The Google Buzz team has had quite a week. Their new product quickly lived up to its name, though mostly for the wrong reasons, generating buzz about its own privacy issues. Calling the original Google Buzz privacy settings lax would be a gross understatement. It created a storm of complaints, best put in perspective by Harriet Jacobs in her F*ck You, Google piece.
In short, when you logged into your Gmail account Google simply took all of your frequent contacts and mashed them up into an active social network without much input from people they were connecting. If you exchanged a lot of emails with your editor and your under-cover sources from the same Gmail account, now they were connected through your public profile if you didn't happen to catch the Buzz opt-out checkbox. Or what about using the same Gmail account for emailing your husband and your boyfriend? Well now they're introduced - you're welcome.
Yes, sounds like a pretty naïve and reckless way to implement a major feature but Google protested that they just wanted to help and meant no evil. After all, their CEO Eric Schmidt had an interesting take on expectations for privacy online: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place". That was said nary two months before Google Buzz launched - I guess people like Harriet Jacobs and her abusive ex-husband just didn't listen.
Oops, Our Bad: Thanks For All the Users...
Since the launch, Google has done an amazingly quick about-face and pledged to do better. The latest set of changes make signing up for Buzz a tangibly more transparent experience, probably what it should have been at launch time. The press has mostly applauded their quick response and patted Google on the back for their responsiveness and keen focus on Gmail user experience.
Buzz already rivals Twitter for sheer network size
Those are some pretty impressive numbers for any online launch, but to achieve this in under three days is just unheard of. Actually, there are businesses that do generate this level of interests from their prospects in that short of a time-frame and Gmail deals with them on a daily basis: spammers.
The '9 Million-Post' Question
The question is did Google simply make a "mistake" and not consider these fairly serious privacy issues, or did the massive amount of spam Gmail churns through each day actually demonstrate effectiveness of a new business model?
The former is hard to believe when you consider the army of privacy lawyers Google has and their job to review privacy considerations in revenue-generating AdSense programs. This is especially critical in Gmail, where you are shown ads based on emails you exchange. Gmail achieves this by reading through all your email and matching you up with advertisers interested in addressing your daily struggles. After the initial outrage over this concept a few years ago most users have resigned to trust Google that they have their best interests in mind.
Your Trust, Google's Toilet Paper
Google Buzz violates this trust in a serious way. In light of Google's experience in this field, it is hard not to take Google's mea culpa with a huge dose of skepticism. After all, if Google had made Buzz an opt-in service - something that users had to enable rather than be tricked into joining - they would be just another social network trying to compete with Facebook and Twitter.
Leveraging millions of Gmail users was a shortcut simply too tempting to avoid. The fact that Google decided to revise Google Buzz activation process over the weekend is simply a red herring: they only needed a few days to convert some of the hundred million plus Gmail users into millions of Buzz users, and become the de-facto Twitter competitor over a single long weekend.
Google "fixing" this privacy snafu a few days later is equivalent to spammers adding an "Unsubscribe" link to an email that's already done its damage.
The strong impression from the last few days is that Gmail users were a pawn in a very cynical game: Google trying desperately to become a player in the social networking space, after the Orkut launch and their acquisition of a handful of other companies in this space failed to produce results.
We're Not Evil
This is a tough act to pull off when your motto is Don't Be Evil. It's been said that eventually Google's shareholders will push it to make product moves and decisions that end up hurting its brand in a quest for monetization. It will be interesting to see if Google comes out of this with their motto intact.