With Google Buzz, your closest circle of friends is wide open

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By Chadwick Matlin
Sunday, February 28, 2010

Google Buzz is the loudest party I've ever been forced to attend. It's not because there are too many people invited but because of all the chatter. I'm following only 40 others. And even if I wanted to follow a few hundred more, my network's too small. But these 40 contacts all have their own friends, and even though I've never met most of them, Google is making me hear their thoughts.

And that dynamic makes Google Buzz a fundamentally different social network than Facebook and Twitter. Those networks, of course, are also filled with noise. But Google pushes the comments of your friends' friends (we'll call them secondary friends from here on out) into your Gmail window, alerting you whenever a secondary friend has responded to something your actual friend has written. This is a small quirk, and only mildly different from similar features on Facebook and Twitter. But it's Buzz's biggest one. Google's network will live or die depending on whether people like all that chatter.

The most important thing about Buzz is a number. It's the one that sits next to the "Buzz" link in your Gmail window any time your network has written something new. This feature cannot be turned off. Either you're forced to hear all the latest buzz, or you're not allowed to even know it exists. This makes Buzz a unique type of nuisance, one that goes away easily enough (just click on the Buzz link and the number disappears) but only after you've acknowledged its presence. It is an itch that can't be stared down; it must be scratched. Because all Google wants you to do is pay attention to Buzz; every time you scratch, Google wins.

Facebook, you'll notice, doesn't do this. Yes, if you post something and a friend responds, all of your friends can see that response. But Facebook doesn't automatically e-mail to tell them to go to look at the commentary. Likewise on Twitter. You can tweet something and have someone @reply you in response, but others don't know that happened unless they're also following your respondent. They can go out of their way to search for any tweets that include, for example, @chadwickmatlin, but their own feed doesn't tell them about any backchatter on their friends' accounts.

Google has made Buzz different because it wants Buzz to elicit a different kind of interaction. When eWeek.com asked whether Buzz is out to kill Facebook or Twitter, Google's VP of product management said, "Absolutely not. . . . It's hard to create a trend line or extrapolate too much from six days of use, but certainly conversation and the conversational Web is a place where Buzz has excelled." If Facebook and Twitter are about status, Buzz is about conversation. And to participate in conversation, the thinking seems to be, you need to be alerted whenever others are talking. Even if you don't know them. Likewise, nested in an obscure page that lists my Google "social circle" I found this gem from Google: "You can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your friends' friends. :-)"

An example of how this shakes out: I wrote a silly little buzz requesting a new feature on Buzz. Several in my network chimed in: my boss, some friends, my father. And there they all were, meeting one another for the first time. Every other person following my buzzes, meanwhile, were also being told to listen in because their buzz number increases whenever someone responds to my comment.

Offline, I wouldn't have invited my boss, friends and father into the same party to talk about Google Buzz. And I definitely wouldn't have Webcast it for all of my close friends to watch. And yet this is basically what happened on Buzz. Plus people who are very much not my close friends are also tuning in. Now, this makes me socially anxious. There are times when Buzz makes me feel as if I'm the one hosting the party. Are people going to get along? Will I be judged based on my friends? But I'm not Google's target audience. I'm a reluctant tweeter and a barebones Facebook user. The question is whether people who are more amenable to social networking actually want more alerts in their life. When I was moaning about all this within my boss's earshot, I used the same boss/dad/friends example I used here.

His response: "But I like reading what your dad writes. He's usually funnier than you are."

If the conversation is good, maybe it's worth being told to pay attention.

-- The Big Money


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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