Google adds Google Buzz: Location-aware social networking
Google launched its latest bid for info-ubiquity, a sweeping social-networking service called Google Buzz built on its Gmail service.
In an hour-long event at Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters webcast on YouTube, company product managers explained that Google wants to help people deal with the overload of information streaming out of other social-media services -- yes, by launching yet another social-media service.
As a short introductory video explains, Buzz requires an active Gmail account and Google Contacts list. It uses those ingredients to plot its "social graph" of your friends: Buzz assumes the people you talk to the most in e-mail are the ones you want to hear from the most on this new service. (Since I've used my Gmail account mainly for commercial e-mails from stores, financial institutions, airlines and so on, this part won't work for me.)
Once Buzz is active in your Gmail account -- something that will happen gradually as Google deploys it -- you'll be able to choose between publicly or privately posting comments, links, photos and videos. Public posts, or buzzes, will show up on your Google Profile (remember how Google began building up that feature without an obvious need for it?) and can appear in Google Web searches -- much as Twitter updates do today. Private buzzes will show up only for other Buzz users who are on your Google Contacts list, or a subset that you designate for each buzz -- just as Facebook lets you choose who will see each status update.
Incoming buzzes appear right in your Gmail inbox; Google reps showed off how videos played inline, photo slideshows appeared in a nifty graphical overlay and comments on buzzes showed up automatically and in real time. (They used the new Mac version of Google's Chrome browser for this demo.) You can respond other people's buzzes using a Twitteresque "@ reply" format. Buzz will also recommend buzzes from people you don't follow if it thinks enough of your friends have commented on them and will "collapse" buzzes that draw few comments or provide little information.
Buzz can also pull in content from other sites, such as Twitter, Yahoo's Flickr and Google's own Picasa, YouTube and Blogger -- but you can't post to Twitter from Buzz, something that emerged only in a Q&A session after the presentation. Most important, there is no connection with Facebook, the dominant social network that just claimed its 400 millionth user (in comparison, Gmail is at around 146 million users, although both figures count people who rarely log in).
Buzz appears more ambitious, and a tad creepier, on a mobile device. It ties into the location-aware capabilities Google has built into such sites as Google Maps to determine your location, then goes a step further to try to map those coordinates to real-world places and establishments -- so instead of placing you at 1600 Ampitheatre Pkwy. in Mountain View, it knows you're at the Googleplex.
Using just-updated versions of Google Maps for Android and other platforms (an update for Apple's iPhone will come later), you can then easily announce your presence at a given store, restaurant, bar or airport and post a comment or photo about the place. The former feature threatens FourSquare and its increasingly popular check-in feature; the latter represents a stab at Yelp's business of rating real-world establishments.
You can also see other people's buzzes in Google Maps as little quote-bubble icons. Within a few miles of my home, I can see such recent buzzes as "At the movies finally watching avatar" and "Uh buzz? Great... Another thing to keep updated." You can post a reply to any of these buzzes right from within Google Maps.
During the presentation, Google representatives repeatedly emphasized their plans to make Buzz a "standards-compliant" and "protocol-obeying" system that would let people control their data and take it with them, using Web data-sharing software the company has been working on with other developers.
But Google faces some huge obstacles to building up Buzz as a nexus of everybody's social networks. Its Gmail-first requirement excludes most people online; how many of them will change e-mail services just to use this? Its lack of any integration with Facebook, at least for now, will force Facebook users who also want to Buzz to set up yet another online profile and friends list -- and as analyst Michael Gartenberg notes, they'll lose their favorite Facebook apps in the process. Buzz carries a greater risk of privacy mishaps than even Facebook, thanks to its location-awareness -- one nearby Buzz user, who had earlier taken the trouble to make her Twitter and Facebook accounts private, revealed her apartment's location by mistake. (After I posted a comment asking about that -- which I can only hope did not broadcast my own location -- she seems to have deleted that buzz.)
Most of all, Buzz's mobile features require placing a phenomenal amount of trust in Google: You're not only letting its computers tell you what's worth knowing on the Web, read your e-mail and keep your calendar, now you're going to let them follow you around in the real world.
Forgive me if I'm not too excited to start using this. I like Google and Gmail and my next cellphone will be an Android device, but at some point it's good to log out of the Google ecosystem and give your business to somebody else -- even if that's a little messy and inefficient.
What's your take on Buzz? Do you see this as solving problems with existing social networks? If it does, are you happy to see the solution coming from Google in particular?
February 9, 2010; 12:56 PM ET
Categories: E-mail , Privacy , Social media
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