Google joins the social world

Have you heard the latest buzz?

Google got into the social networking foray with its debut of “Buzz” last month.

It’s an unusual social site because it’s built directly into Gmail and is exclusive for Gmail users.

This limitation could be its downfall since it stunts growth or it could be its saving point because it could carve out a desirable niche for people who want something different from the clutter of other social sites.

Buzz started out with a blunder as many people were upset with Google for automatically adding people in Gmail contact lists to the Buzz network and making the list public as default. After much criticism, Buzz rectified the problem and made it easier to control privacy settings, but it’s unclear if the users can forgive the sting.

The site is very user-friendly. Click the “Buzz” button under “inbox” in Gmail and you’re there. From there one can see a list of people they’re “following” and a newsfeed from people that are “following” them. One can start following people from a drop-down list of e-mail contacts.

You can “follow” non Gmail users but those users don’t get any notification of that and can’t interact with Buzz or a Buzz user. Thus, a Buzz user following a non Buzz user or non Google account holder is pointless.

The problem with the feed is that it’s hierarchical and chronological. You can see Buzz(1), meaning that someone buzzed one thing, but you may not be able to find the new Buzz as it may not be at the top of the feed.

People have profile pages but you can’t write on their pages except to comment on posts they wrote. This is the purpose of Buzz: People posting things ranging from short blurbs, essays and links to articles, video clips and pictures and their followers discussing the post. It’s very similar to discussions on Facebook status updates, notes or links.

E-mail correspondence is as bare-boned as you can get nowadays and that’s why I love it. Buzz, in its current infancy, seems to have simplicity at its core and I hope it will remain that way. If it doesn’t, it will probably lose me and others like me as a consumer.  

One nagging point is the dollar issue. We don’t know if Buzz is supposed to be a self-sustaining feature or if it will piggybank on Gmail’s connections and Google’s bank account. If it is the former, who knows if there will be ads or how the ads will be implemented. Businesses followed people to MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, but we don’t know if they will invade Buzz too. 

Which brings me to my next point: The makers of Buzz are not being very transparent. Facebook users hate having changes every couple months, but at least its makers announce the changes beforehand and at the very least put on an appearance that they appreciate feedback from its users. Buzz could do more to notify users of planned future changes, or lack thereof, and take suggestions from users to find what they want.

My biggest qualm about Buzz is not its present but its future. Yes, it’s compatible with Youtube, Twitter and Flickr, and maybe more sites are planned. It’s limited to Gmail users now, but we don’t know if this will change. We know where Buzz is now, but we don’t know where it’s going.

If Buzz somehow opens up to non-Gmail users, they will only use Buzz if their own non Gmail e-mail sites contain it (which is an impossibility currently) because it’s convenient and not out of their way.  

Solving this problem may be impossible for Buzz because its parent company is Google. Google already has a reputation of an overreaching, soon-to-be e-monarch; if it asks its rival free e-mail providers like Yahoo or MSN to let their email users use a product made by a competitor, the likely response will be laughter followed by rejection.  

Some people don’t use e-mails by big companies; they only use their business or school e-mails. Schools may be more agreeable to try to be compatible with Buzz and add an element of social networking, but many businesses, to try to increase productivity, are cracking down on already-existing networking sites and are unlikely to add another way for their employees to mess around on company time and e-mail accounts.  

Overall, the release of Buzz was hasty, clumsy, not transparent and the product is lacking. Because many people are already on other social sites, Buzz doesn’t have a huge momentum right now, but could grow to be more popular.