Google Buzz: Is It a Winner?

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I remember when Gmail came out in 2004. Although undeniably a revolutionary free e-mail product, some naysayers griped about privacy concerns (a Google robot reads your e-mails in order to custom-serve text ads on the sidebar) and feared the unknown, not unlike the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the apes get freaked out by the monolith. Oh yes, I just compared a Google product to alien technology. Moving on.

Over time, however, the privacy hecklers chilled out. Gmail went from something you couldn’t get (remember begging your nerdy friend for an invite code?) to something everyone had. And today Gmail is the best free e-mail service out there, with more than 7 gigabytes of space and fast built-in search.

But can Google Buzz make the same evolution? It launched to considerable controversy earlier this week as a social sharing tool that takes the best services from Facebook and Twitter, namely the concept of a broadly available status update or content sharing tool. But two factors play in Buzz’s favor: 1) It’s built into Gmail, giving it an immediate potential audience of 170 million users and 2) it’s user friendly.

How is it user friendly? You don’t need to tag friends, or even find friends, to begin using the service since Google automatically suggests contacts to you—and vice versa, you are suggested to users. You can simply post content you find intriguing from within the Buzz tab of Gmail and it will be propagated immediately... Photos, videos, and hyperlinks can all be shared with ease. Also there’s the hope that Buzz will cut down on the noise, promoting truly unique or viral content. Most of the status updates I see when I log into Facebook are trivial, irrelevant, or annoying (hello, FarmVille updates and people complaining about the cold weather).

Twitter, despite the fact that Ashton Kutcher and teenagers use it, is not as user friendly. Hashtags, retweets, direct messages… Twitter is too complex. It will always remain a niche product for hipsters, celebrities and self-promoters, whereas Buzz has the chance to be social media for everyone—just as Google search is something used universally by people of all ages.

The privacy concerns surrounding Buzz are essentially stupid. Some reviewers have said that Buzz, by assigning you followers and followees automatically based on past Gmail correspondence, could potentially out an extramarital affair. Sorry, but this is not the benchmark by which a social media service should be judged. And it’s an erroneous argument, anyway: just because someone sees your Buzz feed or appears in your follower list, it doesn’t mean the world will know you’re pulling a Tiger. (Unless you post that as a status update within Gmail, in which case you are a moron.)

Google Buzz is easy to use. It has a huge initial user base. And Google is a more mature company than Facebook or Twitter—it has been around longer, has far greater technical & financial resources, and it is patient.

Google engineers will tweak and improve Buzz over the coming months, just as they did with Gmail. What is already a useful service will become a true necessity—a Web utility, in the same way that AOL Instant Messenger was in the ‘90s.

One idea for Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and company: if you’re serious about launching Buzz in a big way, you should add an element of competition. For the most “buzzed” about item at the end of each day, you could feature it on the coveted Google homepage as a text link. This will get social media mavens, large companies and Ashton Kutcher types to adopt Buzz overnight, for a shot at homepage glory. And they will do the serious proselytizing for you.

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