It's natural that when you hear about a brand new Google app -- especially one that's obviously designed to confront Twitter and/or Facebook -- the first thing you want to do is try it out. So when I heard about Google Buzz, I immediately ran to my Gmail account to see if I had access. As it turned out, I didn't -- but by going to the mobile Web version, I found that I could check it out on my Android smart phone.
It looks like it will be an interesting application. But those who use it need to be very aware of how much information they are releasing in public.
Google Buzz is indeed a Facebook/Twitter do-alike. Your friends are defined by your existing Google contacts. You can send a buzz (i.e. a status message) privately to a list of friends (if you use Google Contacts, you'll already have various categories in place), to all your contacts, or as a public message.
One of the first things you are asked when you sign on -- at least, when you sign on from a mobile phone -- is to give Buzz access to your location information. The first time I saw that, I agreed -- however, I left open my options by unchecking the box that would remember that option.
I found the mobile interface to be quirky at best and a little confusing. What I took to be the main screen, so far as I could tell, lets you read a list of buzz messages from the people you are following or general public messages (you click a tab to switch from one to the other). There is also a menu screen that offers information about the people you are following, about those who are nearby (assuming you agreed to have your location monitored), about your posts, and about the people following you. You can also find more people to follow.
I was interested to see that I was apparently already following three people -- people on my contact list who, presumably, had already registered for Buzz. (It turned out they hadn't -- I called one, and he wasn't even signed on to Google, and had no idea whether he had access or no.)
Since there wasn't much happening there, I went to the "Nearby" screen. The first thing I saw was a button called "Buzz map" that led me to a list of places of interest -- bars, supermarkets, other stores -- in my immediate area. Nice.
The second thing I saw was a list of public "buzzes" from people in my immediate area (including somebody who obligingly mentioned that he wasn't wearing any clothes). Under each buzz was the person's location -- not the general location, but the full address. Street number, street name, city, state.
I found the same situation when I did a search for public messages without specifying "Nearby." Those people who had, presumably, given Google permission to access their locations were, very specifically, located.
(This screenshot shows a photo of my Droid's screen; I manually blurred the address that appeared directly under the entry.)
I immediately signed out of Buzz. When I signed in again, it again asked me for my location. This time, I declined the honor.
Of course, it isn't as though we don't have a choice here. We can use Buzz without choosing to reveal location information -- or, probably, only reveal it to specific groups of contacts, although I couldn't immediately find that in the somewhat limited interface on my Android phone.
But I'd be interested to know if the people who left their first completely public messages using their spanking new Buzz accounts were aware that their exact locations were being broadcast to anyone who happened to look in. Or whether they cared.
I certainly do.
This story, "Google Buzz: Not Even as Private as Facebook? " was originally published by Computerworld.