Google backpedals on Buzz
Go to Google's official Gmail blog and read it in reverse order, from bottom to top, and you can see an interesting progression of posts about its new Buzz social-networking service. Consider how the tone has changed over the last week:
Feb. 9: "Google Buzz in Gmail"
Today, we're launching Google Buzz, a new way to start conversations about the things you find interesting and share updates, photos, videos and more. Buzz is built right into Gmail, so there's nothing to set up -- you're automatically following the people you email and chat with the most.
It's been just two days since we first launched Google Buzz. Since then, tens of millions of people have checked Buzz out, creating over 9 million posts and comments. Plus, we're seeing over 200 posts per minute from mobile phones around the world.
We've had plenty of feature requests, and some direct feedback.
We've heard your feedback loud and clear, and since we launched Google Buzz four days ago, we've been working around the clock to address the concerns you've raised.
In shorter terms, the Buzz launch hasn't exactly gone as Google has hoped. The Web giant has become the latest firm to discover that people's private lives can be a lot messier than its developers had imagined.
The worst Buzz meltdown came when a woman complained that Buzz had exposed an unhealthy chunk of her details to an abusive ex-husband (warning: angry, grown-up language). That's a worst-case scenario, but not an unpredictable one for such an ambitious attempt to graft a semi-public communications system onto the inherently private medium of e-mail.
As security expert Bruce Schneier might put it, Buzz launched as a brittle system that would fail badly instead of degrading gracefully. That is, if something went wrong, the consequences would both be ugly and difficult to fix. That can happen when designers aim for maximum utility and assume all their users share those goals.
That initial error has created a non-trivial public-relations headache for the Mountain View, Calif., company. For example, at The Post's Foreign Policy, Evgeny Morozov suggested that Buzz's privacy settings would provide a huge help for totalitarian regimes: "If I were working for the Iranian or the Chinese government, I would immediately dispatch my Internet geek squads to check on Google Buzz accounts for political activists."
In response, Google has made major changes to Buzz's default settings, as outlined in those two latest blog posts. Buzz no longer has you automatically follow anybody; won't share even public Picasa photo albums and Google Reader shared items without your authorization; lets you hide your followers list; lets you block would-be followers and makes it easier to opt out of the service entirely.
As for me, I have to confess that I haven't spent much time using Buzz after its first few days: Because my own Buzz updates -- most echoed from my Twitter account -- have not drawn any replies on the service since last week, my Gmail inbox hasn't had any reminders of Buzz's existence. (I have to click on a separate link to follow the Buzz chatter of people I'm following.) And yet I've now drawn 27 followers despite my offering little on Buzz that you can't get elsewhere.
At some point, I will need to decide if I will use Buzz as yet another actively tended social-media channel, on top of Twitter and my public Facebook page, or if I'll let it quietly collect dust alongside my long-neglected MySpace presence.
You can help inform that decision: Take the poll below, then explain your vote in the comments.
Update: The BBC has a great piece in which Google seems to say Buzz--unlike most of its other new products--never saw testing outside the company's own employees. Later in the piece, Buzz product manager Todd Jackson pronounces the firm "very, very sorry."
February 16, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories: Privacy , Social media
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