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Google Gets Stung by Its Own Buzz
by
Posted On February 22, 2010
The week of Feb. 9, 2010, may go down as one of the worst in Google's corporate history in terms of product launches and public reaction. On that day, Google Buzz (http://buzz.google.com) invaded every Gmail account holders' workspace through an auto-setup, opt-out routine. Other than widespread rumors of an announcement the day before, Gmail users had no warning that potentially highly personal information would suddenly be shared with their most-used contacts (email addresses) through cloud computing technology. Over the ensuing 7 days, Google weathered an angry online swarm of complaints that it had failed to account for personal privacy requirements. On Feb. 16, Google CEO Eric Schmidt revealed that "the company misjudged public reaction to its decision to automatically load its Twitter, Facebook-like Buzz service into Gmail" (The Register, Feb. 17, www.theregister.co.uk/2010/02/17/google_buzz_schmidt). Within the week, Google engineers also started tinkering with the Buzz settings, beginning on Feb. 11, the results of which were summarized by Gmail/Google Buzz product manager Todd Jackson in a Feb. 13 Gmail Blog post ("A new Buzz start-up experience based on your feedback," http://gmailblog.blogspot.com/2010/02/new-buzz-start-up-experience-based-on.html).

Google's success with its social networking offerings in a North American context has been less than stellar. Orkut (www.orkut.com), which was introduced in January 2004, is very popular in India and Brazil, yet it did not rate a mention in comScore's white paper "The 2009 U.S. Digital Year in Review: A Recap of the Year in Digital Marketing" (February 2010, www.comscore.com/Press_Events/Presentations_Whitepapers/2010/The_2009_U.S._Digital_Year_in_Review).

The closest previous analogy from Google to Google Buzz that I know of is its Friend Connect service (www.google.com/friendconnect). For some of the eerie parallels between this service and Buzz and how Google got it right with this open, social networking platform, search for Friend Connect on the Google Social Web Blog (http://googlesocialweb.blogspot.com). If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Yahoo! officials must be shaking their heads in amazement at Google's brazenness: Yahoo! Mail introduced a similar service in June 2009 ("Keep in Touch With Those Who Matter Most ... All Within Your Yahoo! Mail Inbox," Yahoo! Mail Blog, June 10, 2009, www.ymailblog.com/blog/2009/06/keep-in-touch-with-those-who-matter-most). Yahoo! also has a crowdsourcing news gathering service called Yahoo! Buzz (http://buzz.yahoo.com).

What does Google Buzz offer the individual? Essentially, Buzz is a discussionlike tool for sharing information, including photographs and videos. If you blog or comment on blogs and other kinds of websites that offer public feedback, this is what you're getting with Buzz. At first, due to the opt-out, auto-sharing nature when it was inaugurated, users had little control over who they were following and who was following them. Buzz comments from your followers are sent to your Gmail inbox. You can also connect and share content from other Google and third-party services such as Picasa, Google Reader, Flickr, and Twitter. As with the Google Wave service (http://wave.google.com), updates happen in real time, and you do not need to refresh your browser to see new information.

Google Buzz consists of the following variations:

This last application clearly demonstrates the presumptuousness of Google in forcing a solution to an information service at the price of personal privacy:

Privacy. Buzz posted in Google Maps for mobile is publicly available and visible in the Maps Buzz layer for 24 hours, your Google profile, and anywhere Buzz is accessible, including other Google products. Buzz and ... any comments you add will always include your text, name, profile picture, posting date, and tagged location. When you first post buzz, a public Google profile is created for you if you don't have one yet. Access your profile at http://www.google.com/profiles/me. You cannot delete buzz from Google Maps for mobile. You must delete buzz posted from your Google Account using Google Buzz in other products, such as GMail, from your computer or mobile phone. You should report abuse in Google Buzz using these other products, such as GMail, the mobile Buzz app, or Google profiles. [Hyperlinks deleted.]

Even though Google Buzz is only available for individuals and Google stated that "we plan to make it available to businesses and universities using Google Apps within a few months" (Gmail Blog, Feb. 19, http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/02/google-apps-highlights-2192010.html), as SearchEngineLand.com's Danny Sullivan buzzed on Feb. 10, "I think the Buzz meets Gmail might turn into a giant mess if only for the naming issues alone. ... Google's opened up a new social network that's also going to be used by companies. Big companies, say like Coke or Zappos or Dell. And if they want to be recognized by those names on Buzz, they have to open Gmail accounts. Not that they really want or need Gmail accounts, but that's the only way to get their names" (www.google.com/buzz/113217924531763968801/YVZic3iR78u/The-Giant-Mess-Of-Mixing-Gmail-Addresses-With).

This one issue alone begs the question as to why Google found it necessary to embed Buzz within Gmail for individuals yet it will use a different method for organizations. If different information architecture is good enough for General Motors, why isn't the same method good enough for me?

Individuals and organizations within the week of the Google Buzz launch on Feb. 9 complained vociferously about the lack of control over personal information, Google's seeming disregard for basic communication with its millions of Gmail users who are impacted by Google Buzz, and security flaws. In a Buzz, Sullivan talked about buzzjacking as one example (www.google.com/buzz/113217924531763968801/CGWnx5iQmBB/BuzzJacking-Disable-Buzz-Lose-Your-Google-Profile).

Jonathan Fildes of BBC News reported that "Google [had] admitted to BBC News that testing of its controversial social network Buzz was insufficient" ("Google Admits Buzz Social Network Testing Flaws," BBC News, last updated Feb. 16, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/8517613.stm).

Suddenly, the first of Google's corporate principles, "Focus on the user and all else will follow" was an ironic comment on what happens when a company believes it has the best interests of its users at heart yet fails to consult with those users. On Feb. 16, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a 16-page complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on behalf of the "more than 37 million users of Gmail" within its jurisdiction (http://epic.org/privacy/ftc/googlebuzz/GoogleBuzz_Complaint.pdf). This document recounts some of the many reactions to Google's behavior over the first week of its introduction and Google's attempts to give Gmail users more control over how their Buzz content is disseminated and with whom it can be shared. One of the consistent objections to Buzz is that Google introduced it as an opt-out rather than opt-in service.

In addition to the EPIC FTC filing, other more serious legal actions are being pursued by those who feel Google has gone too far with Buzz. In addition to a class-action "complaint" filed in the San Jose, Calif., federal court alleging Google Buzz unlawfully shared personal information (SFGate.com, Feb. 17, www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/techchron/detail?entry_id=57438), there are also reports of women objecting to abusive ex-partners being able to follow them even though these women keep their ex's email address in their Gmail Contacts list.

The irony of Canada Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart's office stepping into the sticky morass of Google Buzz ("Commissioner Challenges Google Buzz Over Privacy Concerns," www.priv.gc.ca/media/nr-c/2010/nr-c_100217_e.cfm) must not have been lost on Google's Waterloo, Ontario, office, which, according to a Financial Post article, "played an integral role in the creation of Buzz" (www.financialpost.com/story.html?id=2543542). It was due to her office's investigation in 2009 that Facebook (www.facebook.com) was forced to make changes to its protection of personal privacy mechanisms ("Facebook Agrees to Address Privacy Commissioner's Concerns," www.priv.gc.ca/media/nr-c/2009/nr-c_090827_e.cfm). A new complaint about Facebook sparked a further investigation by Canada's Privacy Commissioner in late January 2010 ("Privacy Commissioner Launches New Facebook Probe," www.priv.gc.ca/media/nr-c/2010/nr-c_100127_e.cfm) and, within the period of Google Buzz's launch, a public consultation on privacy implications of cloud computer ("Privacy Commissioner Launches Public Consultations on Privacy Implications of Cloud Computing," www.priv.gc.ca/media/nr-c/2010/nr-c_100211_e.cfm).

A request for an investigation by the FTC into Google's use of cloud computing had also been filed by Electronic Privacy Information Center on March 17, 2009 (http://epic.org/privacy/cloudcomputing/google/ftc031709.pdf).

Lost within the bedlam over Google Buzz was the company's announcement on Feb. 12 that it had acquired a new startup with the curious name of Aardvark (http://vark.com), which had only launched publicly in October 2009. The Vark is a social Q&A engine and is available to Gmail users through the Gmail Chat function. I expect that we will see more of this anteater among the bees in the future as Google tries to gain market share among social networking sites.

Some useful tips and tools for helping integrate Google Buzz into your social networking and searching kit include "5 Buzz Tips" (John Costigan, Gmail Blog, Feb. 18, http://gmailblog.blogspot.com/2010/02/5-buzz-tips.html), "11 Handy Google Buzz Tips" (Gary Marshall, TechRadar.com, Feb. 17, www.techradar.com/news/internet/11-handy-google-buzz-tips-670994), "30+ Google Buzz How Tos, Tools and Other Resources" (Tad Chef, SEOptimise, Feb. 18, www.seoptimise.com/blog/2010/02/30-google-buzz-how-tos-tools-and-other-resources.html), "How to Search Google Buzz" (Danny Sullivan, SearchEngineLand.com, Feb. 17, http://searchengineland.com/how-to-search-google-buzz-36366), and Buzzzy, "the world's first search engine for Google Buzz" (http://buzzzy.squarespace.com), which was created in a day by a U.K. company one week after Google Buzz launched. WordPress users who host their own blogs also have the benefit of several Buzz plug-ins ("11 Fresh Google Buzz WordPress Plugins," Socialh.com, Feb. 11, www.socialh.com/2010/02/11-fresh-google-buzz-wordpress-plugins.html).

According to comScore's "The 2009 U.S. Digital Year in Review" (February 2010, www.comscore.com/Press_Events/Presentations_Whitepapers/2010/The_2009_U.S._Digital_Year_in_Review), with 80% of internet users in December 2009 engaging with social networking sites, Google still has a long climb to surpass Facebook, the dominant choice among social networkers. The consensus among the many online sources I consulted is that Buzz will not displace Facebook or Twitter, but it will have an impact on their market share.

Mashable's Ben Parr admirably summarized the impact of Google Buzz on the social media landscape: "Gmail integration, real-time commenting, ease of use, and a new base of users that might not have been as socially engaged are now part of the Buzz universe. ... The social media landscape has been permanently altered. To ignore Buzz would be a costly mistake, because Google has finally created the definition of a game-changer" ("Google Buzz Has Completely Changed the Game: Here's How," Feb. 14, http://mashable.com/2010/02/14/google-buzz-column). The Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics ads for Canadians also put it this way, "Do you believe?" I do.


David Mattison  is a freelance researcher, writer, historian,librarian, and archivist in Victoria, British Columbia. His company is Aloha Fact and Image Finders. 

Email David Mattison

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