Posts Tagged ‘google’

Buzz, Beta, and Can it Recover?

February 12, 2010

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?