Google this week took another stab at social with the release of the unoriginally named Google Buzz, which was rolled out to Gmail users soon after Tuesday's announcement. As Matt McGee points out in a post on Search Engine Land, Google Buzz – basically a stream of status updates and shared items – is intended to compete with Twitter, Facebook, and even Foursquare, given its mobile features.
There's been a lot less hype surrounding Buzz (ironically?) than there was for Google Wave, which may mean that Google was wary of more buzz backlash. Hype or no hype, among non-tech-geeks I know, the initial "buzz" was very similar to the reaction to Google Wave: What is this? What is it for?
So is Buzz really a threat? According to Marshall Kirkpatrick, yes – it's disruptive because it's "built by a team of people taking a radical new approach to online publishing: Buzz is all about open, standardized user data." He thinks it could end up being a platform:
It's tempting to recoil at the thought of Google powering one more part of our lives online, and our friends' activity streams are a very important part of the online experience now. But if the growing number of data portability and open web advocates the company has hired can do their jobs well - then Google Buzz could be a big force for good.
People will build services on top of analyzing your public Buzz activity. They will build new applications for publishing to Buzz, just like the Twitter ecosystem has today. Planned support for things like the Salmon commenting standard mean that comments left on Buzz could appear out on blog posts around the web, and comments on blog posts could be viewed inside of Buzz when the post links are shared.
It's good to see someone cut through the fog of dismissal to consider the potential of the product. But for now it is just potential. What is Buzz offering us now?
Too little, too late?
Jeremiah Owyang put together a useful matrix outlining the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats for Google Buzz, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. Owyang sees Buzz's strengths as its large potential user base of Gmail users and large talent pool of Google engineers. Its main weakness? Being late to the game.
Google seems to be developing a habit of jumping on a bandwagon after everyone interested was already on it. Active Facebook and Twitter users don't think Facebook and Twitter are broken, so they have little incentive to switch to a new social app (or add another with very similar functionality) – especially considering it would only have real value if all their contacts switched too. What about all the people who "don't get Twitter"? Is there an opportunity there? Certainly, but only if Buzz is easier to use and makes more sense. So far I'm not getting the impression that it is.
What's more (or what's less, really), it's missing some features that would make it more of a draw. On ReadWriteWeb, Frederic Lardinois offers a list of abilities that would make Buzz "more interesting and useful," including:
- Lists, a la Twitter and Facebook
- Better filters
- More third-party support
An even bigger hole, to me, is that there doesn't seem to be an easy way to reshare or "retweet" a Buzz post.
But more problematic than missing features are the new problems it introduces.
One is security, or the (equally important to users) illusion of security. Over the past couple of days, Gmail and Google Reader users have received notification that people in their contacts are now following them. But this isn't necessarily desirable. In a comment on the above RWW post, someone wrote:
The Google network in Reader was a small group. All of us are interested enough in the world and the internet to use Google Reader; over the last two years we've become pretty close. In many ways, it was a self-selective community.
Over the last two days, at least 14 people have started following me. But I don't *want* these people following me.
For me, Buzz - which I can't even access yet - has destroyed the online community that I was the most invested and interested in.
Similarly, someone I follow wrote on Twitter: "I have two current students who are following me on Google Buzz, based on however it decides who your friends are. Not good." This teacher is used to making remarks on Twitter that, though technically public, he is fairly sure his students will never see. Now he has to worry about those remarks popping up in his students' Gmail.
I understand how these people feel. I have a sense of lack of control—contacts are added automatically; I don't currently see my own "buzz" in the stream so I'm not sure what, if anything, is being pulled into it. I didn't explicitly connect my Twitter page or anything else to it, so hopefully it's only pulling in my shared items from Google Reader. But I don't feel 100% sure about that. Is it easy to block people you don't want following you? Not easy enough – I don't see a link next to my followers. (UPDATE: In response to feedback, Google has added the ability to block followers. Amazing that they needed to be asked for this.)
Irwin Chen makes a great point about why this following system feels different (in a bad way) from Twitter's:
Asymmetrical following: yes this is Twitter’s lunch. The difference is it’s less relevant given that a) the following isn’t voluntary per se since Google takes the liberty of adding people you supposedly send lots of Gmail to and then b) shows you the conversations they are having with other people (most of whom are perfect strangers). This is weird and creepy, far from the interestingness you get from Twitter’s opt-in asymmetrical following model. (I’ve seen some inane, offensive, childish, and incomprehensible bickering that I really didn’t need to see.)
(Yep. I witnessed a bit of catch-up between someone I knew in high school and his best friend at the time, with whom I did not get along. Not offensive, but not relevant either.)
Itamar Kestenbaum finds a bunch more Buzz flaws, including some big security holes, to add to the list, among them that Twitter integration doesn't require a password (so you can theoretically pull in anyone's tweets!) and that popular "buzz" such as Mashable posts are always at the top, so you can never see what's new from non-power-users.
In addition, as Andrew Goodman points out, in a post called "Why Google Buzz Is, Um, Not Quite Right For Me," "services like this are premised on the notion of a single Gmail account, a single Google account, or perhaps, just on a certain world view of what people use these accounts for." In other words, people can choose to have two (or more) Twitter accounts or Facebook accounts, for example if they want to keep work and their social life separate. But if you want to have two Buzz accounts, you'd have to create two different Gmail addresses – and presumably it would be difficult to develop your contacts for the second account.
Similarly, Danny Sullivan notes that you can only use Buzz if you have a Gmail account, so if companies and celebrities want to get on board, as they did with Twitter, they need to create Gmail accounts, but their names and brands may not be available. To boot, making your Buzz account public makes your email address public as well.
Another big problem is one of duplication. If I was already following someone on Twitter and in Google Reader, I'm now following them in Buzz too, meaning I have the potential to see their shared items three times. (It would be four if I were on Facebook.) This just feels like needless clutter. Oddly, this is the exact opposite of the effect Google is aiming for:
Much like web pages became overwhelming, and where human categorization of them couldn’t keep up and got replaced by search algorithms, so Google sees social connections becoming overwhelming. That there is valuable information being shared socially, and Google’s job is to help people feel that’s organized.
(That's Danny Sullivan again.) See, Google, I didn't feel that my social connections were overwhelming before, but now I sort of do. I'm curious to see how this supposed organization (presumably algorithmic) is going to take place.
Of course, for those uninterested in the service, it's easy to disable Buzz, but it isn't good for Google if people turn it off out of fear, or feeling overwhelmed, before they've given it a chance.
Have a great weekend!