Brewing Over Buzz

By Sam Machkovech February 12, 2010

In only five days, Google has announced its own social networking platform without advance warning, enabled it for users, had "tens of millions of people" use it, and watched the resulting creation crash and burn.

Some week, guys. The swift downfall of Google Buzz—essentially, a Twitter-like way to share status updates with the world—is peculiar for a company that has long taken pride in "doing no evil" and respecting users' privacy concerns. But before I dig into the privacy complaints, and how they apply to Google more than to its social networking competitors, let's look at that official number again: "tens of millions."

Anybody who's ever attempted a start-up must be jealous. Google can attach a new service to Gmail and rack up millions within 24 hours? Only Hotmail or Yahoo Mail could come close—and neither of those sites has ever made such a sweeping, "try this out!" gesture for its members.

Yet here's a funny stat: Tens of millions have combined to post ... nine million times. Less than one per user! That can't be a heartening stat, and it indicates that quite a few people showed up, looked, and walked away.

Makes sense, really. Twitter works because it's a plainly open world of social banter between friends, content makers, and celebrities. Plus, the 140-character brevity and the relative anonymity of profiles make it a clean slate experience. Be completely open, or hide yourself by default. Facebook, meanwhile, works because it's an overtly information-heavy network. Enter as much personal information as you want, then enjoy an experience that limits your output to a friends-only network unless you choose otherwise.

What about Google's mail/profile amalgam? That's less clear. Let's not forget, Gmail initially succeeded by recognizing the privacy and intimacy of e-mail. It combined messages into "conversations," integrated personal calendars, and successfully swept spam out of the way. Google even made waves by not inserting their own ads into the e-mail signatures of their users.

Then Buzz showed up two days ago. "Wanna try me?" it asked. Sure, why not? A new, Twitter-like page popped up, explaining that Buzz would draw from my Google Reader and Picasa accounts by default (with small text giving me an option to change), and it auto-followed a huge number of people on my contact list (with small text giving me the option to change that).

This didn't faze me at first, but within a few hours, I realized Google had just sent my stupid photos to everybody on my contact list, and had also just alerted everybody on my contact list that I was going to follow and/or stalk them. I hadn't thought about that sort of broadcasting when I first clicked "OK." For someone who prides himself on Internet privacy awareness, I wound up a little surprised—again, probably because I think of my e-mail client as a separate entity from things like the privacy checklist of Facebook.

And with a new Buzz account came a request to fill out my Google profile. Oh, you didn't know? You've got one of those attached to your Gmail account. Give us your data, it begs with a big, yellow box: "To have your profile featured, add more information about yourself," including your favorite links, your old hometowns, and your "superhero powers." Google's stance: No profile page, no Buzz. Huh.

Buzz debuted by assuming you wanted to share to the world, that the sanctuary of your e-mail needed a brick loosed from its wall. Some users have disagreed, and loudly. No matter that Google has reacted to those privacy complaints with updates—more pronounced blocking features, and clearer privacy notices for new users—because first-day users can't get that back. For example, contacts that were followed by default are surely going to notice that they've been blocked a day or two later.

Worse, the Google Profile page still lacks privacy options, which is troubling, since half of the fields sound like typical Internet security questions ("what was your first elementary school?").

This is not idle, nerdy nit-picking. In our world, social contracts are drawn on Gmail screens. So long as we give ourselves over to "free" services like Gmail, with millions of users and all the strength in the world, we will be victims to their makers' whims and accidents.
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