May I have your buzz, please?

“Many people just wanted to check out Buzz and see if it would be useful to them, and were not happy that they were already set up to follow people. This created a great deal of concern and led people to think that Buzz had automatically displayed the people they were following to the world before they created a profile.

Starting this week, instead of an auto-follow model in which Buzz automatically sets you up to follow the people you email and chat with most, we’re moving to an auto-suggest model. You won’t be set up to follow anyone until you have reviewed the suggestions and clicked “Follow selected people and start using Buzz.” — Todd Jackson, Product Manager, Gmail and Google Buzz. (Saturday’s post: A new Buzz start-up experience based on your feedback)

For starters, hats off to Google’s Buzz product manager Todd Jackson for quickly acquiescing to user protests Saturday. This was yet one more in a string of somewhat bizarre social media privacy cock-ups. Ironically, many of these blunders involved products in which user privacy was deeply implicated. Meaning that product managers recognized the importance privacy means to users.

But somehow neither Facebook nor Google have realized that users are not extensions of their products.

The privacy issue exists not only between users and the outside world, but between users and the product (manufacturer) also. How it is that both Facebook and Google have managed to violate the privacy (whether you felt this way or not) of their own users, while committing extensive resources to privacy settings within their products, just escapes me.

What’s more, Facebook’s Beacon and Profile blunders, and now Google’s Buzz restart, each seem to cut pretty close to core company strategies.

Facebook, in paving the way to socially-mediated advertising one status update at a time, must first command the trust of its several hundred million users. Surely Facebook understands the importance this trust has for its market strategy, not just today, but tomorrow.

For Facebook’s combined social graph data, algorithms, and distributed connectivity (FB connect) give it the implicit authority to anticipate user interests in other people, products, places, and so much more. All of which it will be permitted to leverage only by the gradually accommodating public. One step at a time.

And surely Google realizes that, with several social failures already in its awkward and adolescent past, nonetheless sits atop the richest gold-mine of all: search and email (content and distribution).

And that where it will never match the excellence of Facebook’s social bureaucracy, the ex-urban graffiti hip of Myspace, or the dumb simplicity of twitter, it has a back stage all access pass to mine and meta the hell out of gmail and search practices. And, of course, the infrastructure to host advertising around any content, context, or relation it sees fit.

I just don’t get it. In matters of end-user privacy, you ask permission first. How was this not evident? Did Google’s product team fear that if they asked first, they would lose the chance to leverage Gmail? It’s conceivable — but even more likely now. For once you violate and lose user confidence, the walk back up is all the more difficult.

A miss-step that would seem to strike at the heart of Google’s social strategy.

For we can only assume that given Google’s historic misrecognition of good social interaction design, it would instead leverage what it does best: data, search, ubiquity. That it would come at social networking from behind, indexing Buzz talk on top of the social graph, thereby adding a meta data layer of social relevance, perhaps even topicality, social activity, and more.

Google knows that if all contacts are equal, some are more equal than others. And in talk, some talk is more equal that others. Attention, relation, expertise, social knowledge. Reputation, credibility, interest. These are the dimensions Google needs to extract from user activity, somehow, if it is to recalibrate its advertising machinery in the age of Buzz.

And Buzz was its chance to capture the social in talk. I don’t believe that Buzz was just an evolutionary step forward from an otherwise aging communication standard (email). It simply must have been mission critical — a chance for Google to get its social on without having to succeed in the brand competition for cool (FB) or wanna-be cool (twitter).

Now that Buzz will use the follower model, it’s as if Google had its own Friendfeed, using the conventional “import contacts” feature as a means of finding friends and colleagues in the system. And with Buzz likely being added as a tab to Gmail, it is less likely to serve as the next evolutionary step in email after all. The point, I’m sure, was a product deeply integrated with network/graph analysis, social search, buzz updates, email, and search/advertising. Not a stand-alone social stream available outside Gmail (this being a coming option, if not default).

So I wonder what implications this has internally for Google. Buzz should have created a chance for the company to begin mapping social relationship information to content in the context of messaging (not pages). With that it would have a leading advantage in mining relevance within and across web content and talk (by talk, I mean updates, tweets, buzz, comments).

Perhaps users would have pushed back anyhow. Cultures take time to assimilate and accept the changes introduced by some of their technologies. Or perhaps Google screwed the pooch big-time on a product that was in the making for a while. Either way, what it does next will be very important.

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  • eriklumer

    Imagine if a major telco had decided to launch a new social network based on the people you call most often, making this data public. There would have been not only a public outcry, but also deep legal and policy repercussions. Has Google exposed the whole web to stronger regulatory intervention?

  • seanleoryan

    I think they really messed up on the way they deployed gBuzz. If they had set it up like a standalone offering (e.g. like gmail) that allowed the end user to choose who to import/add, what to agree too, etc. it would have changed the dynamic. Sneakily showing up as a tab in Gmail, without user intervention, was a huge error – they have been back pedaling daily since.

    Moreover it just served to trigger further concerns over Google (and the internet in general) on ownership controls and privacy concerns. Most FB users and Gmail users “assume” they own the data they personally create, and that the level of privacy to be set is determined by the end user, not someone else. How arrogant to assume otherwise? This is not that complicated to architect properly, but I guess they are finding out the hard way.

    Also, its hard to see it competing right now with FB or Twitter, both are entirely different UIs, applications, and have different aspects (especially with regards to privacy and control). As it stands now, gBuzz looks and feels more like a glorified mass email thread/communication/notifier tool than a social network (don't they have Orkut for that?).

    These “social blunders” are now becoming so common you wonder who's running the ships in Silicon Valley.

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