Google Buzz: Not fit for purpose

Please see update at bottom of post!

There has been, ahem, quite a bit of buzz about Google Buzz since they started rolling it out across the Gmail network a few days ago. I first saw an invitation to it when I logged into my inbox yesterday evening. Being curious, I accepted Google’s invitation to try it out, but fairly rapidly started to think that perhaps it was a bad idea.

My problems with Buzz are twofold: Firstly, it sits in Gmail, both as a menu item under my inbox and as live messages in my inbox. Secondly, there are some serious privacy implications that Google appear to either have ignored or not thought about. Either explanation is a poor show, frankly.

Buzz off out of my inbox!
I have written and spoken before about the problem with email, but for those of you unfamiliar with my views I shall summarise: Email is causing significant problems for people, not just because of the volume of email we get these days but because dopamine circuits in our brain encourage us to seek new information and cause us to check our email more often than we realise. Every time we check email, we waste about 64 seconds getting back into doing what we were doing before. Some people check email every 5 minutes. That’s an 8-hour day each week that we waste in mental limbo. Email is a significantly counter-productive tool yet it’s our default for almost all communications.

By adding in a new source of random reward – Buzz – Google have made their inbox even more addictive and unproductive. Not only do you have a new unread Buzz messages count to lure you into checking and rechecking, Buzz also tangles up Buzz replies with your email in your email inbox. Whilst that may seem sensible from an engineering point of view, or for someone whose inbox is quiet or beautifully organised, for me and the many people like me for whom inbox is a daily struggle, this is a disaster. I just do not need extra fluff filling up my inbox.

Privacy issues
For me, this mess of an inbox would be enough to put me off Buzz, but it gets worse. Google have historically not been great at doing social stuff. They are really great at their core business, which is search and serving ads against those search results. They also excel in some other areas, such as document sharing. And yes, I even appreciate the use of labels instead of folders in Gmail. But social stuff seems to be a bit beyond them.

Google Buzz lays bare Googles social weaknesses, illustrating the lack of thought given to potential social problems caused by their design and engineering decisions.

Privacy problem 1: Google Buzz exposes your most emailed contacts
Nicholas Carlson pointed this out in his Silicon Valley Insider piece, WARNING: Google Buzz Has A Huge Privacy Flaw:

When you first go into Google Buzz, it automatically sets you up with followers and people to follow.

A Google spokesperson tells us these people are chosen based on whom the users emails and chats with most using Gmail.

That’s fine.

The problem is that — by default — the people you follow and the people that follow you are made public to anyone who looks at your profile.

In other words, before you change any settings in Google Buzz, someone could go into your profile and see the people you email and chat with most.

This is a significant problem. I use my Gmail account for business and personal email, so many of my most-emailed people are not my friends but my clients. It’s not appropriate for Google to expose my clients like that. I maintain a client list on my site, but that’s at my discretion and doesn’t give away individual names and email addresses. Google Buzz could.

My email contacts list is not a social graph. It is not a group of people I have chosen to follow, but is instead full of people with whom I have a (sometimes very tenuous)professional relationship, as well as my family and some of my friends. Interestingly, my best friends don’t email me very often, so they do not show up as a part of my Buzz following list.

This answer to this is to go to your Google Profile and uncheck the tickbox next to “Display the list of people I’m following and people following me”.

Didn’t know you had a Google Profile? Nope, me neither! God knows when it was set up, or whether I agreed to it at some point in the past without realising what I was doing, or what. My friend Kevin Marks reminded me that he nagged me into creating a profile when Google first got them, which explains why I forgot all about it! But still, now I know I have a Google Profile I can give it the information I choose to.

Privacy problem 2: Poor default settings and no central control panel
Carlson goes on:

A Google spokesperson asked us to phrase this claim differently. Like this: “In other words, after you create your profile in Buzz, if you don’t edit any of the default settings, someone could visit your profile and see the people you email and chat with most (provided you didn’t edit this list during profile creation).”

This is appalling behaviour by Google. It’s well known that users tend not to edit their default settings. The people currently playing with Buzz may well be early adopters, more experienced in the ways of the web and more curious about settings and defaults. But you can guarantee that most people will accept the default settings as they are, without realising how much information that they are exposing to the world.

When you first join up to Google Buzz, you get a screen that shows you the people you’re automatically following, and who is following you. It doesn’t make clear that this information is visible to others, nor is it clear how to change the settings. If you go to your normal Google settings (at least for me) there is no ‘Buzz’ tab where I can manage all my privacy settings. Instead you have to ferret about in the interface in order to find the different privacy settings.

This is just not good enough. Right now, I can’t even find half the settings that I saw earlier. I found them through clicking on all the links I could see until I got to the page I wanted: This is the sort of usability mistake that Google should not be making.

Privacy problem 3: People can hide themselves from you
One of my followers is anonymous to me.

Google Mail - Buzz - Followers

This is completely appalling. I should be able to see exactly who is following me, and not have them be able to hide themselves from me. The opportunity for abuse here is huge – ex-boyfriends stalking their ex-girlfriends, bosses spying on their employees, random internet trolls watching their victims.

Anyone can get my email address – it’s out there on the web. It has to be, because I’m a freelance consultant and people have to have a way to get hold of me. This means that anyone can hide their profile and I won’t know who they are or why they are following me on Google Buzz. This is creepy in the extreme.

It also means that I can’t block that person. In order to block someone, you need to go to your follower list, click on their name and then click ‘Block’.

Blocking someone on Buzz

If I can’t see a follower’s name, I can’t go to this page and I can’t block them. Huge fail.

Privacy problem 4: Mobile Buzz can publish your precise location, but gives no option to make it fuzzy
If you have a browser on your phone, you may be able to use the mobile version of Buzz. When you open it up, it asks if it can use your location. Say yes to this, and your precise address will be published at the bottom of every Buzz you create. It doesn’t give you a choice in terms of how detailed you want to be, you can’t say ‘London’ or ‘UK’, it just determines your street address to the best of its ability and uses that.

This issue was highlighted by Molly Wood over on Cnet, and is as unhappy about it as I am. Molly has an Android, and her experience was this:

When you first visit the mobile app on your Android phone and attempt to post something, you’ll be asked whether you want to Share Location or Decline. The “Remember this Preference” box is prechecked too, so be sure you’re ready to have everyone know right where you are, whenever you post to Buzz. At minimum, uncheck the Remember button so you can decide whether to reveal your location post by post.

On the iPhone, there’s no “Remember this Preference”, so you are asked every time you open the site. You can turn location on or off on a per-Buzz basis very easily, so it’s not as bad as it sounds like the Android is, but the lack of choice about level of detail is dreadful.

If you do publish your location, you are not just publishing it to those people following you on Buzz, you are also, by default, also publishing it to everyone who is geographically close by. The ‘Nearby’ tab on the mobile Buzz site gives you a list and map view of everyone who has published a location that is within a certain distance. Again, this is fine if that’s what you want, but it shouldn’t be the default. You can, on a per post basis, set your privacy settings to “private”, but you don’t seem able to set that globally via the iPhone.

Once you have published your location you have to delete the Buzz in order to delete your location. You can’t just strip the location off the Buzz.

What’s also annoying is that it asks to use your location every time you open the site up. And every time you open up the Buzz Map. Every time. Lord, that is a real buzz killer.

(Molly flags up some other issues too: The use of photos from her Android that she hadn’t uploaded, and the revelation of her email. Her post is worth reading.)

Privacy problem 5: The opportunities for spammers and PR hacks
Jennifer Leggio has already had PRs spamming her via Buzz (on page 2). Oh dear lord, what a grim thought.

[T]he brand spamming and public relations pitching has already started. It’s bad enough that a lot of these people have my email address, but now they can buzz me just by adding me. (Whether I add them back or not, I found. Was this a glitch?)

The idea that Buzz is going to make me more available to PR people and to spammers, against my will, is not one that fills me with joy. I already get heaps of crap press releases in my inbox, I do not need more of this stuff cluttering things up. The true spammers aren’t there yet, but they will so find a way to abuse Buzz and make the whole thing a horrible experience. And right now, Google seem to be making it easy for them.

Privacy problem 6: Buzz automatically links you to other Google properties like Picasa and Google Reader
Jennifer says:

If you are using Google Picasa and Google Reader yet are not wholly aware of Buzz, you may not realize what you are publishing and promoting to your Buzz stream because you may not know it exists.

Again, would it be so hard to hold off automatically publishing stuff to people’s Buzz streams and make them go through a configuration process before they start publishing anything? Of course, that wouldn’t suit Google, who want as many people to be using Buzz as soon as possible. They don’t have a new tool here, they are just integrating Jaiku, whom they bought in Oct 2007, into Gmail. (Wait! What? It took them over two years to think of this?) So they don’t have a really compelling reason for people to change from Twitter or Facebook or FriendFeed. Buzz is not a killer app, it’s a mess. A TGF.

In conclusion
I haven’t even begun with the usability problems Buzz has. How poorly considered the interface is. How annoying it is when your Buzz stream is flooded with someone’s Google Reader output. But I do have a cure:

Go to the bottom of your screen and click “Turn off Buzz”.

turn buzz off

That should pretty much solve the problem. Google can get back to me when they’ve hired someone who actually understands social functionality and, y’know, people, and has fixed the awful usability and privacy problems. As Steve Lawson said:

There’s a reason why I don’t keep a ‘who I’ve emailed this week’ page going on my blog, and it’s not just cos it would be dull as shit.

UPDATE: 12 Feb 2010, 10am
Google have responded very rapidly to users concerns regarding Buzz. In a blog post on the Gmail Blog comes the news that they are making changes to the way that Buzz works and will be rolling those changes out soon.

The changes they are making are:

1. More visible option to not show followers/people you follow on your public profile
2. Ability to block anyone who starts following you
3. More clarity on which of your followers/people you follow can appear on your public profile

My advice to all new Buzz users would be:

  1. Edit the default list of followers that Buzz suggests when you first join the service. Make sure that you are only following people you want to follow.
  2. Decide if you want that list to be public. If you are in any way unsure, make it private.
  3. Keep an eye on who is following you, and use the block functionality if you find someone following you who makes you uncomfortable in any way
  4. Edit your public profile page and make sure you are happy with the information it displays. The minimum Google will accept is a name.

Having used Buzz already, I can’t check what the defaults are on initial sign-up now, but I’m hoping that Google has made some better choices about default levels of privacy. It would be better if Google doesn’t automatically tie Buzz into its other properties, but asks people to choose that up front. It will certainly be good to be able to see (and block, if I choose) everyone who is following me, not just those with public profiles.

There’s still no word on fuzzy location on the mobile app. My personal preference is not to use geolocation apps, but that’s just my own squickiness. I might use it more if I could set the level of detail in my location, e.g. “London” as opposed to a street address.

Now, if Google gives us the option to spin Buzz off out of our inbox and into a separate app, I might be more inclined to give it another go. But keeping it in the inbox is still a dealbreaker for me. I have enough problems managing my email already, I don’t need Buzz to add to the cognitive load.

I doubt that Google will separate them, though. Just read their opening paragraph where they coo over how many users they have. That’s why they did it like this: It gave them an immediate user base that they probably would not have got if they had launched it as a stand-alone service. My friend Max said to me on Twitter yesterday:

Wave is a separate app that should have been part of GMail, Buzz is part of GMail and should have been a separate app…

And I think he pretty much nailed it there. Buzz still feels uncomfortable in my inbox, but at least Google are making some progress towards clarity and better privacy controls for users. Here’s hoping the solve the other problems soon.

UPDATE: 12 Feb 2010, 1pm
Jessica Dolcourt of Cnet has put together a very clear guide on how to opt-out of Buzz. Turning it off doesn’t purge your profile or stop people following you, so a few more steps are needed.

34 thoughts on “Google Buzz: Not fit for purpose

  1. google used to mark its products “beta” for years. no it just releases alpha stuff and doesn’t bother to label.
    buzz is interesting. contrary to wave, it does have a chance of becoming useful, even a game changer. but yes, a bit wonky at the moment.

  2. My first view of google buzz bothered me although I couldn’t quite pin down why. It became clearer as I explored. I found the” turn off buzz” link pretty quickly. I may try it out on my personal email address but will certainly uncheck the display people I’m following box. Geeze!

  3. Great post. I set my Buzz up from an account with few personal contacts and treated it like Twitter – following people from other people’s lists etc. But I can see how it raises significant privacy problems with its current ‘wonky’ nature. I guess it also depends what you’re planning to put out via your Buzz: I saw mine, like my Twitter (where I don’t monitor who is following me) account, as a publication tool. I’ve been looking into various privacy issues with social networks: if you’ve got any experiences to report, please get in touch: http://www.google.com/profiles/jt.townend ! or judith [at] journalism.co.uk.

  4. Suw, great post over all – but let me add that I don’t point 3c really valid – of course some people may choose to remain private on the internet or in Buzz (yet, I assume that these are incidents where cool people didn’t bother to fill out an ID page instantly).

    But the rub is in assuming that blocking people helps you – on Twitter you may prevent them from getting your updates in their timeline, but you can’t prevent them visiting your Twitter page, can you?

    The same is true for your feed subscribers, blog readers (unless they care to comment and unmask), google robots scanning your website for indexing (creepy little things) and more.

    The only thing that helps is private sharing – and here Google is doing nice things like enabling sharing to finely tuned groups of people, stuff that no stalker will ever see.

  5. Some of your concerns are good but some of them leave me scratching my head.

    You didn’t know you had a Google profile? Did you also not know you had an AOL, Yahoo & MSN profile when you used those before Gmail came around?

    As a social media writer and consultants shouldn’t you know these kinds of small things?

    Have you never signed into Google.com and seen the links for settings?

    Since you say you have a Google profile, I’m betting you did because the profiles aren’t default they have to be filled out and made public and then you get the vanity URL for it. When you sign into your Google settings it had a funny avatar made from the Google logo and you have to change the picture and information.

    Second your fear of abuse by stalkers and bosses probably keep you off of Twitter too, right? I mean you can easily be stalked there too unless you Tweet with a locked account. People can follow you on Twitter with a locked account and you’ll never know who they are. Also, if someone wanted to stalk you on Twitter they wouldn’t even need to follow you, Just follow a list that you’re on and they can read all of your Tweets and you probably wouldn’t even know they are “following” you. Do you also suggest people not use Twitter because of stalkers and bosses reading ?

    If you’re concerned about being spammed then why have your Email address in the sidebar of your blog. Seems silly to me to complain about how easy Buzz makes it to be spammed when you, yourself, make it even easier.

    The complaint about the integration about Google properities is again kind of silly. For there to be some kind of flaw in privacy at play here you would have to not be allowed to make those other tools private. For people to see your pictures on Picassa you’d have to allow that.

    One thing I like about Buzz, versus Twitter, is the ability to select who can see some content. I don’t mind that it gets published to my Google profile, but I like the option (through that Earth icon marked PUBLIC) to select if I’d like to keep something I’m updating public or private.

  6. Seems like an easy solution for alot of the problems you talk about would be to have two different email accounts. One for your personal life and one for your business.

  7. There are few places on the net you can find any privacy. As email and direct mail become more common tools (letters? faxes? what?) then the web invades our lives more and with it comes the surveillance: spammers seeking ways in, work email being monitored ‘for commercial reasons’, the prurient (when you have a blog you can see when you are checked out on google and it is more than you’d think), the bored (who are these people I don’t know wanting to be my friend on Facebook?). Pretty much there is only one private place from all this for on the web, without me having to set up a complicated net of privacy settings: my own inbox on googlemail- and that’s it. I don’t mind giving out my email address on my blog as it is very rarely abused, but to find, without even trying, I’d acquired friends on buzz (who I don’t know) who could see who else I’d emailed; who could see this one place that there is that I’d assumed was truly private, feels pretty much close to a violation.

  8. @David (8), That’s a really good point, yes. I do wonder if they user tested with anyone who wasn’t them.

    @judith (10), I currently don’t think of my inbox as a broadcast tool, so Buzz breaks my mental model of what email is, and that makes me profoundly uncomfortable. But that might also be just me!

    @Martin (11), There has to be reciprocity in that when someone follows you in a social network, you should be able to see who they are. That doesn’t mean that you need to know who they are, but you should be able to see some sort of identifying information. “Anonymous follower” is just creepy. Whilst it’s true that I don’t know who all my blog readers are, the blog is based on that assumption so it’s not a problem. Email is not based on that assumption, but rather the basis is that you have some identifying information for everyone in your inbox – their email address at least. Buzz broke that.

    @MrBrownThumb (12), the profile thing is pretty irrelevant in this whole discussion. Turns out a friend nagged me into getting one right at the beginning, but I obviously forgot about it. (And if you think a social media consultant should know every last little nook and cranny of every single social and non-social tool out there, you have a very wrong idea of what a social media consultant is and does, and also overestimate just how much time we have to learn all these details. Art of the possible, mate, not technical OCD.)

    Regarding Twitter, you are spectacularly missing the point. On Twitter, I know exactly what is public and what is private. When I accidentally make something public that should be private (e.g. make a DM a Tweet by mistake), then that results in me feeling uncomfortable, even thought that Tweet was innocuous. Buzz was not entirely clear on what was public and what was private, and making stuff public in a space – my inbox – that is usually private sets up a cognitive dissonance that is very, very strong.

    This is about understanding and choice. Equally, with spam, Gmail’s filters get rid of most of it. PR spam is still a problem but now I’m off a few databases it’s better. But Buzz allows anyone to intrude in a much more active manner into my inbox. Email just sits there till I deal with it, Buzz is much more in your face, meaning it has a much greater effect on the recipient. That means it’s a bigger problem than email.

    Integration with other Google properties should be explicitly at people’s own choice, not a default setting. Again, this is about choice and clarity. You really don’t seem to get that, but it’s the central nub of my argument. I want to know exactly what is public/private, and I don’t want anyone else setting those defaults to public for me without my knowledge or consent. This is about communication and choice, it’s not about some Platonic ideal of privacy online.

    @tim (13), I used to have 7 email accounts. Having one makes life simpler in many ways, and more complex in others. We’ll see if a second account is viable in due course.

    @alison (14), I agree. It feels wrong to have to think about privacy settings in one’s inbox!

  9. I have to say that my first thought was “why?” Closely followed by “for who?” It seems to be another one of Google’s ‘lets take over the world one app at a time’ ideas, no real thought has gone into who would want this and why they would use it. It just seems that Google is showing off it’s technical ability with a ‘look what we did’ kind of attitude. If they could put 5% of that drive and determination into some research to see what people really wanted it would be amazing!

  10. A completely different privacy problem I haven’t seen anyone mention yet is the following. And one that can be even worse. Say you personally don’t have a Google Profile at all and don’t use Buzz. Or you do have a profile and followed all the steps to make everything “private”. Now you think your privacy is ok.

    However: if your gmail contacts do have a google profile and do expose who they are following, anyone who watches those contacts’ profiles can see your name in their lists. In case their profile is public, your name is also listed in public. But even if their profile is “private”, your name is shown to their contacts. I just checked out a friends’ profile and sure enough, there it shows my name in his list of people he follows. I don’t want to be in all those people’s lists! I never gave permission for that! Those contacts/friends might not even know they are exposing my name.

    This is a very serious problem. It’s too bad gmail is so good for email (!) and there’s hardly an alternative.

  11. Thanks for your post. I’m a usability specialist, and I was utterly confused by Google Buzz’s set up – it was never very clear what the consequences of my actions might be. I had part set up a Google Profile back in the day, and one consequence of that was that my full, real name appeared to be displaying next to my email address. I say ‘appeared’ because I honestly couldn’t tell whether it was just appearing to me or to my followers. This is categorically not what I want from Google: I want to be able to manage my identity very clearly. Sometimes I want to clearly identify as my consultant self; at other times I simply want to chat or play without those streams ever becoming entangled with the professional persona. I do not believe that the people at Google get this. I can speculate that it’s because they are staffed by rich white straight young men whose work is their life; or that they don’t do user experience testing. Either way, I have utterly lost confidence in them.

    Incidentally, I notice that some of the loudest criticisms of Buzz are coming from women; I have very, very rarely seen any of the ‘duh, it’s the internet’-style of criticism coming from any women commentating on this issue.

  12. Couldn’t agree with you more on all points and there is a deeper message here from Google. And that’s we will do whatever we want to you. I blogged about the dangers of “something for nothing.” Gmail is FREE, so Google is never going to treat you like a customer. I think the DoubleClick virus has finally taken hold. Great post.

  13. Suw, I just discovered today yours and your husband’s *great* work .. both of you seem to cover many of my interests (Linux, copyfighting, privacy and free speech, censorship, collaboration).

    The funny thing is that I found you through Kevin’s Google Buzz profile!

    When Buzz got released at first and Google totally messed it up, I didn’t even think about joining it. Like you, I’m very concerned about my privacy online – this is also the reason why I chose to use a pseudonym.
    Later, they backpedaled – in the right direction, it seems to me. You have now much more control, you can easily block people, hide your contacts list and more. And I’m finding some good conversations there.

    Should you ever give Buzz another look now that it works differently than in February I’d be very interested to hear about it. Well, I guess I will since charman-anderson.com is now in my feed reader 🙂

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