12 April 2013

Wrong picture? Wrong name?

Mismatch errors between social profiles and contact records - how things go wrong with contact synchronisation across networks


1 What goes wrong
2 How it happens
3 Common scenarios and how to fix them
4 Watch this space

What goes wrong

More people are connected over the net than ever before, and they want all their contacts available from everywhere, and kept up to date. So some service providers - Outlook.com being one example - now offer the option to search social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr etc, and pull contact information from those sites into your address book.

But the searches aren't perfect, and on some sites, people can (and do!) make errors in the e-mail address they use to set up their account. The result is that people can be linked to the Profile of a complete stranger, and when their friends pull that Profile data in from the social network, they will receive and store bad data in their address books. Although no outgoing email message can send profile information beyond a name and email address, the receiving account will match the email address on an incoming message to the stored name and photo in its address book and display it - right or wrong!

How it happens

Several social networks and services offer the ability to set up a public profile, including personal information and a photo. As networking increases, more people have multiple accounts with multiple services. There is now demand from users to sync all the information from all their social contacts together in one place - usually the on-line address book linked to their email account or their “People” app, when contacts are managed on a standalone basis..

Outlook (2010 onwards) has long had the ability to integrate users' contact lists with profiles from Facebook using a plug-in. But now Outlook.com - which incorporates Hotmail and Windows Live users as well - has this feature built in for both Facebook and Twitter and is publicising it. So take-up appears to be increasing.

Some cloud syncing services used on popular mobile devices are also offering linkages with social networks. There are numerous apps available for social linking.

Gmail users have a similar feature by default, linked to Google's own social network, Google+. Gmailers who have Google+ members listed in their Contacts will automatically see the public profile information and photo for a Google+ member in that person's contact record and alongside emails received from him.

The connection between an email contact and a public profile on a social network is made by using look-up features built into the social network to match registered email addresses with email addresses stored in people's address books.

Provided that the email addresses registered by social network members are correct, the system should work well. But if they are not, then people will find complete strangers linked to contact information in their email account address book and similar bizarre anomalies.

The Google+ system is pretty foolproof. In order to use a Google+ account and have a Google+ profile you first need to have a Google account. And in order to create or amend that Google+ profile, you must be signed in to the relevant Google account with the correct username and password. So, barring user error or account compromise, the details and photo in a Google account profile should remain correctly linked to the real owner of the email address used as its ID.

This is not the case with other social networks. For example, people can sign up to Facebook using any email address. Facebook will send an email to that address, but do not enforce verification. If the email is ignored, then the new account user is not restricted, and can use his account. Consequently it is possible for there to be glaring errors in the IDs of Facebook members when email addresses are looked up and profile information and photos synced with an email address book.

Common scenarios and how to fix them

Some people I email to are sent my Facebook profile photo! How dare Gmail invade my privacy like that?

Solution: Gmail doesn't "send" any photo out with your messages. The photo people see when they receive your message is the photo they have stored for you in their own contact list. If your recipients use any Microsoft email service, or a third party app for syncing social networks, they have probably synced their own contact lists with Facebook.

Therefore when they receive mail from you, the picture they have for you in their contacts is your Facebook picture, and that will appear beside your email when it arrives in their account. You have no control over that. The best you can do is go into your Facebook account and amend your privacy settings - you cannot opt out of the “look-up” service completely, but you can restrict who is allowed to do look-ups to your Friends only.

You could also investigate removing your Gmail address completely from your Facebook account, and substituting another - see their Help Page here:

Some people I send mail to see a complete stranger's photo on my messages!

Solution: if your recipients use any Microsoft email service, or a third party app for syncing social networks, they have probably synced their own contact lists with Facebook - or perhaps another service which does not enforce verification. If someone signed up to Facebook using your Gmail address, their profile photo - and perhaps their name as well - has been matched to your address in your recipient's address book - so that’s the info your contact will see for you. And yes, it is perfectly possible for someone to sign up to Facebook using your Gmail address - it happens regularly, because Facebook does not verify user email addresses. You can contact Facebook to try to have the error corrected, but they may not act or respond. This could also happen with other social networks which do not verify registered email addresses.

People I send messages to see my wife's (friend's/partner's/sister's) name and Google+ photo on my mail!

Solution: your wife has amended or created "her" profile without realising she was signed into your account. Sign in to your account yourself and edit your profile to remove her details. And for the future, don't leave your own account signed on on a shared computer.

I set up a Gmail account for my friend, and now my YouTube account has his name and his photo on it!

Solution: Did you sign out of the non-Gmail Google account you use for YouTube FIRST? If not, then you have added his Gmail account to your own Google account and his details have become part of your account. To correct that, you will need to delete the Gmail account from your Google account. Your friend will need to start over with a different username, as his original one - though now deleted - is permanently linked as an "other username" to your Google account.

I said my room-mate could use my Hotmail address as his recovery address for his new Gmail account. Now my Gmail-user contacts see his picture!

Solution: Your room-mate added your Hotmail address to his account as an alternate address instead of a recovery address, and you verified the address without quite realising what the verification was for. An alternate address is an alternative ID for his account. So any Gmail user who has your Hotmail address in their contacts will now see your room-mate's Google profile linked to the Hotmail address. To correct that, tell him to remove your Hotmail address as an alternate ID on his account, and add it as a simple recovery address instead.

There is a complete stranger's picture showing on all my messages and my own contact entry

Solution: Not so much a solution in itself, but a initial path to finding a solution, is to drag that picture or cut and paste it into the Google Image Search search bar. That will pull up all web occurrences of the picture, so you can see which sites it is being used by. Once you know whether the photo is on Google+ or Facebook or some other site, it can be easier to track down how it has become connected to your email address.

When I posts comments on some blogs, the wrong picture comes up against my name - it's an old one I haven't used for ages

Solution: Did you ever set up a Gravatar account? If so, those websites - for example, Wordpress blogs - that can make use of it will pull the information and the photo from your Gravatar account, not from your Google account. So change the photo on your Gravatar account to the one you prefer to use.

Some of my contacts' names have been changed and are no longer their real names, but some kind of nickname or "handle", and their pictures seem different as well!

This has come about because some users have taken advantage of a change offered to a selection of people who operate YouTube Channels linked to their Google Profiles.

Ever since Google+ started, some users have wanted to use their well-established internet nicknames, by which they are widely known, rather than their real names. Now, some YouTube users who have linked their YouTube Channels to their Google+ Profiles - it's not a requirement, but many people choose to do that - have been offered the choice of using their YouTube Channel name as an alternative to their real name on those Profiles.

That means that their YouTube Channel name is now their master name across all Google products and services, and has replaced their real names on their Profiles.

So, if one of your Contacts is a YouTube Channel user, and has decided to change his Profile to reflect his YouTube name, he will now show in your Contacts list by that name instead of his real name. If he has changed his picture as well, then that new picture will also show up in your Contacts list.

Solution: Unfortunately for those who don't like these changes in their Contacts list, there isn't a way around it. Every email user everywhere can choose the name he wants other people to see when he sends email to them. Similarly, every Google user who creates a Profile chooses what he wants people to see as his name and picture. Other Gmail users have no control over this at all - if the email address linked to the Google Profile in question is in their Contacts, it will reflect the updated information.

So if you suddenly find that a glamorous-looking diva called Miss Purple has arrived in your Contact list where you used to have Mary Brown and a nice picture of her tabby cat, then that's Mary's choice and you have no real option but to respect that choice.

I clicked something on YouTube and now the name and picture on my emails has changed to my YouTube profile!

On the other side of the coin, if you are a YouTube user and you chose to take up this opportunity, you might not have realised that it would change your name and picture right across your entire Google account and all the products you use with it, including your Gmail account. You can, of course, change the name that goes out on your Gmail messages independently of your Profile, and also have a special Gmail picture, but your Contact hovercard will still reflect your Profile contents, which may have you thoroughly dismayed!

Solution: You can change back to your previous real name on your Profile by FIRST disconnecting your Google+ Profile from your YouTube Channel. Then go to your Profile and edit the name back to your correct real name - and change the picture back too, if you wish. That will restore your real name and picture to all your other Google products and services. If you then want to re-link your YouTube Channel to your newly edited Profile, and use your real name in YouTube, then you can.

You can do this by following the instructions in this link: http://support.google.com/youtube/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=2657858.

Watch this space

There are many ways this baffling phenomenon can show up. All cause confusion and distrust among users, which is usually directed towards their own service provider rather than the true culprit. But it’s a given that until all social networks enforce verification of the email addresses people use to sign up for accounts, the problems caused by identity mismatching are likely to increase in number.

As more scenarios emerge, they will be added here, in the hope of providing an explanation and a route to a fix.