February 09, 2010

"Google Buzz" -- and the Risks of "Automatic Friends"

Update (2/14/10): Google has already announced two sets of significant changes to Google Buzz in response to concerns such as those that I expressed in the posting below. I'm very pleased by the extremely rapid (all within less than a week) moves by Google to address these issues in a positive and direct manner. Since many readers have been asking me about this topic, I may have more to say on the subject in the near future.

Update (2/15/10): The Google Buzz Launch -- and the Limits of Downing Dogfood

Greetings. As you may have heard, Google has finally rolled out their integrated approach to social networking. Called Google Buzz (oddly, there's already a different sort of Yahoo! Buzz), this sort of service from Google was inevitable given the rise in social networking.

Whether or not the goal of Google Buzz (let's call it "Gbuzz" for now) is really to be a Twitter or Facebook "killer" as some observers have suggested, Google is doing a couple of key things very differently with Gbuzz -- one of them very positive, the other seemingly quite problematic.

First the good part. Following in Google's tradition of promoting open standards, Gbuzz has reportedly been created to be an open platform that will have API-based conduits for third-party apps. So all manner of interfaces can flower. Excellent.

Now for the not so excellent. Gbuzz, being tightly integrated with Gmail, apparently makes the implicit assumption that your frequent e-mail contacts should also automatically be declared as your "friends" for social update sharing purposes, and by default creates automatic "follow" lists on this basis.

Maybe this will work just fine for some people, but man, it might be just plain dangerous for others -- perhaps especially those persons who use a single Gmail account to communicate with both personal friends and business associates. Is routinely updating your business acquaintances with the same information as your personal contacts typically appropriate? Doubtful.

To be sure, you can manually drop specific Gbuzz "friends" from your list. Well, sort of. I didn't see obvious analogues in Gbuzz for Twitter's "block" or "lock" functions, and there are a number of mysterious "no profile" anonymous "followers" in Gbuzz that I seem to have on Day Zero -- and who I can't seem to identify or delete in any way. Who are they? I don't know! Hmm.

Of primary concern of course is the risk that users will inappropriately share specific information in compromising, embarrassing, or perhaps even hazardous ways, by not being fully cognizant of whom they're actually sharing with at any particular time. The Google Reader/Google Chat sharing assumptions have already been known to cause some users problems, and the Gbuzz tie-in to Gmail would appear to expand the universe of potential similar issues extensively.

There are counter-arguments. Google's sharing options are off unless you activate them, and you're under no obligation to actually use Gbuzz no matter how much you use Gmail. And it could be argued that people who want to share should be diligent about pruning their friend lists -- especially automatically created friend lists!

But overall, my gut feeling is that, however much Google wanted to encourage social networking within their product mix, the default algorithm for friends selection in Google Buzz is wrong.

There should be a much more aggressive procedure to ensure that users have vetted each "automatic friend" that Gbuzz adds to sharing lists. Without affirmative approval from users (unless they specifically choose to waive such confirmations) users' individual e-mail correspondents should probably not be added to friend lists without specific approval in each individual case.

As I've said many times before, defaults really do matter. I hope that Google will reconsider the defaults that apparently are currently implemented in Google Buzz.


Posted by Lauren at February 9, 2010 01:39 PM | Permalink
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