An unofficial blog that watches Google's attempts to move your operating system online since 2005. Not affiliated with Google.

Send your tips to

December 19, 2007

Who Are My Gmail Contacts?

Google has an awkward way of dealing with contacts in its communication apps. In Gmail, your contact list includes all the people you've ever replied, but you can also add other contacts manually.

"Email addresses are automatically added to your Contacts list each time you use the Reply, Reply to all, or Forward functions to send messages to addresses not previously stored in your Contacts list," according to the help center. While this should save you some time and effort, your contact list will include a lot of people you wouldn't have normally added. For example, if somebody sends me a tip for this blog and I reply to thank him, my contact list includes that person. Gmail doesn't have an option to turn off this feature, so all you can do is to either ignore your contact list or create a group that contains only your real contacts.

By default, if your conversation with someone includes more than 2-3 replies, that person is automatically added to your list of Google Talk friends. To chat with someone you normally need to ask for permission, but this feature bypasses the annoying question because Google assumes you really know that person. Fortunately, you can disable it in Gmail's settings and Google Talk, but not many people will do this. "If there are other Gmail users whom you frequently email, you'll be able to chat and see each other online without having to send an invitation. Gmail automatically determines which contacts you'll be able to talk to without having to invite each other." (Gmail help center)

So the rules are simple:

Rule #1:
if you reply to someone's email, that person is added to your Gmail contact list.
(Error #1: you may not know that person)

Rule #2 (opt-out):
if you reply to someone's messages more than 2-3 times, that person is added to the list of Google Talk friends.
(Error #2: see error #1. Also that person may not be your friend.)

So it's quite likely that your Gmail contact list and Google Talk friends list include people you don't know. Now that we have these two lists (obviously, Google Talk friends are also Gmail contacts), you may wonder where you could use them.

In Google Shared Stuff, a rather obscure social bookmarking site, all the web pages you bookmark are public, but there's also a page with "stuff from people you know". That page shows the most recent bookmarks from your Gmail contacts, but many of these contacts are people I don't know.

Google Reader added a feature that shows shared items from your Google Talk friends. Here's how it was introduced:
One of my favorite uses for Reader is to share interesting stuff with my friends. I click "Share" whenever I find an interesting item, be it hilarious or serious. This way, all my friends can subscribe to my shared items (and I to theirs), and we can easily see if a friend has found something interesting. This can be inconvenient, as I have to distribute my shared items link to my friends and vice-versa. So, we've linked up Reader with Google Talk (also known as chat in Gmail) to make your shared items visible to your friends from Google Talk.

Except that, according to the rule #2, my Google Talk friends aren't necessarily my friends.

Google will probably continue to use your contact list for other services, so at some point your Gmail contacts or Google Talk friends might see your public documents, photo albums, notebooks, personalized maps, blog posts. All of these public actions dynamically generate a news feed (the way you know it from Facebook) and your contacts should be entitled to find things about you. The main problem is that your contact list has been generated automatically and has little to do with you. Those people aren't necessarily your friends, your family, your co-workers, they're just some people you happened to email at some point.

Before using theses random lists of people to broadcast information about you, Google should clearly define their purpose and let you manage them. The problem with creating a social layer over Google's web apps is that Google is not a social network and your contacts are not your friends and not even people you know.


  1. Sing it, brother. Totally agree.

  2. I stay on top of my contacts list in GMail, immediately deleting people that I know I won't be dealing with anymore.

    I also immediately delete any Sent msgs and empty my Trash whenever Spam or those Sent msgs are sent there (not that they can send me ads pertaining to them anyway since I use Adblock, and even better, a little Hosts file tweaking).

    I'll use Google's stuff, but other than that, they can kiss my ass. I'll determine who my friends are thank you very much.

    1. I can't even find my contact list so I can fix it. Where would I find it

  3. Word.

    You are totally right, that is one of the reasons I just can't get away from traditional PIM yet.

    This automatic adding of people is just NOT helpful, as it is implemented right now. I like your suggestion of creating a group for people you REALLY know - this should be the default though and all the others should maybe get moved to a "PUBLIC" group or something similar...

  4. Some time ago I exported my Gmail's contact list as a CSV so I could sync my iPod's contacts with it... Big Mistake! I ended up with a nearly endless contact list in my iPod with LOTS of people I dind't have the least idea of who they were!

    Although Gmail has a lot of "pros", I think this is one of the most remarkable "cons"...

  5. LOL, tell me about it :-)

    I tried plaxo and synchronized my mobile <-> outlook <-> plaxo <- gmail and I got all the junk on my mobile in a split of a second :|

  6. Really good comments. I hope somebody from Google take this in consideration...

  7. To top it all, in the new Gmail release you can only delete 20 contact records at a time.

  8. I agree this is the big big cons of Gmail. In fact, this is the only con at least for me. Having unknown in my contacts certainly does not help me.


  9. If you reply to someone several times why not watch them in Google Reader, even if they are not your friend? SAs the saying goes, "Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer" ;)

    Seriously, this whole thing is still fairly broken in many aspects. For instance: I work with my editor on a book in Google Docs, so every new article for the book will be its own Google word processing document. At the end of writing a chapter I will always add my editor as collaborator in the permissions tab. However, my editor doesn't use Gmail as his main account, and his Gmail account doesn't appear in the Google Docs auto-completion... only his other account appears. (The weird thing is, it DID briefly appear there for a while, but doesn't anymore.)
    Checking my emails, I can see I only emailed that email of his twice though, maybe I got to send him a dummy email just so he's added to the auto-completion in Google Docs! But why doesn't the tool realize that I'm inviting the same person OVER and over for document after document, figuring out to add him to auto-completion?

  10. Hah, sending him a third email did the job... funny. And totally non transparent and weird :)

  11. ... I wonder though if the "2-3 mails" rule has a time out. Because this DID work before, and then stopped working...

  12. I just have a conspiracy theory about why Google insists on this con, as I would assume that tons of complains have been sent to Google about this con since day 1.

    We know Google analyzes the contents of Email conversation for delivering advertisements. Similar analysis may be carried out to study the patterns of Email contents and deleted contacts. So, Google engines will know what sorts of conversations will occur between known people or friends. Deleted contacts are not your friend statistically. In long run, Google engines will be smarter in analyzing people relationships.

    Again, we become white mice of Google's collective intelligence. Like it or not? Believe it or not?

  13. There is another big flaw in Google's use of Gmail contacts in Google Reader. In the Manage Friends page of Google Reader, a list of SOME of my Gmail contacts is shown so that I can invite and share with them my feeds.

    However, their names are displayed not according to how I named them in my Gmail, but according to how they name themselves. So if I have two contacts both with the first name John and that they happen to name themselves John in their profiles, I would not be able to differentiate one John from another.

    Gosh I just hate it so much.

  14. And then when you have Facebook sweep your Gmail address book, those people you don't know get really weirded out when you ask them to be your friend.

    11,154 days

  15. I'm using Google Apps for My Domain. In Gmail, my friends are listed in the built-in talk. But on my Blackberry, the list is always blank. And in Reader, it doesn't list any friends. And the inability to add/delete in Reader is weird, clunky and stupid. Guess there's still some bugs in the system as well. Overall, this whole idea stinks of Google attemping to gain marketshare with an idea that if it were called half-baked would be to give it too much credit. (I hear my friend has shared some of my blog posts, but I can't get him to show up. Or anyone else, for that matter.)

  16. Wow, wow, I happen to really enjoy this feature in gmail. It saves me a LOT of time. I really HATE having to organize and classify this friend here, that friend there, oh these are family, these are best friends.
    Forget that! Gmail and gtalk is not about friends!! It's all about contacts and networking. My most treasured emails in gmail are those far-away contacts who are crucial for some reason, and that I need them once more but I don't know nobody in my closest circle of people that can link me to them. Those are my gmail pearled contacts. If I want to get in touch with my friends, I go visit them, or phone them.
    And I really want to get my ideas, my work and my convictions exposed publicly as much as I can (not because they're great, but because they're mine to share).
    I agree, gmail and gtalk is not about friends networks. Go to facebook or to myspace for that. Or better yet, go visit your friends or create an event where you and you friends can meet together.
    I enjoy google mail, talk and reader because I'll be able to make contact with new and fresh like-minded people.

  17. Who cares that things don't work properly yet? It's only 'beta' software, after all. ;)

  18. I like the way Yahoo did it in their new version. The "message sent" splash page has a list of people who your message went to who aren't in your address book. Each one has a checkbox next to it and the button at the bottom adds any checked addresses to your address book. So you get the benefit of an easy way to add contacts to your list without the hassle of people being added automatically that you don't really want.

    Of course, the hole is that Google doesn't have a splash page to tell you a message was sent, just a message near the top of the message list.

  19. Yeah, they need to have like two separate contact lists...

    "Collected Addresses" where all email addresses are collected and "Friends" where only people you move over from collected addresses are stored. (Only contacts in "Friends" can see all your shared stuff.)

  20. I still don't see my friends shared stuff in my Gmail Chat (i use flash Gadget - is this the reason?).

    But what I really wanted to talk about is another problem with contacts. I use Google Callendar and share my items from it as like I do with docs and spreadsheets.

    And what I find strange is some email adresses showing while I type one - I know them, I know that I used to have them in my contacts, but i delted them. And yet, they are still somwhere in the Great Google Memory ;)

    I'd like to know how to remove them.

    I also have similiar problem with few contacts in Google Talk - for example some bots using Jabber procol. I dleted them, but they are still there - don't see them in my contact list, but i can find them using serach. It's strange.

  21. I really like the way the contacts work. It just works. I don't really look at them at all, but when I begin to type a name, Gmail autocompletes it. That is what I like.

    The only thing I really notice that I don't like is the contacts for the Google talk. It automatically added contacts that don't have a Gmail address. Maybe I do email them a lot, but I can't use Google Talk with those people. Why should they be on my Google Talk contact list?

  22. The way Gmail handles contacts is a little weird, but it works because Gmail sorts your contacts based on the frequency of messages. That's why when you enter the first letters from a name Gmail's auto-complete works well.

    The problem is that Google starts to use automatically generated lists to broadcast information about you. And then you start wondering: who are those people and why should I share my favorite blog posts with them?

  23. nicely said. and to top that as another commenter says limit is 20 contacts on deletion.

    Brin doesn't use GMail

  24. Yeah...quiet often, we need to maintain contact with someone during a period of time and then, no dealings after that. What is this sharing of my data to that person? I have some 900 contacts on my list now, without actually knowing atleast half of them! (perhaps even more).

  25. Another HUGE con is the fact that GMail doesn't give you a true "Contact List" when you are composing an email message. You have to remember each individual person that you want to send a mass message to. If I forget to include a cousin, sister, or friend in an email...I'm going to blame it on Google.

  26. Arregorn: Another HUGE con is the fact that GMail doesn't give you a true "Contact List" when you are composing an email message. You have to remember each individual person that you want to send a mass message to. If I forget to include a cousin, sister, or friend in an email...I'm going to blame it on Google.

    That is not true - You can go to Contacts, check boxes on teh list and thant press "Compose".

  27. My mistake - it is not called "Compose" in new version of Gmail contacts. It's a little blue link called "Email" on the right column, showing when You check at least one box. Still - You can select adresses this way.

  28. Have fun remembering everybody you want to forward something to, because what you mentioned is not particularly helpful when forwarding emails.

  29. I actually think it a not half bad idea sure it added some people to my im list but more people to to talk to the merrier

  30. I do somewhat agree with you "person". Perhaps someone emails you and you converse back and forth for a while...and then one day you stopped talking for a while...

    Then you decided you'd like to contact them again, but OH NO...You've forgotten their email address. Thanks to GMail there's no worries!!!

  31. Google is soliciting privacy feedback here, I would encourage you to submit your feedback:

  32. Mr / Miss Anonymous, I may be missing the point here...but what does your post have to do with this blog???

  33. Not bad enough google decides to add these people for me (like people just emailed on craigslist once or twice) but then you have to go through the ritual deleting of them. And it gets worse, you can't delete more than 20 people at a time. Well thanks alot! I just check marked 70! I love my gmail, but god damnit.

    The solution to make everybody happy, let them choose!

  34. Well, I think you can delete all the contacts in your Gmail, just switch to classic version, select all contacts and delete them. I just did it.

  35. question-

    is there an explanation to this:

    a person appears in my chatbox and contacts but i have no emails to and from the person in my whole gmail account. how can this possibly be? i don't delete anything. the rest of the people in my chatbox are the ones i email most frequently and google is right about this EXCEPT for that one person who i don't even know.

    is this a common problem????


  36. eflan: I've had Facebook find some strange people in my Gmail account before ... very similar circumstances to what you describe.

    I'm sure with a database as big as Gmail's, there have to be some misfired queries now and then.

    11,277 days

  37. Thanks for this guide. Unfortunately, gmail has those awkward problems, and they really need to fix them!
    PS I will not reply to forwards from now on. Thanks for the helpful guide

  38. MAKE SURE YOUR KIDS ARENT READING THIS ONE! I'm sorry, but I need to get a little ghetto on Google. What the fuck?! I'm sick of this forced data collection bullshit. Why the hell wouldn't you allow your audience to disable an obvious pesky hemmorhoidal feature like this?! It's a rhetorical question for the clueless... No one likes it, now give us the disabler. I'm putting the Big G on iggy. Fuck your innovative apps...oh and fuck Microsoft too :)

  39. this "feature" has been annoying me for some time. i thought i could just turn it off, but was too lazy to go and do that, until now. argh, friggin, argh. i really like what google has to offer and live with the "big brother" risks... but this really blows.

  40. Hey. Please, to get rid of that "feature" tell your suggestion to google:

  41. I totally agree this must have something to do with Ads revenue cause Google usually is not that dumb... Unfortunately for them, this proble persisting... i'm leaving Google Apps...

    How can they seriously open a contact APi and who's gonna sync their Gmail address book with their device...WTF? Gmail sucks just because of that

  42. @Guillame:

    I don't think this has to do with advertising. It's simply convenient to automatically populate the contacts list, so you don't have to add contacts.

    By default, Yahoo Mail asks you every time you send a message if you want to add the recipients to the address book. This is annoying, but it can be disabled in the settings and you can choose to automatically add the recipients to the contacts list.

    Gmail just needs to be more flexible, since people have different needs.

  43. Actually this in now totally untrue. There are so many things here that are just plain wrong, where do I start.

    First of all, Google Reader shared itmes is not an obscure bookmarking site, it comes from Google Reader. True it is social bookmarking at it's best. The links are fully followed and on Google. Not much better of a link can be had by social bookmarking.

    Second, you can add and remove who you share with in Google Reader.

    Your Google Reader friends come from the Google Friend Connect widget on sites you join or two way connections in Gmail. Make friend thru the widget and they friend you back, you get the opportunity to add them to Gmail or not.

    Then you can accept them in Gchat or not and they you.

    Then you can accept them in Google Reader or not as a friend you are sharing with.

    Then if you do, you can read what they have to share in Google Reader.

    Also, Google no longer just adds contacts in like they used to.

    Now you see new contacts SUGGESTED by Google under, you guessed it,
    "Suggested contacts". There you can choose to add, delete, or move the contact to "contact" or "friend" as in social friends or what ever you like.

    I can understand you confusion and the reason for your blog post, but currently and for some time now your information is rather misleading.

    If you want to really understand what Google is doing, take my Google Friend Connect tour here.

  44. Yes! I just received an email from my friend saying my Picasa pictures were really nice. Hunh? I didn't give you the URL? What are you talking about? I didn't even know that I was on her Google contact list.

    Apparently Google had been sending her updates when I updated my album. What in the world!!! How do I stop that.

    I'm leaving Google.

  45. Picasaweb has safe measures in place so that you can make certain or all of your Picasaweb folders private. Most likely this person has added you to their favorites so that they are notified when you add new pictures.

    If you don't want them knowing about it, the only thing I know you can do is to keep your picture folders set to Private. There's an option on album properties that will make it to where the person has to sign in to view the albums. But I haven't tested this out yet, so I'm not too familiar about its use.

  46. is it possible that a new unknown contact showed up on my gchat list because one of my contacts whom I know forwarded my emails to this unknown person and now google thinks that I actually know this unknown contact as well??? and so google added unknown to my gchat list?? in other words, google linked all contacts/emails from the forwarded message and connected them all, assuming we were all friends??

  47. How do I find my contacts in this absolutely horrible new gmail?

  48. To find your Contacts, click on Mail under the Gmail logo.

    12,654 days