Sunday, February 14, 2010

Episode 510: Buzzing Or Buzzkill?

If like me, you happily migrated to Gmail and Chrome because you couldn't believe a company had finally come along that seemed so adept at providing the general user with what he/she needs, you might want to rethink that position. Those of you on Gmail should have noticed Google Buzz by now, an opt-out service that was obviously designed to simultaneously compete with Facebook and Twitter, arguably the reigning champions in the social networking and microblogging arenas. The question, obviously, is whether Buzz hits the spot and is capable of upstaging them. As some technology writers are pointing out, Buzz doesn't seem to significantly improve on the functionality provided by sites like Facebook and Twitter that has made them part of the sociocultural fabric (for now). Where Chrome was looking to simplify the browsing experience, Buzz seems bent on embracing the full gamut of social networking, allowing for integration with Blogger, Flickr, Picasa and YouTube, among others. It comes as no surprise that of the four sites I've named, only Flickr isn't actually owned by Google. After all, why make it easier for people to connect to something outside your sphere of influence? Far better to keep them in your orbit, buying up the hit websites in specific content categories and forming your own constellation of domination. (Note the conspicuous absence of Facebook in the list above.) In essence, Buzz is simply consolidating Google's diversified Internet empire under one umbrella.

It doesn't make for an immediately intuitive user experience, and for people who already have Facebook and Twitter, Buzz might feel redundant. This brings us to the most glaring flaw in Google's introduction of Buzz: its handling of its Gmail users. You might have noticed Google's invitation to try out Buzz. Like me, you might have rejected it. Imagine my chagrin when a few days later, Buzz appears anyway, just under my Inbox, and the new items slowly began accumulating. (The slowness of this suggests that most of my friends aren't hopping on the Buzz bandwagon, thankfully.) A friend has pointed out that you need a public Google profile before Buzz can work, so it's unfair to say that Google didn't give me a choice in the matter. Thing is, I had that public profile before Buzz ever came along. So who gave Buzz permission to assume this constituted an invitation for its invasion of my privacy? For that's exactly what Buzz does. It plucks a bunch of Gmail contacts and automatically follows them. Didn't it occur to the geeks designing this that not everyone I e-mail frequently is necessarily also someone I would socialise with in other settings? Much has already been written by more qualified people about the ramifications of Google's carelessness in this regard, so I won't belabour the point. Suffice it to say that the online backlash generated by Buzz has the potential to torpedo Google's attempt at snagging a slice of the social networking pie. (Orkut, an earlier attempt, did well enough. In Brazil.) After all, as the (limited) public experience of Google Wave has demonstrated, it's not enough that the geeks and early adopters 'get it'. If you're too far ahead of the curve for Joe Public, you'll sink. Before Google embarks on its next project for Microsoft-scale domination, it might do well to consider if it's providing a service people actually want, rather than something it thinks people should want.

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