Buzz, Beta, and Can it Recover?

As most of the Internet is aware by now, Google released Buzz earlier this week.  If you have a Gmail account, you’ve probably encountered it already.  If not, the easiest summary is that it is much like your Facebook news feed, but it tries to infer your social network based on who you exchange email with.

The core of the idea is fairly clever, and not unreasonable.  Honestly, I rather like the service.  But a number of my friends have had reactions that range from “meh” to burning, fierce hatred, and I can’t say they’re wrong.

The thing is, for the first time in living memory, Google didn’t label this a “beta”.  Presumably that’s because it was well-tested and solid — and really, it is.  On the purely technical level, I haven’t encountered any bugs yet.  (Although I do think there are some design flaws — for example, catching up with new comments isn’t nearly as clear as it is in Wave.)

Where they ran into trouble, though, is in the usage model.  Buzz is doing a lot of stuff that is actually kind of dangerous, because they are building a social network through the back door.

Traditionally, a social network has started out with the network itself — a system that lets me say who my friends/contacts/whatever are — and has gradually layered functionality on top of that.  Today they add a news feed; tomorrow photo-sharing; the next week, multi-player games.  But it’s all in the context of the communities that you’ve established explicitly, so you feel in control of those communities.

Google’s kind of doing it the other way around.  They have all these properties, like Gmail and Picasa, that started life as separate projects.  Now, they’re trying to tie them together into a unified whole, with as little friction for the user as possible.  I’m sure that the mindset inside Google was, “Let’s make it as easy as possible for existing users to do more with their friends”.  Put that way, the idea sounds almost admirable.

Problem is, the users weren’t really consulted on this.  The usage of those separate systems can be pretty different, and people have long-standing expectations about them.  Worst of all, trying to infer a public social network based on private email — well, it can lead to leakage of links that people thought were private.  And that’s exactly what has happened, causing anything from embarrassment to anger to actual danger in a few cases.

Some folks are crying conspiracy, that Google hates privacy, and stuff like that; frankly, I think that violates the “never infer malice where incompetence will suffice” rule, and is certainly wrong.  Rather, they took a product that was really, truly a beta — good, but needing wider testing — and released it as if it was completely done.  It absolutely needed to be labeled a beta, and it absolutely needed to be strictly opt-in (and much more cautious about data exposure) for at least the first few months.  That would have slowed down its spread — and I suspect that somebody inside Google argued that they had to go fast, to compete with Facebook — but the result of not doing so was a huge misstep, and unusually bad PR.

But what’s done is done.  A lot of folks are pissed off, and a lot have turned the system off.  So I’m curious: what’s your reaction to the whole flap?  Do you like the system?  Are you angry about the privacy screwup?  And perhaps most interesting: can they redeem themselves in your eyes?  What mea culpas and changes would they have to make in order to make you give them a chance?

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9 Responses to “Buzz, Beta, and Can it Recover?”

  1. Tom Galloway Says:

    Note that I’ve not spoken with anyone still at Google about Buzz, and had no advance warning of its existence. Still, as a former Googler, my take on the likely motivations and reasons that Mark gives above is that they mesh very well with my own thoughts based on 4.5 years there.

  2. Chad Says:

    The worst part seems to be that there is no good way to truly opt out for those who would like to give it time to ripen.

  3. John Stracke Says:

    The only way they can rescue it is to shut it down until it’s fixed.

    Isn’t using information in your email for their own purposes a violation of the ECPA?

  4. Arnis Says:

    Well, try this as a datum – while I knew that Buzz had been released, the first I’ve heard of the problem was reading your LJ.

  5. Justin Says:

    @Arnis Interesting — I guess the firestorm hasn’t consumed LJ. But I’ve seen a huge wave on complaints on Twitter, and fully half the messages I’ve seen on Buzz itself have been about this.

    @Chad Yeah, not having a good opt-out was a dumb mistake. It’s basically a side-effect of the fact that the problem isn’t Buzz — it’s the way that Google Profile has passed a tipping point of becoming both useful and dangerous, and I don’t think they were expecting that, so they weren’t prepared for people to want to lock down their profile tightly and easily.

  6. Monica Says:

    I can’t tell if they’ve imposed this on me without my consent. Are they harvesting addresses from my email now and sharing them with people? Clicking on the “Buzz” link leads to account setup, which *implies* they’re not, but I can find nothing that actually says. (Where’s the privacy policy?)

    I’m not pissed but I am concerned. I will move into “pissed” if they have in fact exposed anyone’s email relationships without explicit opt-in. I understand that, e.g., my Picasa album is public (and if I don’t want parts of it to be I can fix that), but the default for email is private and that’s important to me.

    I don’t currently see any reason to use it. I don’t need yet another wannabe social network.

  7. Justin Says:

    @Monica Honestly, I can’t say that I’m sure. Keep in mind, the issue isn’t really Buzz per se, it’s the Google Profile. My impression is that a lot of that activates when you activate Buzz, and it may well be that that has actually changed in the past couple of days — I don’t recall going through account setup when I did so. (But then, I already had a Profile due to Wave.)

    The exposure — well, the details are still murky, but I get the impression they did leak some information inadvertantly. It’s a classic case of missing the big picture: each individual step in the chain makes perfectly good sense, but when you put it all together, you wind up with accidental exposure.

    As for reason to use it, that remains to be seen. For the moment, it’s a relatively nice but not exceptional news feed. (The only thing that I find particularly interesting is the way that active conversations can get embedded into my Gmail, which can be mildly convenient. Beats Twitter all hollow, but that’s a low bar.) I suspect there’s a bunch more to come yet, but we’ll see. Hopefully they’ve taken the lesson that they need to sanity-check the features more carefully before they go public…

  8. Stephanie Says:

    I find it ironic that this blog is labeled ” The Art of Conversation –
    Talking about Purposeful Online Conversation in Communities” and we are caught up talking about more “noise” in the social media space. I am not sure how tools developed by programmers who are not traditionally the best at social interaction help and inspire the art of conversation. Instead of adding more tools and applications to the already crowded space, I think it is time to reflect on how we got here and understand how to positively and productively move forward. We are all getting seduced by social media noise, personally I would rather get seduced by an amazing person in real life. :-)

  9. Justin Says:

    @Stephanie A fair point. It’s certainly true that the blog reflects my own interests, and as a programmer in this space, I *do* care a great deal about the tools. Perhaps more significantly, the tools tend to produce news, which gets me off my duff and writing. (I do write some on the social and pure-conversational side as well, but it’s easy for those articles to get procrastinated.)

    That said, the tools shouldn’t be underestimated: the tools mediate the conversation, in ways that just don’t happen in real face-to-face conversation. Indeed, the tools are important, if only because so many of them suck so badly — most online conversational tools really get in the way of good conversation. I’m always interested to see how people are playing with these things, and whether they are making things better or worse.

    So I don’t think the tools are *just* noise — they’re an important part of the equation. You’re right that they’re just one part of it, though, and can sometimes get more attention than they deserve…

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