Harshing My Buzz

Just now, I tweeted: “Dear Google: Opt-in social networks are good. Opt-out social networks are bad. Please remember this.” I was speaking in regards to Google Buzz, the company’s latest social networking release. Buzz is a social aggregator, like FriendFeed, pulling your content from different sites into one stream, where your friends can comment on your content, as well as pulling your friends’ content into the same stream.

I was excited about Buzz and gave it a try as soon as Google bestowed it upon me. It didn’t take long for me to grow frustrated and annoyed with it, though, and I gave up on it after less than a day’s use. Reflecting on it more, I’ve come to see Buzz as a massive screw-up in terms of social networking. Because Buzz is opt-out social networking, not opt-in.

If you sign up for MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed or a host of other social websites, you have to seek out friends. You can sometimes use your email contact list to find other people on those sites, or you have to find people one by one to friend. You also have to go to that site (or a desktop or mobile phone app) for access (and socializing).

Buzz, on the other hand, sits right there in your Gmail. By default, you get any and all updates to Buzz both in your Buzz inbox and in your Gmail inbox. (You can filter the emails out of your Gmail, but it’s not something you can really turn off.) Your Gmail contacts are automatically your Buzz contacts. Following contacts in Buzz automatically adds them to the people you follow in Google Reader (which increased my unread posts in Reader A LOT), even if you disconnect Reader from Buzz (and Reader is pulled into your Buzz stream by default, unless you choose to disconnect it). When you post straight to Buzz, you can choose to make a post private rather than public, but unless you disconnect everything from Buzz, your stream will continue to flow, allowing your friends to see posts and comment on them, even if you turn Buzz off (which you can only do by clicking on a tiny link at the bottom of your Gmail page).

In short, Google Buzz is opt-out social networking, not opt-in. If you don’t want to participate, you have to go through steps to turn it off, rather than going through steps to turn it on if you want to participate. Google has deployed Buzz to everyone with Gmail, causing a number of my friends to wonder what the hell it was and how to turn it off.

Opt-out social networking is a moronic and intrusive idea. Just because you use email doesn’t mean you want more social networking. Just because you emailed someone once or twice doesn’t mean you want to see everything they post to the internet (and it doesn’t mean you want them seeing everything you post to the internet). You might like fish and you might like salty food, but that doesn’t mean people should assume you want anchovies on your pizza, and you definitely shouldn’t have to ask to have to anchovies removed if you don’t want them.

Google Wave and Buzz are making me think Google Labs is some socially-isolated workshop where no usability studies are being done. It’s stunningly bad design. I’m going to be very wary of whatever Google releases next.

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4 thoughts on “Harshing My Buzz

  1. I actually think your last paragraph hit the nail on the head. Google is a company of engineers – not designers, not usability experts, engineers. And Buzz is oh-so-obviously an engineer’s solution to social networking. I don’t really think there’s any malice there on the part of Google, just simple cluelessness. But it does point out Google’s limits.

    They are awesome at pulling together, managing, and presenting vast quantities of general data. That’s why their search engine rocks. That’s why GMail and Reader rock. That’s why Maps rocks so hard it blows every other online mapping service out of the water.

    What they are not so hot at is understanding the social side of data, because the social stuff is hard to engineer – maybe it can’t be engineered in the traditional sense because it needs to concentrate more on the human, rather than the technological. Engineering alone isn’t enough (neither for that matter, is design or a usability study). If you want to make something social, you’ve first got to understand people. Google hasn’t quite figured that out yet. And given the company culture, maybe they won’t ever figure that out (which would be a pity). But until they do, I don’t think they’re ever going to get the social space quite right.

    So yeah, if their next big launch is yet another social thing, I’m probably going to do just what I did with Buzz – turn it off. If it’s something that plays more to their strengths, I may find it useful. Either way, I know what Google’s good at what what Google is not so good at, and I can use its services accordingly.

  2. I don’t trust Google for or with anything. I’ve tracked the way they assign value to sites as responses to search queries. Apparently it’s easy to buy off Google, and one can load the value of a site other ways. Unfortunately, I haven’t bothered tracking the other search engines, so I have no comparison…….yet. I’m looking for a decent, usable alternative to Google.

  3. Steven, I agree, companies that run social sites definitely have their own views of privacy. Some of their views may jibe with popular views, but they’re also driving the way people view privacy. Much like how mainstream media drives what people expect from news and entertainment.

    Beth, you’ve got it. Google is great at engineering & managing data, but they suck at designing social stuff.

    Rick, I don’t trust Google at all. It’s a company. It’s ultimately driven by profits, not people’s well-being. I still use Google for searching, email and other things, because they design good products in that regard. But trust them? Hell no.

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