February 18, 2010

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The Buzz is not good
Has Google gone off the rails?
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com.

Gmail users were treated to a brand new feature last week: Buzz, a kind of amped-up Twitter that invades your inbox. Although use of the service exploded into the millions almost instantly, a lot of that use was questioning just what the heck it was — and what the heck Google thought it was doing.

The premise is pretty simple. Like Twitter, Buzz displays short messages that you write for all the people following you online. It doesn’t have Twitter’s 140-character limit, which might or might not be a good thing depending on your perspective.

Where it started getting creepy was Google’s decision to add other content. Got a blog on Blogger, owned by Google? It’s posted to all your Buzz followers. Post some pictures on Picasa? Yep, there they are.

It’s not that all this integration is necessarily undesirable, but the way Google launched it was ghastly. All gates were thrown wide open without warning; all your e-mail contacts saw everything you posted anywhere, and vice versa. Anyone following you, or that you followed, was similarly exposed, with all their contacts now visible. The web of private contacts suddenly made public was huge.

Within two days, Google started backpedaling. Gmail users still got their contacts automatically shared, but options to hide or edit the list of your connection s were made more prominent. You could turn Buzz on or off.

But by then, the damage was done. Google displayed the same horrible naiveté that, frankly, many users of social networks often do. Ever have a Facebook friend post some revealing comment to your public Wall, or plaster some unflattering picture of you tagged with your name? Wouldn’t a private message be more appropriate for that kind of thing?

That’s why e-mail and social networks are separate things. All of my “friends” on Facebook aren’t even really my “friends” — why on earth would Google assume that everyone I’ve ever e-mailed is someone I want having access to all my contacts?

It’s not the first sign that Google might be drifting out of touch with its user base. The last big launch was Google Wave, which is a collaboration, um, messaging … thing. I think the idea is that you hang out all day with Google Wave open in your browser while other people have Google Wave open in their browsers, and then when anyone gets a thought they type and OMG YOU CAN SEE THEM TYPING. You can also send messages and pictures and stuff. In contrast to Buzz, Wave doesn’t integrate with Gmail at all — you have to check Wave messages separately.

To be fair, Wave is still in its “preview” period, but since Gmail was a “beta” product for five years, we’ve come to expect some amount of polish from these supposedly unfinished applications. Wave doesn’t even have editable settings, just a placeholder page. And we certainly don’t expect a new program to be thrust upon us with so little apparent thought as Buzz.

Perhaps they’re just trying to get more traffic to their Google Labs page, where experiments in progress hang out. We might have to if we don’t want to be gobsmacked by their next “great” idea.