This week Google whisked back the curtain on Buzz, its dive into the world of social-networking technology.
Buzz is a mixed bag -- a combination of good ideas and bad implementation -- and it needs more refinement before it can be a serious contender in the world of Twitter and Facebook.
In the following pages, I examine some of the basics of working with Buzz and some of the problems -- a few of them troubling -- I found along the way. I also made three videos in order to better illustrate how Buzz works: setup and options, posting, and followers and profiles. You'll find a video at the end of each page of this article.
The Buzz basics
If you're one of the lucky folks who've gotten access to Buzz -- Google has been rolling Buzz out gradually to Gmail users -- you can find it by logging into Gmail. There, under the Inbox, you'll see a "Buzz" folder; click on it to get things rolling. Most any current browser will work with Buzz, although for the sake of consistency I used Google's own Chrome to make sure everything worked as expected.
Buzz works as a generic "here's what I'm doing" feed, where you can post text, links or multimedia. Posting a photo can be done by either uploading the image directly from the browser or pointing at a file in your Picasa account. If you post a link with a URL in it into your feed -- either by pasting the URL right in the text box or by clicking "Insert Link" to add it -- Buzz automatically detects it and attempts to pull pictures from the linked page, which you can then include for context. (It's similar to Facebook in that respect, but works a bit better.)
People can choose to follow you, or you can choose to follow them, by adding names from their/your Google contact list or from a public Google profile. Unlike Facebook, where people who want to "friend" you can't follow your feeds unless you "friend" them back first, people can follow your Buzz feeds immediately, although you are notified when that happens and can then choose to "unfollow" them at any time.
You can also post to the general public -- making Buzz a bit like Twitter, insofar as anybody with an account can see your post. (This ties into the mobile version, which interacts with Google Maps so that Buzz users can view public messages depending on their location and the location of the person who sent the post.)
Interestingly, Google seems to occasionally decide whom you want to follow without consulting you -- for example, one Buzz user reported that she found the e-mail address she uses to send data to her Evernote application on the list of contacts she was following.
Following is also not very flexible -- it doesn't appear to be possible to filter or group incoming updates except by selectively muting them, and you can't follow anyone other than a person with a Google profile.
(Google is already working to offset at least some of the negative feedback it's received on this score; the day after this article was written, the company announced some tweaks to its handling of followers, such as making followers and those you are following more visible and adding the ability to block followers.)
The most genuinely useful part about Buzz is how it works as an activity aggregator. Anything you post on YouTube, Google Chat, Flickr, Twitter or Picasa can be automatically funneled into Buzz. If you manage sites through your Google account's webmaster tools, you can siphon in feeds from those sites as well. However, this is a limited feature; for example, you can only add one Twitter feed (typically your own) through the "connected sites" link.
Note that there is some degree of privacy control for all of this: Individual posts can be marked as public or private, with "private" meaning one of a set of groups you define from your Google contacts list. (This is also useful if you want to direct messages to relevant audiences.) You can also choose not to feed a given site into Buzz at all.
The bad Buzz
Some things about Buzz are genuinely problematic.
Privacy problems. The privacy-protection features supplied by Buzz so far aren't broad enough. It's not clear how to enable disable geolocation features when posting from a mobile device, for instance. (Do you really want to tell people exactly where you are, all the time?) There are ways to disable it for individual posts, but it should be easier to change that feature on a general basis.
Your list of followers is another weak spot: It can't yet be subdivided into lists à la Facebook, but it can at least be made private via the Edit Profile page. Also, as mentioned before, some contacts you follow are chosen automatically, apparently based on your activity in Gmail with those people. None of this is impossible to fix, but it deserves attention sooner, not later.
Forced integration with Gmail. Buzz isn't a standalone item; it's part of Gmail, and that's the only way to access it right now. The mixture of metaphors -- mail vs. feeds -- is sometimes problematic. Example: You can "mute" (hide) individual Buzz items, both incoming and outgoing, with a click. Un-muting something, however, is a mess: You need to look in Gmail's Sent Mail folder (no, seriously), and you'll see a copy of the muted item which you can then unmute.
The biggest drawback, however, is that Buzz is essentially an extension to Gmail and not its own standalone item -- great for those of us who use Gmail regularly, but not so great for everyone else.
Difficult to decipher. Many settings and functions in Buzz are either not yet available or buried. The "mute" issue is one such thing; the link for editing connected sites also has a tendency to vanish without warning. If you want to give Google the benefit of the doubt, this could simply be early beta woes.
No API compatibility with Twitter or Facebook. Buzz's API is its own animal. Twitter's API is already widely embraced despite the system's relative youth, and for Google to shirk such potential developer leverage is just plain dumb -- especially since it lets you feed Twitter into Buzz, but not the other way 'round.
And Buzz doesn't work with Facebook at all, which could be an indication that Google considers it a rival. But let's face it -- Facebook is arguably the update venue that people use most. Right now, at any rate, it is unlikely that masses of people will be deserting the protected halls of Facebook for the more public (and confusing) Buzz arena. But it's also likely that some of them might like to post to both. By ignoring them, Google could be losing some potential users.
What's best about Buzz right now is how it puts a lot of things into one place. It could eventually turn into an extension of Google Reader, or rather, its opposite: Instead of syndicating content from the world at large, you're syndicating your own content stream for others.
This is valuable, especially since Google has a slew of disparate services -- both its own homebrew products and applications acquired from others -- which could be tied together more elegantly. Buzz might well be a way to do that.
The problem, again, is the implementation. Buzz feels a lot like Google Wave -- a few great ideas, all of them looking for a better way to be delivered.
I hope Google isn't burning up an unsustainable amount of its user base's goodwill through experiments like these. If you'd rather wait until Google gets another iteration of Buzz together, click on the "turn off Buzz" link at the bottom of your Gmail page, and stay tuned for more buzz on Buzz.
Serdar Yegulalp has been writing about computers and information technology for over 15 years for a variety of publications, including InformationWeek and Windows Magazine.
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