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.