These days, it’s near impossible to use a computer without running into a social network. Web sites encourage people to “tweet” links to their articles via Twitter; photo-sharing sites nudge users to post albums on Facebook; and aggregators like TweetDeck display content from several social networks in a digestible way. Last week, Google Buzz joined this trend by integrating social networking into something people use every day: email.
Google Buzz (google.com/buzz) is built into Gmail, Google’s email program, as an opt-in social network that provides people with a place for sharing status updates, Twitter tweets, photos, videos, Web links and blog posts with a network of friends. I’ve been testing Google Buzz, and I like the way it displays shared photos in full-screen view and nestles into Gmail, which I use every day. But right now, Buzz still falls flat.
One of the biggest problems with Buzz is that it’s late to the social-networking party. People have had years to get comfortable with networks like Facebook and Twitter, and old habits are hard to kick. Microsoft (MSFT) and Yahoo (YHOO) already incorporate social networking into their Web email in Windows Live Hotmail and the Yahoo Mail, respectively. Windows Live Hotmail lets users create networks of friends and connects with up to 69 other networks, including Facebook and Twitter. Yahoo also builds networks with your connections, and integrates content into email from sites like Twitter, Flickr and Picasa.
Google (GOOG) tried to catch up with existing social networks by using a proprietary algorithm to create networks of people with whom users communicate most in Gmail and in Google Chat, the company’s instant messaging program. In other words, the people you emailed the most via Gmail or chatted with the most on Google Chat automatically became the people you followed in your social network.
But Google took a lot of heat for these pre-made networks because people didn’t know where the names came from or who some of the people were. Even worse, these networks were made public by default so every Buzz user could see everyone else’s closest contacts.
This is a problem because many of us treat email differently than we treat our social networks. We communicate via email in private conversations—often with people who we don’t necessarily want looking at our personal photos or other information. If I exchange several emails over an extended period of time with my plumber about fixing a sink, it doesn’t mean I want him in my social network. Likewise if a parent regularly emails with a teacher about a child’s progress.
In the past several days, Google has apologized for its presumption that you would absolutely want to add the people you email into your social network online. The company has changed settings in Buzz to ameliorate this and several other issues. A network is now suggested rather than predetermined so users can clearly select whom they follow by checking boxes beside names and photos, nixing the plumber and keeping a best friend. Likewise, a very clear box now lets people opt to share these names publicly or not.
So how does the rest of Buzz work? All Gmail users will find a Buzz icon in the top left area of the Gmail site and must opt in to use Buzz. A tiny link at the bottom of every page can always turn it off altogether. Buzz is a separate screen and isn’t fully weaved into Gmail’s inbox, though notifications are sent to the Inbox in three instances: if someone comments on your post; if you comment on a post and then someone else makes an additional comment; and if someone directs a Buzz at you, such as starting a post with @Katie Boehret.
Buzz doesn’t yet have a way to completely stop notifications from coming to an inbox, but you can opt to stop receiving inbox notifications every time someone else comments about a post. (Go to “More Actions” within the email and select “Mute.”)
Google Buzz uses ideas from Facebook, like the ability to “like” a post. It also integrates with other Google properties including Blogger, Google Reader, Picasa and YouTube. Rather than using a system of friends like Facebook, Buzz takes a page from Twitter’s playbook by organizing friends into followers: people a user follows and people who follow the user. If you don’t want someone following you, just block them.
I spoke to Facebook about Buzz, asking specifically if the company would consider integrating with Google’s new program. A spokeswoman noted Facebook’s position as an open platform and said the company is always delighted to be working with new partners that want to integrate Facebook Connect in ways that help people connect with their “real” friends.
Buzz pulls in Twitter updates, or tweets, from people who have connected their Twitter and Buzz accounts. But the Twitter feed is only one way—coming into Buzz—so people can’t respond to or direct message back to Twitter. They can just leave a comment about the tweet on Buzz—a comment that is never displayed on Twitter. A Google representative said the company is working on more two-way integration in the future.
As for photo sharing, Buzz lets users integrate with Google-owned Picasa or Yahoo-owned Flickr so they can share on Buzz whatever photos are publicly shared within those services. Images show up in Buzz and, when selected, they take up the full browser screen—an eye-catching feature. But though users can browse Picasa albums from Buzz to select photos, they can’t share whole albums to Buzz right now.
Buzz is usable on the go with Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone and Google’s Android phones. By default, it uses someone’s current location whenever posts are made on Buzz. But this can be turned off, albeit in a clumsy way: Currently, people must tap an “x” beside their location to remove this location information from a post. Later this week, this language will be made clearer with a bolded explanation on each screen before a post is sent of how to remove locations. If someone opts not to use location in one post, this setting sticks for subsequent posts—except when Buzz is accessed through a voice program.
Google Buzz got off to a rough start and still has a lot of catching up to do. Though it could be a convenience for people whose social contacts all already exist in Gmail, it could also saddle them—and their friends—with yet another social network to check every day. For now, my social-networking friends are sticking to Facebook and Twitter, making the buzz on Buzz almost inaudible.
Edited by Walter S. Mossberg.
Write to Katherine Boehret at email@example.com