Google Buzz has been around for about two weeks now, and some of my tech savvy friends on Buzz have already mastered it like they did for Twitter, using it as a broadcast tool to create word-of-mouth effect for their brands or events. Many websites like Mashable have also become early adopters of Buzz, actively promoting it alongside the ubiquitous “follow us” Twitter and Facebook buttons. For now, I am still resisting the urge to Buzz my contacts, in contrast to my continued usage of Twitter as a public announcement tool, because I do not feel like being force fed by Buzz messages (Susan discussed this problem in length here), thus I am also very hesitant to possibly force feed my friends.
Another serious issue with Buzz is its privacy problem. Because the default opt-in settings disclose people’s close contacts to the rest of the world, this has irritated many people as an intrusion to their privacy. But through my conversation with a friend who has been using Google Wave, he brought up an interesting point that the opt-in existing contacts function in Buzz might be a lesson Google learned from their experiment with Wave. He thinks that the reason Wave has so far failed (relatively) as a social networking/messaging platform is because the nature of its “closed Beta” means each user does not immediately have enough existing contacts to connect with and keep the momentum for the Wave experience going. This might be a universal problem for any closed beta platform, but it is extremely disruptive for a social network platform. He thinks Google probably wanted to avoid the same problem with Buzz, so by default it opted in a user’s existing circle of friends so people could immediately connect and communicate.
Considering the pressure Google is facing from other Social Network Site, this opt-in is an understandable business move to quickly connect users. But in relation to Google’s recent threats to leave China over protecting its users’ privacy and freedom of speech, this action may seem a bit self-contradictory. Georgetown University Research Fellow Evgeny Morozov commented in his blog Net Effect:
“I am yet to hear a Google executive mention privacy as one of the values that are constitutive of the freedom of expression. Whenever they talk about the latter, they always make it very clear that privacy inhabits a completely different universe. I think they operate on a very flawed logic, which makes all their other efforts on this front look very insincere. Moreover, I think it is likely to cause Google much more damage in the long run: what’s the point of protecting the email accounts of Chinese human rights activists if you tell the rest of the world who those people are talking to?”
Google is on its way to building an empire of free flowing information, but the huge amount of data and immense trust it receives from people also places a great burden of responsibility on its shoulder. This responsibility will only grow heavier in the future when its new products will face similar choices, especially between its business gain and people’s personal privacy.