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Google and Social: Like Nerds at the Dance

It’s a little sad, and yet at the same time kind of hilarious watching Google (s goog) 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

40 Responses to “Google and Social: Like Nerds at the Dance”

  1. Excellent point of view. Once i had a simple question for the Gmail team, something i do very easy in Yahoo but couldn’t do it in Gmail. The team responded me: it is easy, just write this line in the search box. And i thougt, google is too geeky/nerdy. Very functional but not eye appealing (like Yahoo) or easy to use (like Apple). It seems they don’t know well the difference between common people and geeks. I can write a few lines, or read instructions, but i don’t want to.

  2. Thanks, this is a great article, it really summarize my immediate feeling about Buzz (and about many other big G. “new” things”).
    I mean, just check out gmail UI, it’s working fine, but that’s email for nerds. There always seems to be quite a distance between them and the consumers, and they keep shouting or adding watts instead of just walking close.

  3. Mike Cosmi

    this is an obvious anti-google piece. Saying they don’t have a soul? your iPhone too far up your ass? Google has done amazing things for people, they have a soul, and I for one am happy they are doing so well…i think Buzz will be a huge success, i think their android platform will smash iPhones monopoly on smartphones, and i think theur services are great. I cannot think of another company that has had a greater, more positive impact on my day to day life than google. IF YOU DON’T LIKE BUZZ JUST DON’T USE IT. simple.

    • Anonymous

      I would LOVE to not use Buzz. It’s a shame Google decided to sign me up for it anyway, and isn’t exactly making it easy to just turn it off – completely. Oh, you can click “turn off Buzz”, but apparently Google has a different definition of “off” – in order to really turn off Google buzz you need to get rid of your public profile, otherwise just clicking “turn off buzz” basically just hides it from you, but other people can still see who your following, etc.

      Let’s be honest here – Google did this for their own purpose, trying to instantly create a massive social network since they’re far behind FaceBook and Twitter.

      The problem is they didn’t bother to understand how people set up their online lives, purposely building walls between different groups, actively making choices on who gets let in and at what level. They have multiple email accounts, not sharing all emails addresses with all people; and they have FaceBook accounts and LinkedIn accounts to better separate personal and business relationships. Many people who are into social networking and have FaceBook-type accounts, have also made a decision either to dump Twitter, or never signed up for it in the first place.

      Along comes Google decided they want to shatter the walls that customers have established. Is it stupidity or is it arrogance? I’m not comfortable with either answer. Do no evil? Yeah, right. Wake the F— up, Google.

  4. Fantastic post – thank you. I wanted to add that Google do not have a great track record with social web / user generated content initiatives (Orkut, Google Answers (twice they have tried and failed with this initiative), Google Bookmarks, SearchWiki, Google Base, dodgeball, to name a few), but i guess they needed to give it a try.

    Also, they did brazenly copied the name for a Yahoo! service (Y! Buzz).

    A final note on Bradley Horowitz – he is actually a very cool consumer-focused guy (as opposed to maybe the other “geeks” at Google). When he was at Yahoo! he had some fantastic insights into some of the great social initiatives & features developed at Yahoo!, so I am sure he will help the “soul-less Google geeks” (your words, not mine) eventually understand the user experience better. I personally am scared that one day Google will get it right…then we will all be in a worse place.

  5. Seriously, GOOG just got HACKED by the Chinese in the worst way, so why did they see fit to just ‘hack’ all of us by default?

    At best, the way GOOG did Buzz was a gross violation of basic internet privacy in a lame attempt to be trendy.

    At worst, they have helped enable others to violate both corporate and individual privacy and confidentiality by defaulting buzz to ON (instead of OFF with the option to CHOOSE first).

    Either way, I now know that GOOG cannot be trusted when it comes to privacy or confidentiality online.

    Consequently, my use of their services will be curtailed accordingly.

    This is also an object lesson in “with great power comes great responsibility” and it is clear to me that GOOGs capabilities have outgrown their proverbial ‘moral compass’.

    I’m still amazed…and very disappointed…that this happened so soon after the Chinese Hack attack.

    There is something seriously lacking in that HUGE organization.

    • Mike Cosmi

      wake up retard..there IS NO PRIVACY ONLINE. There never was…there never will be. Once you get over this, you can move on, and utilize all the services that make the web great, and help productivity.

      • The Red Chinese Army, I’m sure, is very proud of Google right now, and would most readily agree with your sentiments…

        You wouldn’t happen to be a product development or marketing fool who helped think up this brilliant buzz/fiasco at Google would you?

        With a click of a mouse, Google effectively dropped the proverbial pants of ~150 million people for up to a day and has possibly created the single largest breach of privacy and confidentiality in the history of the internet, IMHO.

        (it will be interesting to see if anyone benefited financially or politically from this ‘event’…qui bono?)

        The only similar tools that could rival such stupidity and be abused in a similar or worse manner (either by design or by ‘accident’) and magnitude such as this belong to the US government (Carnivore, ECHELON, …now GOOGLE).

        There might even be legal problems with this breach because many people use a phone line/copper pair for their internet connection to access email at google, and the revealing (without legal consent) of personal information from phone calls/communications (like email addresses) might be analogous to an illegal wiretap with someone seeing all the phone numbers of people that you have been calling/contacting recently…

        If anyone was damaged by this ‘Buzz’…someone at GOOG is gonna get their @$$ handed to them along with a pink slip/terminated contract.

        Lastly, this is nothing to get over or get used to for me, FYI, as I will simply not use their services for any meaningful communications.

        Problem solved.

  6. You’ve basically described the same issues I have with Google Wave. Google’s lack of brand experience standards has certainly helped them get ideas to market that much more quickly, but they are ever so slowly eroding their brand. (or Soul as you may want to think of a corporate brand).

    @Axle Davids

  7. So Mark Zuckerberg is less of a nerd/engineer or whatever?

    Ok so Google has tried this and probably other stuff before this and not come out in flying colors; they will iterate and probably try to improve.

    Buzz about buzz sucks.

  8. Anti-intellectual hyperbole-craft at it’s finest, Matthew! One of the best ways to help both the counter-adaptive and status quo worshippers to feel superior as a result of innate ineptitude or even plain laziness. While it’s difficult to convey the upbeat, sardonic tone in this tongue-in-cheek compliment, it is there!

    BTW, how the hell did my Senior Yearbook picture get on Flickr!?

  9. I totally disagree. I’ve been monitoring Buzz for the last few days. It’s too powerful to be written of despite all its fault in privacy and maybe security. For one, now i can even access my Twitter and FB all in one platform. Do you dare to turn your head away from Buzz?!

  10. I am really hoping that Google moves as fast as possible to shore up each emerging vulnerability. I have great respect for Google as a company but it is clear that it, and Facebook, have a financial interest in increasing traffic on their social networks and in doing so may sacrifice privacy. The market, whether it be a privacy scandal sufficiently large that to threaten the image of either corporation, or decreased usage of these networks over time, is too crude to protect those most vulnerable to these privacy/traffic tradeoffs, those in totalitarian regimes that use services like Gmail, Facebook and Twitter to advance the struggle for human rights against state-organized violence. Social software, through privacy-bugs such as those currently being identified, can quickly turn from a shield to a firing-squad. A mailing-list of supporters can quickly become an itinerary for jack-boots and prison-vans. This will sound shrill and extreme to the fortunate. But for those who, for example opposed the results of the elections in Iran last year, the risk of such a privacy-lapse is too awful to contemplate. There is only the pathetic powerless hope that those at Google, Facebook and Twitter, in designing these systems and default settings, might think also about those who dare.

  11. I think one of the problems is they used it in a corporate environment, and that is not how most people use gmail. In watching the presentation, it did seem that Buzz could be very useful in that instance (having worked with a company that implemented internal IM), but I really have no interest in tying my personal e-mail profile with my social profile.

  12. Hey, I love Google (I guess I should say that because they know everything about me 10 times over). But, I am glad to see other dominant or competitive web companies out there for social networking, browsers, business software, etc. Go open Office, Mozilla, Twitter,etc.

    Seen too much of the too big to fail in the past years. If banks, tel-com giants, auto manufacturers, etc. can collapse so quickly, it can happen to any company at some juncture. So I’m not Buzzin’ yet, Google has enough on me now and the little guys need some platform left.

    PS Hey Google, sorry about that Yahoo search I did last week and making that call on my non Android phone.

  13. The press is ALL off on Buzz and you can see it in the purchase of Aardvark. Google is not playing in social media at all, they don’t care about social crap, facebook virtual gifts, or pokes or tweets – they are playing a much, much larger and more important game: getting profiled human brains into making structured systems work.