Google Buzz: Much Ado about Something

Google is having another go at a social media offering, and this time it looks like the company may be on the right track. Google Buzz was rolled out en masse this week, to largely positive reviews. The service has a few rough edges, but has quite a bit of potential.

If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Google is having a yet another go at a social media platform, this time with Google Buzz. Buzz meshes input from third party social media sites like Flickr and Twitter, and pulls in Google Mail, Google Talk, Google Reader, and a number of other features in a way that makes for a compelling platform. Has Google finally gotten it right? Buzz has a few glitches, but the final product is worth a look.

Last year, Google generated a ton of hype around Wave and plenty of people were convinced that Wave was going to be a fantastic collaboration tool that would mesh real-time and asynchronous communication and provide the next big collaboration and communication platform. Far from being the social media and collaboration tool of dreams, when Wave finally hit the beach it was with all the grace of a dead whale. In addition to the platform’s obvious technical flaws, the roll-out was too slow, giving only a small sub-section of users access — leaving many users with no one to collaborate with on a collaboration platform.

Google obviously learned a few things from the Wave launch. Whereas Google Wave was hyped out of proportion, Buzz was launched with a minimal amount of hype and announced as the company was ready to start rolling it out to users. Avoiding the long waits for invites, which hampered Wave’s usefulness from the start, was a smart move. Some folks may still be waiting on Buzz accounts, but most of the GMail users I know now have Buzz at their fingertips already. It took maybe 18 hours for Buzz to hit critical mass among users with existing Google accounts.

Using Buzz

Google is giving Buzz a pretty firm push. Once the feature is enabled for an account, you’ll see a screen the first time you attempt to log into Gmail asking if you want to use Buzz or just continue to the standard inbox.

When Buzz is enabled, it adds a entry right under “Inbox” in the Gmail interface. You’ll have a starter set of contacts (more on that in a few) and a field to post new messages. You can also insert links, photos, and videos (or at least links to videos). If you’re a Google Reader user, when you share entries from Google Reader they’ll appear in your Buzz stream, if you enable that.

How do you enable it? At the top of the Buzz interface, you’ll see a line linking to your profile, the number of connected sites, and how many followers you have. To add sites, click on the connected sites link and choose the services you want to work with. Buzz will suck in content from other services, so you can link it to sites like Flickr, Picasa, Twitter, Blogger, and will display your Google Chat status if you like. Some users said they were also able to add personal blogs, but the Connected sites dialog never did allow me to add my site. Presumably the number of import options will grow over time. Notably absent from the equation is Facebook.

The Buzz Interface Including Location Posts
The Buzz Interface Including Location Posts

A lot of what you’ll learn about Buzz is just through exploration. It would be nice if Google would put a little time into documentation that’s not a video. The Buzz Website is a nice brochure, but provides little guidance on the service. The video doesn’t do a lot either. I think Google’s marketing folks forget that its user base doesn’t consist solely of 20-something tech-savvy users. I’d love to use Buzz with my parents, for instance, but something tells me they wouldn’t take to it like ducks to water — and I have no where to point them for tech support, except to me. Which is not where I want to direct any additional requests for technical support. You can find FAQs on Buzz, but you have to Google for them.

So what does Buzz do? Feature-wise, Buzz incorporates a lot of things that other services have tacked on to Twitter: Convenient ways to share pictures, videos, and links. By the way, that’s full links, not truncated TinyURLs and so on. If Twitter and Identi.ca are microblogging platforms, I suppose Buzz is a mini-blogging platform. Not quite a full-on blogging platform, but then again not restricted to 140 characters. Actually, I haven’t found that Buzz has a character limit. To see if there was a limit, I used the Lorem Ipsum generator to whip up 15 paragraphs to see if Buzz would let me post the entire thing. No problem at all, though it’s clear Buzz isn’t designed for longer form posts, as the text field doesn’t allow you to expand it at all to work with really large chunks of text. But it posted fine when I sent the Buzz to the private group I set up with my youngest brother as the test victim subject.

Want fine-grained control over who you post messages to? Buzz allows you to set up groups of followers that you can post to. This is a Good Thing, allowing you to designate posts public or just to a couple of friends, or co-workers, or family members. Right now, the sharing is slow. Posts on Twitter take a long time to show up in Buzz, and it seems that some posts don’t make it at all. From what I gathered from the Buzz video, Google is filtering out what it considers uninteresting — so it’s a good question whether something is just slow to turn up, or if it’s just not going to post at all.

The message format is very fluid. Let’s say you get a Buzz from a contact, either privately or as a public message. You can comment on it in Buzz, or you can reply via email or via chat if the user is logged on and you’re connected via Google Talk. Interestingly, you can also edit your messages. This is both a mixed bag in terms of features. On one hand, it’s nice to be able to edit your replies if you make a mistake or something like that. But it also allows participants in a conversation to change their comments, which means no reliable permanent record of conversations. Imagine referring to an archived conversation (which is possible, because Buzz conversations do have permanent links) and then finding that what you’re pointing to has changed. Whatever strengths Buzz has, reliable public record won’t be one of them as long as that feature remains.

According to the posts I have found about Buzz from Google, it supposedly recommends posts from people you might find interesting, but I haven’t seen any of those pop up in my feed just yet.

Another nice feature to the Buzz interface: it collapses multiple posts from the same user by default. You know those chatterboxes on Twitter who like to push out 20 updates in five minutes? No problem. They can update to their heart’s content and you’ll just see a one-line entry in Buzz unless you choose to expand and see what they’re going on about. What I’ve seen so far is that many users are treating Buzz like a microblog, even though it supports longer entries. And few users seem to be making use of the ability to edit posts so far either. Again, I blame Google’s lack of documentation for Buzz. It’s somewhat intuitive, but I suspect there are features I haven’t yet discovered or tricks that lay buried that users won’t notice easily because Google has largely left users to fend for themselves. But it is much less confusing than Wave.

Note that if you’re using IMAP, buzzes will turn up in your inbox and appear as regular emails. Not sure whether that’s considered desirable or not.

Buzz Privacy Concerns

Google does need to do a little better in terms of communicating with users what is going to be shared, how to prevent it, and letting people opt in to sharing rather than automatically doing it for them. As this thread on Google’s help forum indicates, there’s rather a lot of confusion around followers and contacts with Buzz.

Warning to Users without a Profile
Warning to Users without a Profile

When Buzz was enabled for my account, it gave a pop-up asking about my profile and a short note about following people, with a link to “view connected sites.” It failed massively to spell out that it would broadcast my followers and contacts to the world via my profile, though it does a better job of warning users who don’t have a profile already — with really, really tiny print. I don’t consider this feature particularly alarming (though I did turn it off), but privacy conscious users may not appreciate having it broadcast to the world who they correspond with. What’s even worse about this is that it was essentially a stealth feature. Unless you’re looking for it, you may not even know that it’s going on. To turn it off, you have to edit your Google Profile settings (rather than any setting that can be found inside GMail) and uncheck “Display the list of people I’m following and people following me.” I know a few users who’ve opted out of Buzz entirely over this feature.

Note that even if you turn off the contact sharing, you will show up on other people’s lists according to the Buzz Privacy Policy. So, it’s pretty much impossible to be an entirely stealth use of Buzz.

Buzz Mobile Interface
Buzz Mobile Interface

If you’re using Buzz on mobile it will also tell you about other Buzz users nearby and if you allow location sharing, will actually share your location to a very scary level of detail. I don’t mind Google telling other users that I’m in San Francisco, California or Tampa, Florida when I post. I’d prefer that it not tell the world my street address when it posts. You can choose other nearby locations to obscure yours somewhat — so I could tell the world I’m posting from a nearby Cracker Barrel if I wanted to, but I can’t abstract the location to my city and state without posting a more specific location.

Sure, this is nifty if you want to use Buzz to meet new people nearby. Pop open the mobile version of Buzz and you can search by location for what people are saying and who’s nearby. If you want to make a new friend, or maybe stalker, just go ahead and reply to them and start up a conversation. If you want to mess with people, you can navigate to a new location on the map and post from there. I was able to tag posts from Columbia, Missouri while sitting in my office in Florida. If you want to try out location posting but don’t have a mobile phone that can do Buzz right now, setting your browser strings to report as an iPhone or other mobile browser will let you access the mobile site.

To Google’s credit, it devotes a big chunk of the mobile interface to a bar that alerts the user that they’re posting publicly. It doesn’t make it super-easy to switch back and forth right now between posting to the world and posting just to one of your groups.

Google Apps Users Lose Again

Once again, Google’s nifty new service doesn’t roll up to its Google Apps for your Domain subscribers. As a subscriber, I’m getting a bit tired of going back to a standard Gmail account to enjoy some of the social features. The result of which is I’ll probably roll back to a standard account for my domain and invest in extra storage for Gmail.

It’s understandable that Google wants to provide maximum uptime and stability for enterprise users who roll out Google Apps, but I know plenty of people who use the service for a personal domain and who want the extra features like Buzz, themes, etc., when they’re released and not months later.

A Good Start

Google is promising read/write support with several tools, which means that the service has a lot of potential if developers decide to jump in. There’s already a Google Chrome extension that displays Chrome updates in a handy way, and I suspect a number of developers will pile on soon enough.

Buzz is about three-quarters baked. The interface is relatively clean, the features are pretty good, and there’s a foundation for some interesting use. In many ways, Buzz is what Wave should have been, except that it doesn’t give collaboration features for documents. Yet. But it needs to be tamed a bit, and the interface could use a bit of refinement. For example — it’s possible to filter your Buzzes out of the inbox, but it’s non-obvious how to do so. Most users aren’t going to intuitively figure that searching for is:buzz will capture Buzz conversations.

For now, I’m leaving it turned on, and I’d recommend Buzz to anybody willing to take the time to ensure the privacy settings are adequate for their needs. So far, it looks like a solid start and I’m very interested to see where Google is going with Buzz in 2010.

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