Google and Social: Like Nerds at the Dance

It’s a little sad, and yet at the same time kind of hilarious watching Google try to get jiggy with the whole “social media” thing. Even before the fuss over Google Buzz revealing people’s email contacts, which has caused significant privacy issues for some people — including one anonymous blogger who is being targeted by an abusive ex-husband (warning: graphic language) — Google’s approach to Buzz seemed kind of ham-handed. Not that there was anything wrong with the launch from a technical perspective, but it seemed to be missing something.

A friend described the much-hyped launch presentation as “a bunch of engineering grads” trying desperately to be likable, which pretty much sums it up. Brad Horowitz and Todd Jackson and Vic Gundotra were earnest, and definitely seemed smart when it came to the various features and the implementation of Buzz, including the various mobile enhancements, etc. But it felt a bit like listening to a stereo geek tell you all about how many watts his amplifier puts out, without saying anything at all about the music itself, or how it makes you feel, or should make you feel.

That focus on features seems to have contributed to some of the negative reaction to Buzz. While it’s true (as Jackson argued in a somewhat defensive blog post about the recent changes) that Google did tell users their email contacts would be displayed publicly, it didn’t really make that terribly obvious. And why not? I think it’s because the company was thinking about all the great features that Buzz would have, not about how actual human beings would use the product in the real world.

Umair Haque has a great post along these lines at the Harvard Business Review site, in which he describes how Buzz fails many of what he calls the “five principles of designing for meaning,” one of which is what he calls the Hippocrates Concept, based on the ancient Greek philosopher’s principle of doing no harm. Buzz pretty much failed that principle right out of the gate. Haque also mentions that, like many companies, Google often relies on people following complicated instructions, which is rarely a good idea. As he writes:

Google’s working hard to fix the issue, but its fixes still rely on people “following instructions”. In the real world, almost no users follow instructions. If it’s that complicated, you might have just already failed. Nobody wants to spend an hour figuring whether a service might just do no harm — or tweaking it to do no harm.

Haque also mentions something others have complained about, which is that Buzz doesn’t really do what Google claims it wants to do, which is to organize and make sense of the world’s information — instead, it throws even more massive quantities of the stuff at you and makes it difficult to sort through. Haque says opening up Buzz is “like being punched in the face with a giant fist of information.”

It’s not like Google isn’t trying to understand more about what the social web requires. The company has even put together a kind of social media SWAT team that includes luminaries such as open web advocate Chris Messina and the former chief technology officer of Plaxo, Joseph Smarr. But even here, Google seems more focused on the plumbing and the programming rather than how people actually use the social web. Does it have anyone working on the team who actually uses social media a lot, and understands it and lives and breathes it?

Maybe in the case of Buzz, Google let good become the enemy of great\.
Or maybe what the company really needs is a soul.

Related posts from GigaOM Pro:

Why Google Should Fear the Social Web

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user PaDumBumPsh

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