Online search giant Google recently made its foray into the formal social media sphere with its Google Buzz service. Tied into the popular Gmail web-based email client, Buzz was rolled out to Google’s approximately 146 million most active users, the company saying that a social network has always been beneath the surface of its email technology (WSJ.com). But even with the current social-media craze, many users were unhappy with what seemed to be an intrusion on their everyday social routines. We'll look at some of these users' comments and I'll espouse what I see to be some of the possibilities that we might not be hearing over the Buzz.
What's That Buzzing?
Google Buzz is, basically, an aggregator. It takes posts you make to Twitter, Flickr, Picasa & personal blogs and posts them as your typical status update. Think along the lines of a Facebook status update. They look pretty similar. These posts get pulled into your Google Profile and show up in a sort of stream tightly integrated into Gmail. Your Gmail contacts are able to comment on your posts and share them with their own contacts.
We focused on building an easy-to-use sharing experience that richly integrates photos, videos and links, and makes it easy to share publicly or privately (so you don't have to use different tools to share with different audiences). ~ Google Blog
Incidentally, when Buzz was first rolled out to users, it automatically created a social network based on their Google Chat buddies and most consistently emailed Gmail contacts. Good idea, right? Saving users time by pre-populating social network contacts? It might have been, if the end-users mostly used the service for personal contact. Or had any idea that these contacts would be able to see their updates by default. But that wasn't the case.
...Google took a lot of heat for these pre-made networks because people didn't know where the names came from or who some of the people were. Even worse, these networks were made public by default so every Buzz user could see everyone else's closest contacts. ~ Walt Mossberg (WSJ.com)
Instead, Buzz was received with criticism from not only its targeted end-users, but from many tech reviewers and competitors. Mashable.com quoted Microsoft as saying:
“Busy people don’t want another social network, what they want is the convenience of aggregation. We’ve done that. Hotmail customers have benefited from Microsoft working with Flickr, Facebook, Twitter and 75 other partners since 2008.”
Interestingly enough, this is exactly what Buzz does with the added bonus of having its own status updates. But the main concern from users have been those of privacy. This has become a fairly common reaction to Google's new introductions in the past, but nonetheless rings loud and clear in a digital world that sees privacy controls ever-shrinking.
Privacy Faux Pas
The privacy issues with the Buzz rollout span a couple of areas. First, the automatic network creation posed problems to a lot of people. Walt Mossberg, for instance, suggested that just because he emails his plumber back and forth, this does not mean he wants to interact with him all the time. This type of presumption on Google's part completely disregarded normal societal relationships, seemingly by accident, and managed to be quite disruptive. [source]
Or, as Pete Cashmore reported to CNN, lawyers were concerned that their clients might be revealed, while doctors worried the same might happen with their patient lists. These examples are fairly serious breaches of public trust, and while Google rushed to fix these mistakes it made Buzz's initial appeal limited.
Second, Google made the mistake of, by default, allowing anyone to follow anyone else. It made already-created Google profiles set to display publicly without any sort of notice to the end-user to opt-in. This was a particularly costly slip-up that has led to a class action lawsuit. According to the San Francisco Chronicle "the legal complaint accuses Google of breaking various electronic communications laws, including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The plaintiff is seeking injunctions to prevent the company from taking similar actions in the future, and unspecified monetary relief."
This type of thing isn't without precedence. Tech blog TechCrunch gives a few examples of companies that have made similar messes in the past. These include AOL launching a Digg clone in 2006 (this eventually became Propeller.com); in 2008 Yahoo! followed suit with their own Digg clone called, interestingly enough, Yahoo! Buzz; and there was Facebook's huge privacy debacle with their social advertising platform Beacon back in 2007 which took users' profile information and used it in targeted advertising to their friends. Each of these stumbles has confused their respective members, if not leading ultimately to lawsuits.
In Google's case, even Canada's Privacy Commissioner is reviewing the public privacy concerns [CBC.ca] surrounding the service. This increasing anxiety has forced Google's hand in making swift improvements to Buzz.
Of course, all of this nay-saying comes only from those who are critics of the service. There are many users who love the service. I sent out a Buzz asking, "Writing a paper for my Media Literacy class about Google Buzz. What do you think about it? Can I quote your buzz?" and got a few responses.
Dr. Michael Johnson replied saying,
I like Buzz, & think it has potential, Especially once they have implemented ways to filter out some of the noise. Even the ability to collapse threads would help immensely. I really love the integration with Reader, as well as the geolocation feature. [source]
Another friend referred me to a post by the photographer Thomas Hawke entitled, Google Buzz, Don't Listen to the Naysayers, They're Wrong. In this post Hawke describes his good experience with Buzz. He is able to overlook all of the mistakes, the confusing interface and chalk it up to growing pains. In his mind the fact that Google is innovating is enough for him. And I believe others are likely to agree.
We've seen what the main public concerns over Buzz are, but I believe there are a few underlying pieces that haven't been addressed in the open. Google has set itself up to further dominate in online advertising and that raises a whole new set of issues in the way we interact socially online.
Erecting Walls and Selling Customers
The first issue I have with Google Buzz is not about privacy, but about inter-connectivity. Once upon a time, Google released a platform aimed at providing a common framework for developing social applications. It was called OpenSocial.
The idea was for "any social website to be able to implement" apps that let their users connect with the same API. Buzz is counter to this mentality. Instead of connecting across sites, it closes users off.
Buzz does a good job of pulling in content from other sites like Flickr and Twitter. It handles the conversations that ensue pretty well too. But then it turns bad.
See, there's no two-way sync. For instance, Buzz may import a post from this blog and post it to my Buzz feed, and my 40 Buzz followers may read it and start commenting on it. But those comments will never go back onto my blog. They'll stay locked inside Gmail/Google Buzz never to be associated with the original content. The same for Flickr photos. A comment made on a photo imported into Buzz will never go to the original photo on Flickr.
Even now, if I post a link to a blog post on Twitter and someone replies to that tweet, it can be pulled into the comments section in my original blog post. Buzz won't do that. As Dan Coulter put it in his early Buzz review,
By commenting in Buzz, you’re removing yourself from the conversation on those other sites (my own blog included) and diminishing the value of my Flickr page, my Twitter feed and my personal blog.
Google Buzz essentially builds walls to hold in those conversations, not letting them be shared on the source channels. Even beyond these very apparent walls, though, there is the potential for a far more sinister temptation to be indulged. Google's ever-expansive data mining and collection has just become more specific. Right when we thought the online advertising market was locked up, Google finds a way to further solidify their position.
What They're Selling
We're now getting further into the realm of speculation, but let's take a look at what could happen if Google changed its mind and decided to "be evil".
Google already has data on search terms, browsing habits, email content, and user location that it uses to target its AdSense text advertisements in search results, Gmail and on websites [source]. These custom ads are what have made Google as successful as they are. It has also allowed them to virtually dominate the realm of online ad serving. In October 2008 Google's AdSense and DoubleClick technologies accounted for over half of all ad server calls online [source].
This data pool, as extensive as it already is, has increased exponentially in two ways. First, Google now has more content coming in from sites than it did before. Sure, the search engine spiders may have crawled Twitter and Flickr and used the words to help their search algorithms, but it was purposefully initiated by Google users. That brings us to number two. Google can now tie that content data directly to a specific user.
And, come to think of it, that sounds exactly like Facebook Beacon. The pitch can now come directly from your contact rather than from a nebulous entity. What you like, what you ate for breakfast, even the places you've visited now become the property of Google to be used for "Providing our services, including the display of customized content and advertising [source]". When this data gets used for advertising purposes, you've become the product. And at that point Google has become no better than a television or magazine advertiser or telemarketer. They are selling an audience.
This gets worse when you throw in everything else a Google account is connected with. If Google's widespread nature is taken to its extreme evil potential, a purchase one makes from an online store that uses Google Checkout could later show up to a contact as a recommendation from you to go and by that product.
What To Do
So what should our reaction be? If you're reading this on my blog, then you're most likely someone fairly active in the online social conversation. Perhaps you would consider yourself media literate. How then should you respond?
Unfortunately, I don't believe there is a straight answer. In the case of Google the choice must be completely subjective. Do you care if your information is used for purposes you may not have originally envisioned? If not then you're fine.
Are you trying to build a brand for yourself online? If so, weigh how important your own site, blog, Twitter feed, etc. is to your purposes. If you're okay with Google having all of that info and then walling the conversation off inside the confines of Google Buzz, then by all means let them. However, if you're like me you will want to maintain the integrity of your other channels; you will want the conversation to be open and boundless rather than stuck behind one corporate wall.
And if you care about the ethical implications of what Google could do, then you may want to consider your other options. When comes down to it, the more Google is encouraged, the more likely they are to keep pushing these privacy, data collection and information retention practices in new directions. Though Google seems to be making an effort [EFF.org] to educate people on the importance of taking their online privacy seriously, there is still that big "what if" about Google having all of the data they collect on the possibilities therein.
The easy answers on what to do is the line we routinely hear: Use the privacy settings. This is all well and good, but maybe one should go farther and simply use the built-in Buzz status alone without connecting any of the third-party sites. This is especially poignant in a situation where Google would not be deleting the content it imports. Not having your extraneous information directly connected to your Google Profile will keep your online activities away from Big Google's prying eyes.
Of course, privacy on the internet is still much debated. Some people think privacy is pretty much dead. Other people say that the sheer fact of having a choice of what to share and what not to is privacy controls enough. I'd love to hear some discussion on this matter. Hopefully you'll comment on Twitter or the original post so that a lot of people can benefit from the thoughts. But you have what I think. I think Google Buzz is a step backward in the social aspects of social networking, a pretty big privacy risk, and potentially evil (in a Google-sense).
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