Mar. 1, 2010

Google’s Buzzbomb

I thought I would love Google Buzz. Really. I am a Google fan. I adore Gmail, and in all the other Google products I’ve used — Calendar, Maps, Documents, the iconic search page — the company has gotten things mostly right.

Also, I try to maintain as many portals as possible for readers to find me on the web: Facebook, Twitter, this blog. Buzz seemed like a natural extension of all that.

There’s only one problem: I hate it.

It isn’t just the product itself I dislike. Buzz is flawed, it’s true. It is not the train wreck it’s been made out to be, but it suffers in particular from two awful design flaws:

  • a random, noisy news feed which sacrifices the logic of listing items in straight reverse-chronological order for some mysterious algorithm that seems to nail the same few items at the top of the feed permanently; and
  • a poor layout in which each item is so damn big I can only see one or two at a time — the same one or two, usually.

The result: if Twitter is a rushing, white-water river, Buzz is a stagnant one.

But for me, the problem with Buzz is more than bad execution; it’s that I don’t want Google mixing social networking, which is a public, outward-facing activity, with the private things I use Google for (search, email, our family’s calendar).

Google has always been a strictly private space — at least it seemed to be. Yes, I know Google has always harvested information about me based on my searches and other activities, but they always shielded this fact from me in various subtle, considerate ways. Outwardly, at least, the bargain has been: I entrust Google with a lot of sensitive personal information; in exchange Google assures me it will keep my data absolutely private. Over time, as Google kept its promise, it earned more and more of my trust and I handed over increasingly more personal information: first search, then email, contact info, documents.

Buzz alters the relationship in a critical way. Rather than gathering information from the web and piping it to me, Buzz pulls information from me and broadcasts it to the web. I never agreed to let Google handle that category of activity. Buzz raises the fear that everyone has always had about Google: that it will abuse its trove of personal data or carelessly spill it out into the open.

Even worse, from a design perspective, Google emphasizes the switch from private to semi-public services by shoehorning Buzz directly into the Gmail page. Now my private email window shares the same space as my public messaging window. Some Buzz comments even leap over the wall like flying fish to become Gmail messages. I can turn off some of this in Buzz’s settings, but I can’t completely disentangle Buzz from Gmail. That makes me uneasy. I want to keep my public messages absolutely segregated from my private ones.

The irony is that there really is an opportunity for Buzz to be a better version of Twitter or Facebook. My advice:

  • Relaunch Buzz as a freestanding service with a web address of its own, unbundled from Gmail and the rest of Google’s private services.
  • Make the feed more compact and uncluttered, more Twitter-like, but at the same time more flexible and powerful than 140 plain-text characters, better able to handle different kinds of posts (media, links, direct messages, public news bulletins).
  • Leverage Google’s scale so that Buzz reaches an audience larger than just my friends on Facebook. (Twitter’s big advantage over Facebook is that some of the most interesting Twitterers just aren’t among my personal “friends” on Facebook.)

Do all that, and maybe over time it will become clear what makes Buzz something more than a me-too, redundant service.

For now, I am quitting Buzz. Don’t be offended when I un-follow you. I will maintain a bare-bones Buzz feed, a pass-through of my Twitter feed, in case some readers come looking for me there. Otherwise I’m out, at least until Google figures out why Buzz exists — not what Buzz can do for Google, which is obvious enough, but what it can do for me that Twitter and Facebook can’t.

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