Opinion: Google overpromises, underdelivers with Buzz

Google prides itself on releasing products early and improving on them quickly, but this philosophy sometimes does a disservice to the company and to its users, as illustrated by this week's ballyhooed release of Buzz in Gmail.

At a press conference in which even Google co-founder Sergey Brin participated, company officials did a great job of explaining how people are struggling with an excess of social media information.

Then they said they had developed a product -- Buzz -- that would solve this problem. Except, it doesn't.

The first obvious, glaring reason why Buzz can't fulfill its promise is that it operates as if Facebook didn't exist. Buzz has zero integration with Facebook. Buzz does nothing to help people sort through the torrent of information flowing into their Facebook feeds.

With more than 400 million members worldwide and counting, Facebook is the social networking site most people are using for personal interactions, and Buzz can't help them with it.

That gap alone should have given Google executives pause for reflection when deciding to launch Buzz without support for Facebook. At the very least, they should have been much more candid about this reality. But from Brin on down, the executives at hand yesterday seemed physically unable to even utter the "F" word.

So if Buzz can't help with Facebook, maybe it can be useful for Twitter users, right? Well, maybe or maybe not.

You see, I can't automatically import my Twitter contacts into Buzz, so Buzz doesn't know who I'm following on Twitter. If my Twitter stream flows in parallel to Buzz, and Buzz can't see it, it can't apply its relevance algorithms to it and help me manage it.

In the best-case scenario, Buzz will automatically set up a social graph based on my Gmail usage, and those contacts will link up their Twitter feeds to Buzz. However, how likely is it that all my Twitter contacts will end up automatically on my Buzz contacts?

It seems likely that you'll have to manually search in Buzz for many of the people you follow on Twitter and add them to your Buzz contacts -- a thankless task, to say the least.

And only if they have linked their Twitter accounts to Buzz will their "tweets" would appear in my Buzz stream.

This leads me to another problem with Google's claim that Buzz will help you channel your social media stream: Google's assumption that your Gmail account contains your underlying social graph, based on the Gmail contacts you interact with most. This may be true for some people, but not for everybody. In my case, although I have had a Gmail account for years, I don't use it that much. The e-mail account that has anything resembling an underlying social graph for me is my work account.

Consequently, when I turned on Buzz, it created a social graph for me of four people, none of whom are on Twitter. So much for the Buzz promise of automatically creating a relevant and accurate social graph on the fly so that I wouldn't have to build it by hand.

This Gmail-centric design doesn't take into account that you don't know the e-mail addresses of many, if not most, of the people you're connected to on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, because the sites are the medium of communication.

In order to test Buzz, I quickly searched for about 20 people I suspected would be on it, such as Google officials, industry pundits and other technology reporters, and started "following" them.

As my Buzz page started getting populated, I quickly found the Buzz user interface, modeled after Gmail conversations, visually uninviting. It's not an application I particularly want to engage with, from a layout and design perspective. Granted, the look and feel of Buzz is a matter of taste and, ultimately, could be easily improved.

However, I also found the user interface inconvenient for keeping track of what my 20-odd contacts are posting, a more serious issue. It's one long page of Buzz conversations, similar to a discussion forum. As comments are added to the conversations, I don't get a notification of any sort. I just have to keep revisiting them to see what's new, scrolling up and down this increasingly long page.

According to Google, people can link up Buzz right now with Picasa, Flickr, Twitter, YouTube and Blogger, while Google chat status messages and Google Reader shared items can also be displayed in Buzz.

So I decided to give one of these a try. I linked Buzz to my Flickr account and uploaded about 30 photos to Flickr. Only one of them showed up in my Buzz stream right away. About 10 other photos appeared several hours later.

So is Buzz a complete bust? Not at all. It's definitely a welcome addition to Gmail, and I'm sure many people will find uses for it.

However, it doesn't come close to solving the problem that it was created to address: helping people manage the avalanche of social media information many are inundated with. In fact, Buzz may end up compounding this problem, becoming yet another social media channel that people need to watch and maintain.

When and if Buzz does become a tool that can help people manage all their social media information, then and only then will this technology indeed be buzz-worthy.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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