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More Buzz buzz [updated]

Someone on Slashdot said something that led me to come up with a clearer explanation for why Buzz doesn’t belong in Gmail, but belongs in Reader:

  • Google Reader is about blogs. It’s all about stuff that’s public, and commenting on stuff that’s public. It doesn’t even support authenticated web feeds.
  • Gmail, on the other hand, is typically about private communication.

    In many cases, it’s exclusively about private communication; I get mailing list traffic, but many people use their Gmail accounts purely for private e-mail.

Buzz is emphatically about making things public and commenting on things which are public, and doing so in public, which is why it has no logical business being in Gmail. I subsequently saw a TechCrunch author make the same point.

Computerworld’s review of Buzz tries to explain that Buzz is a bit like Twitter, insofar as anybody with an account can see your post. The fact that this needs explaining is a clear indication that there’s a fundamental conceptual problem with the product: Google has shoved a public sharing mechanism into an interface focused around private activity, with no clear differentiation. No wonder users are confused. Computerworld also agrees with me that shoving Buzz into Gmail is problematic purely from a UI perspective.

Meanwhile, the buzz on Buzz has been worse than I expected, including one heartwarming story of how a woman was put back in touch with her abusive ex-husband and his friends, thanks to the power of Google Buzz. Suw Charman-Anderson, a web developer, identifies another half dozen horrible UI and privacy flaws of Buzz. There are dissenters, of course, but pretty much every comment I’ve seen on Buzz has been negative overall.

Oh, and that “Turn off Buzz” link? It doesn’t actually turn off Buzz in the sense of deleting anything about you that Buzz made public. No, it just turns off Buzz in the UI, leaving all your information out there and all the following/being followed by relationships intact and visible. It was probably a feature allowed reluctantly by marketing, as a sop to shut up the engineers who were telling them what a disaster Buzz was going to be, and was never intended to be fully functional.

Some of these gaping flaws in Buzz are likely accidental, but I think it would be a mistake to assume that it’s all a problem of inadequate user testing. Google is infamous for its user testing, and I firmly believe that they have enough bright engineers that almost all of these issues would have been brought up repeatedly before launch even without user testing. I’m certain that multiple people pointed out that Buzz belonged in Reader, or even as an improvement to Jaiku, rather than in Gmail. I’m even more certain that many voices warned that Buzz should go into some kind of beta or limited deployment. Gmail was in beta for 5 years, yet Buzz was released to everyone on day one, and nobody thought that was a questionable decision?

Frankenproducts like Buzz, and epic failures like the Buzz launch, rarely happen by mistake. They mostly happen because they fit the objectives of a misguided corporate strategy or a deluded marketing department. Google’s product is eyeballs, and the Buzz launch was designed to try and rip people away from Facebook whether they wanted to switch or not. That’s why Buzz automatically built you a “friend” list of everyone with a gmail address and shared all your stuff with them by default: it wasn’t a bug, it was a feature. That’s why it was shoved in at the top of Gmail, right under your inbox whether you wanted it there or not. (Contrast to Apple, who added web feed reading to Mail, but put it at the bottom of the navigator, under your folders, respecting that mail is a program for reading mail.)

So what happens now? Well, my guess is still that a bunch of engineers at Google are saying “See, told you so”, and that a bunch of marketing people are frantically trying to think up ways to patch Buzz so that it kinda sorta works in Gmail without being hopelessly annoying, confusing and privacy-invading. I’m betting they’ll fail, and since Google is now openly talking about making a standalone version of Buzz, I think Google knows it too. The company is not willing to admit it made a ghastly mistake cramming Buzz into Gmail yet, but give it time. The thing is, by then, will anyone still have Buzz enabled? Google have tarnished a brand, wrecked a bunch of their loyal users’ goodwill, and squandered a golden opportunity to leverage their existing user relationships to launch a social networking product, all in one week.

Update: Someone else makes many of the same points, and as I suspected Google starts the “we didn’t do enough testing” spin.