Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, February 13, 2010

buzz off, Google

So the other day I read about Google Buzz; it sounded interesting, so I clicked the link and went to the site. On that page was a brief description of Buzz and two choices: one, larger and in bright colors, said something to the effect of “Sure, I’ll try Buzz!” The other, in plain and smaller letters, said “Nah, just take me to my inbox.” I clicked on the large one, and in the next hour discovered that my Google Reader page was now filled with other people’s links and comments, and that Google was doing its very best to populate my Gmail inbox similarly — only being limited in its power to do so by the paucity of information I had entered on my Google Profile page. (Even so, Google on my behalf sent out Buzz invitations to people in my contacts list.) Any Google user who had given more information on their own profile pages now had exposed to any other Google users the list of people they most often emailed and chatted with. So if a man had been emailing with a manager of a company where he was thinking about taking a job, his current employer could find that out. Or if that man had been emailing with a lawyer because he was considering a lawsuit against his employer . . . or (we have discreditable secrets too) if he had been chatting with a woman other than his wife. . . . Google decided without directly informing its users that all those connections should be public knowledge.

As Evgeny Morozov wrote, “If I were working for the Iranian or the Chinese government, I would immediately dispatch my Internet geek squads to check on Google Buzz accounts for political activists and see if they have any connections that were previously unknown to the government. They can then spend months on end drawing complex social circles on the shiny blackboards inside secret police headquarters.”

This response to a shockingly tone-deaf post by Berin Szoka summarizes the issues nicely.

Google has since made minor changes to the system, but overall has been anything but apologetic: responding to an inquiry from the New York Times, “Todd Jackson, product manager for Gmail and Google Buzz . . . defended the setup of the Buzz service. He said that Buzz came with a built-in circle of contacts to provide a better experience to users and that many liked that feature."

I had already been frustrated by Google’s earlier decisions to make certain of their services more “social” — more than a year ago, for instance, my Reader started informing me of the number of people who liked certain links, and flashed in my face the number of “new sharing requests” that had come my way, despite my desperate attempts to turn off every possible venue for “sharing.” So Buzz is not a one-time misstep my Google, but rather a consolidation of a self-defining stance.

My response: after five years and 25,000 email messages, I have abandoned Gmail and Google Calendar. I have deleted all my Google Reader subscriptions, and deleted all my contacts. My principle is a simple one: Google will not determine and range and nature of my social connections, I will. The only thing keeping me from deleting my Google account altogether is, to be truthful, this blog, which is hosted by Blogger. So I’m stuck with Google for at least a while longer — but the first minute that I am able to delete that account, I will do so.

Now back to healing!


  • There's a book to be written (no doubt it already has) on how great and dominant companies fail. And if Google fails (or maybe I should say when) this will be the point people will point to. Google's business is built on the collection and selling of information. If those who hold the information suddenly decide that cost (a loss of privacy) is no longer worth the benefits, they'll do exactly what you've done.

    I, on the other hand, just out of habit declined the invite to Buzz. Having a naturally curmudgeonly attitude with a hard and fast resolution not to try anything "new-fangled" served me well this time. Of course, finding vacuum tubes for the tv is a real pain...

  • On the other hand, your vinyl records are cool again.

    Yeah, I think this could be Google's Zune moment — when they stumbled through an unnecessary determination to conquer a market they don't understand.

    For now they're letting folks like you opt out, but in future Googlestan, Google opts you in!

  • Michael Straight said...

    In rolling out a service like this, it makes a huge difference in success and adoption whether you make it opt-in or opt-out.

    But as Facebook had already shown in previous incidents, anytime you make networking opt-out, you open your users up to big privacy (and sometimes security) risks.

    Google had to know this, but they also knew that choosing opt-out would hobble the launch of their new service. So they choose the option that would maximize their own success while allowing their users to shoulder the risks. (I've read one story of a woman whose abusive ex-husband now knows where she lives and where she works because the way Buzz was launched.) That's a pretty definitive crossing of the "Don't be evil" line in my opinion.

  • Here are some useful Google privacy and data tips from Lifehacker.

    Nice Yakov Smirnoff joke, btw.

  • couple sites for you. I'd consider wordpress, many seem to like it.

  • I think like anything...roll outs can be tricky...I for one love buzz...it is going to be a great addition to how I connect with people...I already love it over facebook as with facebook you are inundated with pillow fights and poke this/that...

    Did google make some mistakes...sure...none worth dropping...most of them are easy fixes...

    hiding shared users in greader so you are stuffed with shared posts...hiding your follow list...which are all issues you have to fix in facebook/twitter as well.

    Did they make some mistakes??? SURE....account deletion worthy...NOPE...I think it will stand the time and turn out to be a great social media addition.

  • I'm wondering what you're using to replace such great and innovative tools? Not trying to be sarcastic, just asking.

  • Gabriel, as I've mentioned on other posts I'm enjoying the more conventional implementation of IMAP in Fastmail — also the reliability and privacy protections. I'm getting my RSS feeds in NetNewsWire or NewsFire, and those are much better options for me than the forced social environment of Reader. Overall, these are relatively minor changes in my online life, but I do find it pleasurable not to have to think about what Google is going to do wit my personal information.

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