As the initial excitement over Google Buzz turned to fears of poor privacy safeguards, Google scrambled to tweak the social networking service and satisfy its users. The result is a Google Buzz that's fundamentally different than the one Google unveiled at its Mountain View headquarters last week.
Yes, you can still use Google Buzz to chat with friends and acquaintances and to share news stories, photos and videos. When I say “fundamentally different,” I don't mean that the things you can do in Buzz have changed, but Google's rationale for the service's existence are now tarnished.
I watched Google introduce Buzz last week via a live video feed, and one of the points the company continually stressed was that Buzz is a “Google approach to sharing.” Bradley Horowitz, Google's vice president of product marketing, used an anecdote of how Web search morphed from hand-picked links to algorithmic indexing, implying that Google Buzz would do the same thing for social networking, making sense of its vast amounts of information.
In other words, Google Buzz is controlled by computer calculations, not by hand. There are a few ways Buzz accomplishes this, but foremost is its auto-selection of people to follow, based on your 40 most frequent Gmail contacts. This was the first bullet point Google brought up when introducing the service, but it's also the feature that's come under fire the most during the past week.
Turns out, people don't want their social networking connections determined by algorithm. People complained that Buzz could expose a cheating spouse or an employee who converses with the competition. One user said Google Buzz had inadvertently reconnected her with her abusive ex-husband. The Electronic Privacy Information Center complained to the government. Google, in turn, caved and converted its auto-follow system into an auto-recommendation system. You're back to hand-picking the people you wish to follow.
That's not the only thing Google changed in the past week. The company has greatly expanded the amount of control users have over which parts of their profile are visible, including the ability to block anyone regardless of whether they've created a public Google Profile. These are welcome changes from a privacy standpoint, but they also betray another point Google stressed when introducing the service, that it “just works.”
The reality is that Google Buzz doesn't “just work.” It needs to be tweaked and modified, not just by Google, but by the users, so they can fully control what they want to get out of it. Google Buzz is not social networking on auto-pilot, as Google seemed to suggest last week, it's just another place to read status updates.