Father’s Day Gmail Reminder Sparks Backlash: Three Lessons for Google

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Google learned some harsh lessons on Father’s Day when it reminded Gmail users to “Call dad.” Despite good intentions, the reminder triggered a backlash among users with deceased, abusive or otherwise forgotten fathers.

The message appeared in the chat section of Gmail, and could only be removed by disabling outbound calls from the service.

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A Google Chat support forum sums up the outrage. “I’m sure in a Google-designed childhood everyone would be loved, protected, and nurtured to be the best little software engineer he/she can be,” one user wrote. “However, I don’t appreciate the reminder of my unpleasant childhood and presumption that I want to speak to my father.”

“I was surprised at how much this bothered me,” wrote another user. “I think because for a nano second I thought my Dad was still around.”

Lesson one: You can’t please everyone.

As TechCrunch’s Alexia Tsosis points out, Google also celebrated Father’s Day with a Google Doodle, which triggered no measurable backlash. The difference with Gmail is that it’s a private service, and the reminder to “Call dad” is personal. That stirred a bigger backlash among people who would rather forget the holiday.

Lesson two: Learn to recognize personal boundaries.

But this little Father’s Day snafu touches on a bigger issue with Google and its attempts to encourage interaction between users.

Whereas a service like Facebook creates the framework for people to interact — see the father-as-profile photo meme that took hold on Facebook, seemingly without provocation — “Call dad” was essentially a forced interaction with Google’s free calling service. And as several pundits have noted, you just can’t force social.

(MORE: Google Officially Integrates Voice Calling Into Gmail)

Google has stumbled this way before.

With Google Buzz, the company tried to automatically create social circles from users’ most frequent contacts, but this triggered a backlash when people found exes and former employers among their followers.

With Google +1, the company introduced a way to endorse articles on the web, but unlike Facebook’s popular “Like” button, +1 lacks the social framework to make the button worth clicking.

In more ideal circumstances, Google would have some kind of social network in which its users could remind each other to “Call dad” through Gmail. Instead, Google provided this reminder itself directly in Gmail, which for some users came off as creepy and insensitive.

So perhaps the biggest lesson for Google is this: If you want to succeed in social interactions, don’t tell users what to do.