google_cameras_pdWhen was the last time you asked yourself, “I wonder which of my neighbors has a leaf blower?” or, “which of my friends has timeshare in Cabo?” or “…a poker table?” or “…the full Star Wars collection on Blue-ray?” or “…snowboard boots in a size 11?” It’s a common occurrence, especially as the sharing economy grows in size and importance. But technology has yet to make this sort of information instantly sharable.

Alex Chitu of Google Operating System, an unofficial blog that monitors the company’s activities, claims that the search giant aims to fix this with the launch of Google Mine – a sharing economy ledger cum marketplace, where Google+ users can document the things they own, the things they’re willing to share, and the things they want. The product is reportedly still in development, according to Chitu, but is being tested internally at Google and is said to be coming soon in both Web and Android versions.

On paper it’s a compelling idea that has the potential to kick the sharing economy into high gear. Google Operating System’s blog post on the allegedly forthcoming product lists the following use cases:

  • Catalog your belongings, track what you have
  • Review your belongings for your friends to see
  • Control who sees what, track conversations
  • Send requests to borrow or try out friends’ stuff
  • Share stuff you wish for, get recommendations
  • Share stuff you are giving away, find takers
  • Follow, browse, search stuff that friends share

Currently, the best solution to these problems is to manually create a spreadsheet or photo catalog of your own belongings, and to post requests to social media asking friends to borrow or review particular items. None of this screams efficiency. Google Mine has the potential to make the sharing economy a far more enjoyable and productive experience.

But until the product is actually released and run through its paces, there remain a number of questions, the answers to which will determine whether this would be a big step forward or something to be approached with caution. The most central of these questions has to do with privacy.

The product description goes out of its way to explain that users can dictate which items and information are shared with various circles, or groups of contacts, on its social network, which is a good start. But what should be more important to users is what Google would do with the data on its backend. Will users receive a barrage of ads for vacation rentals and home appliances based on the items listed on their wish list? Will data be sold to insurance companies looking to validate property loss claims following home fires or burglary? Will employers or political group be able to determine sensitive information like gun ownership? And, if hacked, could criminals use the data to target home robberies?

Google already knows more about most Internet users than most are comfortable with. Data culled from our email, Web searches, map usage, calendars, address books, and (likely limited) Google+ usage paints a frighteningly complete picture of each of us. And with the recent revelation that the NSA and other government agencies may have carte blanche access to all the company’s data, adding to this treasure trove is something that should be considered carefully.

All of this makes the timing of Google Operating System’s product discovery curious and has even led some observers to wonder whether it may be a hoax. The name Google Mine, which presumably is meant to refer to ownership (e.g. “this DVD is mine”), is an odd choice given consumer fear over, and the likelihood it will be confused with data mining.

Beyond privacy concerns, another big obstacle to Mine is that not enough people actively use Google+, although that’s surely something Google would hope to change with this and other product updates. A Mine-like product would seem to be more useful if attached to Facebook, given its scale and level of engagement – not that users should be any more trusting of the Zuckerberg-led company – or even within the hyper-local neighborhood social network Nextdoor.

As a consumer who looks to technology to facilitate my life in as many ways as possible, I’m cautiously excited about Google Mine. If it ever comes to fruition, I’ll likely start slowly, listing only a few of my belongings on the platform at first while looking to get more comfortable with the way it works and how much value it actually adds. But assuming early adopters find Mine to be useful and not too creepy, a platform of this type has the potential to be a major windfall for the sharing economy as a whole.

As many have predicted previously, we’re moving toward a future where each of us owns far less stuff, and instead makes use of the excess capacity of the things owned by others nearby. Google Mine, and the likely copycat products, could be the infrastructure necessary to make this future a reality. Hopefully Google is in fact working on Mine and in doing so, appreciates the responsibility that it will assume with this product and behaves in a way that earns consumer trust and broad adoption.

  1. Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.