Google Docs Shared Folders: More Folders, More Lies

Oh, Google. If you can’t get shared folder permissions right, who can?  Nobody. Because the folder is still a lie!

Google Docs Adds Shared Folders — Mashable.com

The Folder Is a Lie

Mashable claims that Google’s new shared folders work just like they should. I beg to differ. Google doesn’t really have folders under the hood, just like some other document management system I used to talk about. Things get tricky when a document can be in more than one place. Google’s full of smart people, so I decided to hope for the best and kick the tires: Create a few folders, create a few documents, and then permission and move things around to see what happens.

The first no-big-surprise was Google Docs has trouble with state. Web applications are still inferior to stand-alone clients (or operating systems) when managing state. Most of the time a refresh would solve the inconsistencies around location or permissions, but sometimes a logout/login was needed. State issues aside, let’s look at the behavior.

Google walks a tightrope with its “folders” because they really aren’t folders; they’re tags. The behavior you get depends on the context: If you’re in a folder, you get the “move” menu item which works as advertised; something is in one place, then it’s in another–or nowhere since documents don’t have to be in folders. Use the folders menu item and you get the “tag” behavior because you’re directly selecting zero or more items from a taxonomy of tags that happen to have folder icons next to them.

Hacking around, I discovered that Google’s “how it should work” is a most permissive model; it seems to just gather the list of every sharing option on the shared folders. This isn’t horrible; however, the metaphorical mismatch it creates will undoubtedly cross the line into “too permissive”. Most people will assume that the permissions on the “last” folder they put something into will determine the permissions. To Google’s credit, they display a permissions summary next to each document. Maybe that’s good enough to prevent mistakes. And maybe everybody reads EULAs before clicking “I agree”, too.

The shame here is that Google really broke ground with ideas like conversations in GMail. Seeing your replies in the thread of a conversation is obviously the right thing to do; segregating part of the conversation to the Sent “folder” is a broken model that requires people to quote the entire previous conversation with each response. Horrible! Google’s always on the verge of freeing people from the tyranny of folders but never fully commits to a pure tag and search approach, so they won’t be overthrowing The Folder Hierarchy with this feature.

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