Strongly Emergent

What comes from combining humans, computers, and narrative

Buzz Gap

The iPad thing was a relatively clear-cut example of big chunks of the IT punditry, of the conventional wisdom among IT people, being wrong. The Google Buzz thing is a less clear-cut example, and the debate is still going on.

The Google Buzz “thing” actually needs a little explanation: forgive me if you’ve heard this before. Google runs a lot of services. They experiment a lot, and new Google services pop up and expire pretty routinely. Most of the time, though, they’re pretty invisible: they flicker around in the experimental-features section of major Google services or they fly under the radar in the More Google Products and Google Labs airspace. Google Buzz was not quite like that. It showed up in 175 million Gmail inboxes over the course of a few days. The results were not pleasant: by default, the privacy options on Buzz were worse than those of notorious publicizer-of-the-private Facebook, and there wasn’t really a way to turn them off. Google fixed that before too long, but it’s still insecure by default (and to the best of our knowledge, people rarely change the defaults).

This is not by any means a settled discussion: long and loud, long and loud is the discussion ‘mongst the blogospheric denizens. Counternotions calls it “The Big Misdirection,” then points out flawed intentions, and most germanely to my point, examines the difference between testing and judgment. Tim McCoy wonders “how could they screw up THIS MUCH?”

Let me disclaim a little: I like the sound of Buzz, and I hope and expect that it will grow up into an interesting and useful service that will parallel Twitter and Facebook and other conversational tools. It’s got a nifty conversational dynamic, and hopefully Google’s propensity to add search to everything will help it do things that neither Facebook nor Twitter do well.

Google Buzz, though, illustrates the difference between what’s a good idea for professionals and prosumers and what’s a good idea for everyone. Buzz assumed, for example, that everyone that you have email conversations with, you want to contact. That’s definitely not true in all cases, and it’s downright dangerous for some people (the most high-profile example is currently offline, precisely because Buzz’s default settings turned out to be dangerous for her physical safety). This is a problem that the open-source world has a lot. Open-source software often makes this assumption: “this is useful for the people who wrote it, so it’ll be useful for others.” That’s good - but it causes big problems when taken too far. It’s an assumption that only really works for products and services that people seek out on their own, that they self-select for. It’s terrible for consumer products, where you make an assertion that it will be useful for most people, or worst of all for something that’s suddenly added to an existing setup - like Google Buzz. Buzz probably was very useful for the people who created it! But they lost sight of the fact that it would be used by many, many people besides them. This is doubly problematic because Google prides itself on the diversity of its workforce, so you’d think that they’d have considered the diversity of needs of their userbase.

And now they’re in trouble and they’re flailing and Buzz - we’ll see if it sticks around. What we can draw as a lesson, though, is this: understand your users! You can be a crackerjack programmer or sysadmin, but your skills will be useless if you don’t understand what people need.

As an addendum to Monday’s post, the highly luminous Nathan Bowers has his own explanation about the iPad, and his own take on the matter of Google Buzz.