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Why Google missed a beat with Buzz

March 5, 2010 by  
Filed under Features & Editorials

Reprinted with permission from my original article featured on the TalkTalk Blog

The attraction of social networking is undeniable. Posting status updates, photo tagging, ‘poking’ and telling each other how pretty we look has been like catnip to web surfers for many years now. In fact, if Facebook were a country its 400m members would make it the third largest country in the World behind China and India and 25% larger than the United States. Understandably, as widely recognised king of the Internet, Google felt it was being left behind. It wanted to catch up, and – as is Google’s obsession – fast.

From the moment it made this decision, however, the problems started. The cleverly named Google ‘Buzz’ was launched on 9 February to widespread disdain. At best, Buzz was deemed a me-too service with little to distinguish it from Facebook or Twitter, and at worst an invasive, assumptive robot that led to genuine privacy concerns and even fears over personal safety.

Google Buzz

Buzz off

What had gone so terribly wrong? On the outside Buzz is a simple, almost Twitter-like, status update service which allows users to share their thoughts across other Google offerings such as Picasa, Reader, Blogger and YouTube as well as integrating with Flickr and Twitter. The key message: that Buzz would bridge the gapbetween work and leisure.

The problem, to my mind, was that Google hadn’t thought enough about the ‘social’ element of ‘social networking’ – that, at heart, it is founded on people’s need to interact and to do this with all of the quirky, illogical, endearing and infuriating methods that make up the human condition. Google isn’t a company based around the quirky, illogical, endearing and infuriating. It isn’t even really a fan of the human condition. To me, Google is more of a fan of ones and zeros, of computer logic and crunching the numbers, of building by formula and that silicon chip approach is ill-fitting with the unscientific heart at the centre of social networking.

Consequently the key message was the most fundamentally misplaced: the gap between work and leisure is often there for a reason. Those who we email most often are not necessarily our friends or the most important people in our lives; in fact they may be the people we least want to know out innermost thoughts and ramblings. Computers don’t pick up on this and neither did Google.

Consequently Buzz automatically conscripted all Gmail users, their friends lists were determined by frequency of communication and their personal information spread between them. The result? Your boss was suddenly told about the slacking you did in the afternoon, your parents about how drunk you were at the weekend, you ex-partner about your latest love life revelations. Understandably, criticism flooded in and emotions ran high.

Back to the drawing board

Thankfully Google was quick to respond to feedback. Within 48 hours it had added privacy options to hide personal information from so-called ‘friends’ and introduced the most basic of human needs: the ability to block people who start following you. Another 48 hours passed and on 13 February yet more changes appeared with fundamentals such as giving users the right not to automatically follow their most emailed contacts. Your personal Picasa Web Albums and Google Reader stories of interest were also not fair game to anyone who had reason to speak with you regularly.

To anyone not using the world’s most powerful collection of servers to make their business decisions these would have been obvious omissions from the start and Buzz product manager Todd Jackson spoke to BBC News acknowledging “tens of millions” of users were “rightfully upset” and that it was “very, very sorry”. I wonder why everything was so rushed? Perhaps Google was upset that Orkut, its previous attempt to hop on the social networking bus, lags far behind Facebook with just 100m users (the majority of which, famously, live in Brazil). Perhaps it didn’t want to rely on the importance of Twitter for real time search. Or perhaps it was just a little frustrated and desperate – two very real, but unfamiliar emotions during its meteoric rise.

Google is famous for launching products unfinished, but this is dangerous with social networking. And you can’t make up for lost time by forcing a social network together out of Gmail users, anymore than you can force users of the same telephone company into a room and tell them to be friends.

The irony in all this is sublime. Google is a company obsessed with collecting and analysing data on human behaviour, yet when it came to the crunch I don’t think it really understands us at all…

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