with cuts, austerity and financial retrenchment the overriding characteristic of policy, policy and local service provision. The new urban settlement has created many risks, but also many opportunities, for urban communities to determine policy and politics.

The book seeks chapters from Connected Communities researchers that focus on urban policy questions. Suggested topics may include:

The relationship between communities and urban regeneration policies or programme

The policy impact of Connected Communities research on local, regional or national regeneration policy

How urban policy is changing and how this is reflected in research by Connected Communities projects

The impact of working with less affluent communities on academic research practices

The benefits to communities and community organisations of working with academics

Critical accounts of urban policy derived from Connected Communities research

Critical accounts of the Connected Communities projects and programme based on reflections on working with communities

Empirical and theoretical considerations of social capital, social networks and connected communities

Theories of policy making based on Connected Communities research

Deadline for abstracts, of no more than 250 words, is Friday 28th February, with completed chapters expected November 2015. The editors are currently in negotiations with Policy Press for a book to be published in Autumn 2015. 

Feel free to discuss ideas with Dave O’Brien or Peter Matthews.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Facebook don't get social

I was a fairly early adopter to Facebook. As a Cambridge graduate I was one of the earliest group of people who was allowed to join in the UK and it helped me keep in contact with all my friends who had gone to live in That London. Over the years I've had a love-hate relationship with it, but my main social media is now Twitter. I'm still a Facebook customer, but you might include my story in the apocalyptic stories of Facebook's impending demise (more of that in a bit).

Fairly early on in my Facebook use, people who I really did not want to be "friends" with, particularly former bullies from school and university, were sending me friends requests. Also, still, I don't want everyone knowing that I'm gay before they even meet me. As a result, very early in my Facebook career I completely locked down my page and adjusted my privacy settings accordingly. You could not find me by searching Facebook.

The other day I received an email from Facebook (an actual one, not a phishing attempt) and now when I log in I get this warning:

This makes me very angry indeed and I am contemplating leaving. The reason given is that I am now find-able through tagged posts etc. And I have found I get some odd people commenting on posts on my timeline because friends with no/few privacy settings have put them there. But I've gone back to my privacy setting and locked them down yet further.

To go back to impending demise of Facebook (the more interesting story is this one) one thing in these stories I find very interesting is the assertion that teenagers stop using Facebook when their parents befriend them and then head off to use more anonymous social media like Twitter, Whatsapp and showing off their rude bits on Snapchat.

Now, to link all this to my anger and the subject line of the blog, for me this is because Facebook just do not get being social and this seems hard-wired into their business. It does not take advanced sociological knowledge to understand we generally do not just have one social identity. As Goffman explored, we have social roles, and we adjust how we present ourselves in those social roles based on the expectations of the context we are in. Facebook, it seems, presumes all social contexts are the same and therefore everyone will want everything known about them. At its most basic this presumes everyone lives a very pure and worthy existence at all times and never engages in perfectly normal social behaviours such as bitching or gossiping.

And this is essentially how I use Facebook - because it's not as public as Twitter I am very careful as to who I befriend and I use it vent in a way that would be wholly inappropriate in a group of people who were not my friends. One way I have increased my use of Facebook is as a member of a group linked to my sports coaching - there we mainly share facile comments about how much we are exhausted/aching after a training session. Slowly I'm letting this people into the rest of my Facebook universe where I moan and make very sarcastic comments which I'd otherwise keep quiet about.

Facebook, at its root, seems to fail to understand how people manage their sociability and social roles in this way. For me this has to be linked to its business model. It is trying to monetise social connections between people and therefore has to make them as transparent as possible. So, to give one fictitious example, a company will want to know that my friend has mentioned them in a Facebook post as a potential employer. They might start targeting advertising at you. But then your present employer might search for your timeline and quickly get you into a lot of trouble.

Compare this to Google's business model. I have an Android phone (in fact a brand new Fairphone, but that's another story) and a Nexus tablet and I use Chrome. Google could not know more about me if they sat me down and interviewed me for hours. In fact the only thing they seem to get wrong, is they pick up on my friends' posts about their babies on Facebook and occasionally targets adverts for baby products at me. I'm oddly comfortable about this. I find the alert on my phone to set off for a meeting quite useful (if not disconcerting at first). Everyone knows Google's attempts at social media have not been a resounding success - every time I log into Google+ my thought process is "wow, this is amazing. But there's no one here". But unlike Facebook they want to know you as an individual because that's what they can monetise. They don't want to force you to be sociable to monetise that. You can't keep a secret from Google, but Google isn't going to tell your friends.