Google is killing some more products that never caught on, including Buzz, its 2010 stab at competing with Twitter. Buzz is famous mostly for the immediate controversy over its privacy practices; for a service built right into Gmail, it gained amazingly little traction. And now Google+ does everything it does, only better. So it’s no shock to see it go, and I wonder just how many people there are on the planet who will mourn its demise.
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FTC Smacks Down Google Over Privacy Issues With Buzz
Google has settled with the Federal Trade Commission over its Google Buzz social network, an issue that has been haunting the search giant for well over a year. The FTC had accused it of using “deceptive tactics” and violating its own privacy policies when it launched the service, and has required it develop a “comprehensive” privacy plan.
From the start, consumers almost lambasted Buzz for sharing personal information, which quickly made it to the courts. The fault could be laid squarely at the feet of Google: the company failed to explain well how the service worked.
In its initial incarnation, Buzz’s worst feature was probably “autofollow,”which seemed more than a little creepy since it made guesses on who your friends were merely by frequency of e-mail contact through Gmail, and then proceeded to disclose your personal data without asking.
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More Google Buzz Tweaks
One of Google Buzz’s major selling points is supposed to be its tight integration with Gmail. Over at Cnet, Stephen Shankland is reporting that Google is fiddling with the feature that ties them together. Users will have more control over when they get Buzz updates via e-mail, and it’ll be clearer why a particular Buzz item is showing up.
Google says it’s making the changes in response to feedback that Buzz is too noisy. Me, I don’t feel like I’m being inundated with Buzz–but I’m not sure why I’m getting the Buzzes I’m getting, and I wish it were easier to figure out what they are right from the inbox, without having to open them up…
The Buzz on Google Buzz
(Here’s another column I wrote for FoxNews.com. This one attempts to explain Google Buzz’s pros and cons to non-geeks.)
From Facebook to MySpace to Twitter to LinkedIn and beyond, the Web circa early 2010 is a surging sea of social networks. The last thing it needs is yet another one to discover, join, and use. Especially since any social network is only interesting if the people you care about are also active members.
But what if someone took the Internet’s original social network — the pals, family members, coworkers and acquaintances in your e-mail address book — and turned it into a Twitterlike way to quickly share your whereabouts, thoughts, links, photos, and more, either publicly or privately?
Enter Google Buzz, which the Web behemoth rolled out last week. Rather than starting out as an all-new service, Buzz is debuting as a feature inside Gmail, making it instantly available to tens of millions of people. Gmail users get a link right under their inbox, letting them post to Buzz and peruse others’ activity right from within Gmail’s familiar environs. Interacting with people you’re already in touch with via e-mail is especially easy.
Google Buzz Controversy: Enter the Lawyers
When a meaningful number of consumers get irritated over the behavior of a large company, it’s a safe bet that one or more class-action lawsuits will follow. Latest case in point: Google Buzz is the subject of a complaint filed on behalf of a Florida woman. It contends that the new feature within Gmail violated her rights by disclosing personal information–her most-frequent e-mail contacts–without her permission.
At this point, I suspect that just about everybody–including Google–agrees that Google erred in not explaining Buzz more clearly and erring on the side of privacy. The company has since tweaked the service multiple times to get things right.
But was the Buzz launch merely unfortunately rocky, or should Google face legal consequences for its actions?
Google Responds to Buzz Privacy Issues. Again
Google has taken another pass at addressing privacy concerns over its new Buzz service. The big change involves the autofollowing feature that made lists of Buzz users’ most-contacted e-mail acquaintances public: The following is no longer quite so automated. Instead, Google will show new Buzz users a suggested list of people to follow, allowing users to follow all of them, some of them, or none of them.
I haven’t seen the revised Buzz startup process in action yet, but judging from the above screenshot, I’m not sure that Google’s done everything in its power to ensure that nobody will be startled by the contents of their public list of followers. Google still seems to pre-select people to follow rather than making you check them off yourself one by one. And it doesn’t explain on this screen that the list of people you follow will be public unless you suppress it.
Still, this is close to the solution I suggested in a post yesterday: Making the whole follow-your-friends process optional. The company says it’s also ending Buzz’s initial practice of automatically linking to activities in users’ Google Reader and Picasa accounts; from now on, you’ll have to turn on these options. And it’s adding a Buzz tab to Gmail’s settings to make it easier to tweak Buzz-related options.
It’s good to see Google prove so willing to perform major surgery to a new service so quickly. I’m not sure if this will quell all reasonable concerns about Buzz, but I hope so: The service is both promising and full of other quirks which I’d love to see Google get to work addressing.
Gmail Controversies: 2010 Isn’t 2004 All Over Again
“On the surface, it sounds like a wow idea…Truth be told, however, this is the kind of technology advance that gives me the creeps…That’s why the big thinkers at Google should go back to the drawing board and correct a big mistake, before it’s too late.”–Charles Cooper, Cnet
“I think this whole thing could be an electronic noose…The more defined you are, the more definable you are, the more you’re exposed [to possible security problems].”–analyst Roger Kay as quoted in a Washington Post article
“The interplay between the creation of an inalienable right to privacy and the application of this right to the private sector is important. It requires Google to obtain the affirmative consent of individuals before violating their privacy.”–an open letter to the California Attorney General signed by privacy advocates
What do the above three comments have in common? Nope, it’s not that they’re expressing angst over Google Buzz’s privacy issues. They all date from almost six years ago, when Gmail was brand new and plenty of intelligent people were freaked out over the idea of an e-mail service scanning messages for keywords and displaying relevant advertising. As far as I can remember, it was the biggest privacy-related furor Google had encountered until this week.
A Simple Solution to Google Buzz’s Privacy Problem
The hubbub over Google Buzz’s conversion of your most frequent e-mail contacts into followers that anyone can see may die down eventually. Right now, though, it feels like the controversy is still heading towards the boiling point. And I think that Buzz’s basically confusing design isn’t helping matters.
If Search Engine Land has its facts straight–which it generally does–Google may end the melodrama decisively by simply removing Buzz from Gmail. That would be kind of stunning, since its integration into Gmail was one of the key features that Google trumpeted back on Tuesday when it announced Buzz. But stranger things have happened.
[UPDATE: Search Engine Land has updated its story, and says it didn’t mean to suggest that Horowitz said Google was considering completely detaching Buzz from Gmail over privacy concerns.]
I think it would be a shame if Google went that far, and I don’t see why Buzz can’t be a good citizen within the Gmail framework. The company has already fiddled with Buzz’s default settings a bit. But can’t it end the Buzz discontent immediately by making it a cakewalk to simply skip the conversion of e-mail contacts into followers in the first place? Make Buzz accounts start with you following nobody by default; allow the e-mail contact conversion as an option, with an excruciatingly clear explanation of what’s happening.
Do that, Google, and you could confidently tell the world that the default state of Buzz is privacy. And virtually everyone who made their most-contacted list public would be doing so intentionally.
The Promising, Confusing World of Google Buzz
It’s now been 72 hours since Google launched its Google Buzz social-sharing service and started rolling it out to Gmail users. Much of the coverage so far has been grumpy–especially when it comes to the fact that the initial list of people you autofollow on Buzz is based on who you talk with most often in Gmail, and that list is public unless you choose to make it private.
To its credit, Google has responded swiftly to complaints: It’s already tweaked Buzz to make it more obvious what information the service is making public, and to help you crank up the privacy settings.
We’re All Google Buzz Virgins Right Now
What’s the most common first tweet that Twitter newbies make? That’s easy: “Trying out Twitter” and variants thereof. Nearly everybody who joins the service starts out in a mode that’s experimental, confused, and–for the rest of us–tedious. Which is okay, because on any given day, only a small percentage of tweets come from beginners.
Of course, there was a time when every Twitter user was a new Twitter user, but it was long before most of us had heard of the service. In fact, at the time it wasn’t even Twitter–it was Twttr.
Google Buzz, however, is different. Google could have launched it as a closed beta a la Google Wave or Google Voice, Instead, the company decided to skip tryouts and go straight to Broadway, by opening the service up to every Gmail user over the next few few days. To a degree that’s really unusual in the history of the Web, Buzz will be chockablock with millions of confused newcomers all at once. Expect “trying out Buzz” and similar sentiments to be the primary form of Buzzing at first.
I still have access to Buzz only on my iPhone, not via Gmail. I’m only following a few people, and the majority of them haven’t buzzed at all yet. So almost all the buzzes I’ve read so far have been on the Web version’s “Nearby” tab, which simply uses your coordinates to show you updates from people in your general vicinity. A few of them are saying things that are at least vaguely interesting–or, at least, are alerting us to their eating activities. But yup, buzzing at the moment seems to mostly be about Buzz.