Friday, February 19, 2010

What's All the Buzz?

With the recent release of Google Buzz, the social networking extension to Gmail, and the bridge between Google Profiles and Google Contacts, everybody has been in uproar over privacy mishaps and other controversial issues over the new Google product. Louis Gray and some others strongly believe in a less private world, where it's perfectly OK to share all your contacts, while other vehemently oppose the idea, stating email is the most sacred of private social identities. Well, I think it's time to set some things straight.

Now there is one indisputable fact: Google messed up. No matter what side you take, agree or disagree with what Google did, the fact is that Google Buzz caused a PR nightmare that will leave Google on a bed of social networking shame, especially in a time when a lot of people are wary about Google's monopoly over information. I mean they are facing a federal lawsuit. There is not much more of a disaster than that. So with that I have to say that Buzz could have been executed more carefully, whether it be a beta trial or some other form of user feedback that would have told Google how users would react before the public force-feeding release.

Now that that's out of the way, on to the issue of email privacy. Louis Gray in his post fiercely attacks the opposition toward Google Buzz. He argues that the only reason Buzz is getting so much, well, buzz, is because of a small minority who are screaming over the breaking down of the "walled gardens". The reasoning is that as social networking expands, we are moving to an ever public world, where the private parts of our lives are either reserved for a specific online service, or are not put online at all. Louis, please forgive me if I misinterpreted your post, but I tried to sum it up without copying the entire post. Now Louis Gray is not alone, as Thomas Hawk also argues that all the buzz just needs to shut up, and everybody should just suck it up and make your contacts private if you rally do not believe in a public contact list.

The reason I mention Gray and Hawk specifically is because of an article by Steve Hodson on the subject. He almost launches a personal attack on the two authors, saying things like "Thomas Hawk also seems to forget". This is a little harsh because it assumes Gray and Hawk's opinion on Buzz is because of their tunnel vision of the subject. This is not the case. Gray and Hawk have not forgotten anything. Their opinions are rather propagated by the nature of social networking itself: people like to spread themselves online in different consistencies.

Hodson makes a legitimate argument concerning the recent condensing of multiple, different-privacy-level email addresses into one universal identity. He says that people no longer use separate email addresses for separate trust levels, but rather combine everything into one email address. But the problem with his argument is that this change in social identity did not affect everybody universally. Though a significant amount of people did keep those trust separations in their contact list, there are also a lot of people who, when combining their email addresses, simply moved their more trusted contact lists to a different service. Facebook and Twitter were sitting their open, waiting for potential consumers to move the more private, or more public, parts of their social life into a different service. So instead of email becoming the combined front for everybody an individual contacted, email took the form of a more formal front of communication. You would email a co-worker or boss concerning a work project, but you would Facebook your friends, and tweet to  the world.

With this aspect of email in place, Google introduces Buzz. Since email has been converted to this more formal method of communication, social networking in email seems like blasphemy. However, what I think Google is trying to do is take email back to the users. Pull the consumers out of all these complicated services, usually a combination of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, FriendFeed, FormSpring, the list goes on. Google is attempting to merge social networking into one servic, so somebody can communicate with their friends, co-workers, boss, etc. all in one place.

As aforementioned, Google messed up. They executed Buzz in all the wrong ways, and almost forced people who used email as their formal last stand to make their contact list public. They had the right idea with putting the social back in email, but they let it on the users too fast and too hard. So because of this, I recommend Google back off Buzz a little bit, and work on making a softer, and possibly more integrated, method of social networking in email, so that trends can adjust to the new paradigm before Google goes all out and makes your contact list public.


  1. Thanks for writing this up. Always appreciate new voices adding to the discussion.

    A few things: 1) I have no problem with Steven's article. He is a good friend I have known for years. We don't always agree, and he calls me on it when we disagree. Great relationship. 2) I don't believe I ever said Buzz was only gaining visibility due to the naysayers.

    When Buzz launched, I was there at Google HQ. I helped push much of the news when I had several posts on it that day. It's getting Buzz because it's a good product. I stand by my comments that the privacy concerns are overblown. It's not that everything on the planet should go public, but that those claiming harm were not harmed, and those reporting it did so at 100x the required volume.

    Google is not under attack from a Federal lawsuit. There is one individual who filed a class-action suit (not uncommon these days), and the feds are looking at Buzz. They haven't taken any action to my knowledge.

  2. Ah, that clears things up nicely. And with the way you put it I definitely agree that the privacy issues were blown out of proportion, especially considering Google pretty much remedied some of it a few days after release. For some reason, I still think it would have been helpful if they did a beta trial or something.

  3. Tyler,

    I'm glad that something I have written was a spark for a great post. I just want to clarify one thing - which Louis points into in his comment. My references towards Thomas and Louis were definitely not personal 'attacks'. As Louis will testify to since he has known me for some time - if I come gunning for a person you'll know it :)

    You point regarding the universality of email addresses is valid but I still stand by what I wrote as a whole.

    BTW - subbed :)