Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Google Buzz

One week ago, nobody outside of Google had ever heard of Google Buzz. Even those in the tech news industry were mystified, although there were rumors out there: "We have just received an invite to attend an event at Google’s headquarters where it will be `unveiling some product innovations in two of [its] most popular products'," one tech blog said. There was speculation on all sides (I was hoping for a rebirth/reopening of Gizmo5, myself) but I don't think anyone quite expected what they showed us that day. Facebook and Twitter were the front-runners in social networking; MySpace was nearly a distant memory, and Friendster was already a distant memory. Google's social networking site was Orkut, and it was very popular... in Brazil. Nobody expected them to try again!

Since then, Google claims that like nine bazillion posts have been made to Google Buzz, and I'm pretty sure that at least that many articles about Buzz have appeared on tech news sites... but honestly, my social contacts are still all on Facebook and Twitter. The people I'm connected with on Google Buzz are largely the same people I'm connected to on Twitter. Despite all of the hype about how many built-in users Buzz has because of the integration with Gmail, I haven't seen a lot of activity on Buzz quite yet (except mostly stuff that's getting imported from Twitter or Google Reader). I love the idea of Buzz, and I think Google has every chance of building a service that beats the pants off Facebook for sheer robustness (if you've read my rant about Facebook, you'll know that I think Facebook is a very good idea which is very broken), but I have a serious wish list for Buzz... it's good as it is, but as far as I'm concerned it's just not at the point yet where I can tell my friends, "You've GOTTA try this! It's SO much better than Facebook!"

Now, in some ways, Buzz IS better than Facebook. I think it embeds pictures and videos better. It's much less crash-prone. It loads quickly, and it certainly is handy to have it right there in my Gmail. And you can even EDIT your own posts... it's like magic! But there are a few niggling things that Google could probably roll out fairly quickly that would make the experience SO much better. For example, Google needs to set up a way for users to automatically activate the much-described "get the Buzz messages out of my inbox" filter. I honestly wonder if anyone is really using the "Buzz to my inbox" feature... I mean, Buzz is basically ALREADY in my inbox! It takes more clicks to delete the Buzz email than it does to actually check Buzz for new stuff. Google needs a "no Buzz to my inbox" setting.

Buzz needs WYSIWYG editing. Now, Buzz has hidden support for boldface, italics, and strikethrough (does anyone actually use strikethrough?) by enclosing your text in _underscore characters_ for italics or *asterisks* for boldface (or both for strikethrough), but come on, Google... give us WYSIWYG. This is not a hard thing; it already exists in Gmail and Blogger. That alone will give it a leg up on Twitter and Facebook, neither of which has any text formatting capability.

Why is there no "Re-Buzz" or "Share" feature? Twitter and Facebook BOTH have this, and people love to share stuff they've found. I even saw an article today that more people use Facebook as their jumping-off point to the Web now than use Google, which blows my mind! People want to share stuff they find, even if they find it on Buzz. Come on, Google... how hard can this be? There's a lot of potential there for users to meet like-minded friends-of-friends and begin to share directly with those new contacts, too.

And hey... what about a link (other than the now-common Google Reader hack) to "Buzz This Page"? Such a thing exists for Facebook and Twitter, and I use them all the time. Maybe this is going to be part of the upcoming roll-out of hooks into and out of Buzz, but it would have made a lot of sense to give us that capability right from the first.

One thing that's cool about Buzz is that you can "mute" a post. The post slowly fades into invisibility, and it looks pretty cool. But in order to make that happen, you have to select "Mute this post" from a drop-down menu, and I mute posts so often that I can't imagine why you wouldn't want this to be an icon or top-level item instead of a 2-click thing. And I can also see people getting pretty cranky about the fade-out, too... it's just long enough to get on people's nerves. I think it ought to be something you can turn off (although I would leave it on, myself).

There needs to be an easy way to collapse a bunch of comments on a post. Facebook doesn't have this, and oddly it never felt like it was "missing" on Facebook, but on Google Buzz it seems like a glaring omission. A "collapse all" would be nice, too.

And there really needs to be an OBVIOUS way to turn Buzz off. There is a link at the very bottom of the screen, but that link is not "obvious"... I would never have found it if I hadn't seen it referred to in a news post. For something as intrusive as Buzz, there needs to be a big red "off" switch with neon arrows pointing at it, because otherwise people are going to be really unhappy about it (in fact, people have ALREADY been unhappy about it).

There needs to be a landing page for links into a particular Buzz account. The Google Profile basically serves this purpose but it's not particularly Buzz-specific. How about a single page where a friend can see all of my public Buzz posts, and only my public Buzz posts? Twitter has it. Why not Buzz?

Now that I've got all of my "tweaks" off my chest, I want to move on to something else: things I think need to be added to Buzz. With some or all of the tweaks I've recommended, Buzz could be at least as good as Facebook and Twitter, and maybe a little better where finesse is called for. With the additions I'm calling for, Buzz could truly be a SERIOUSLY killer app.

My number one wish is for Buzz to use existing hooks into Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites to turn buzz into an aggregator for existing sites as well as a new platform. I'd like to see a dual-screen situation where you can flip over to another tab and be able to see what you would see if you were on other sites, and maybe even add comments to those sites, and then flip back over to your Buzz account and add posts to that. (Using the tips from this article I've actually set up my Gmail account so that I can access Facebook and Twitter directly from Gmail anyway, but it would be wonderful to not have to resort to add-ons to do so.) Even more critical is the ability to post something to Buzz and simultaneously cross-post it to Facebook and/or Twitter (and any other social networks that will be supported.) The advantages of doing this are, to me, fairly obvious... the user has the advantage of one-stop status update posting, and Buzz can have the advantage (especially in the case of 140-characters-only Twitter) of getting to link through to the Buzz version of the post. This functionality alone, I believe, will bring new users to Buzz. And once they are using Buzz for all of their publishing, Buzz will quickly become their network of choice, with other social sites becoming at best places to play Flash games, and at worst, simply convenient avenues to get status updates into Buzz.

There really needs to be a standalone, not-in-Gmail experience of Buzz. Google has acknowledged that this is a possible upcoming addition, and I think it would be a great idea, if only for people who are maybe a little bit Gmail-phobic and don't want to feel like they are creating a new email account that they don't want. (This may yet happen.) Another new incarnation I could see for Buzz would be adding more Buzz functionality directly into Google Reader. Right now Reader works fairly well with Buzz, but it would be nice to see some Buzz flow back into Reader instead of just having Reader content flow into Buzz.

A consequence of tighter integration with other sites will be something that has come up for me already: feedback loops. If I have my Buzz posts flowing out to Twitter AND my Twitter posts flowing back into Buzz, I will get every post showing up both places twice! As it is right now, I would like to syndicate my Google Reader posts out to Twitter, but they are already flowing into Buzz, and if I syndicate them in Twitter, they will turn up on Buzz twice... and because of that, I haven't syndicated my Reader posts out to Twitter.

One way that could be eliminated would be to incorporate Gmail's filtering capabilities into Buzz. For example, I would love to be able to filter my Twitter posts and never Buzz the ones that, for example, start with "Read this: " and then I could prefix my Google Reader tweets that way. It would be great to filter posts from some of my contacts, too... kind of an "auto-mute" so that (for example) I never see posts containing the word "beer" from a college-partying friend, or never see posts with pictures attached from a friend who posts way too many photos of his car.

I like that Buzz already has "allow-only" private posting, so if I have my family members organized into a group called "Family" I can create a buzz that is only visible to my family. Google should follow Facebook's lead and add the inverse of this, so that I can "deny" a group as well. So if I have a group called "Denver" and some of my "Family" group members are also living in the "Denver" group, I could "allow" the "Family" group and "deny" the "Denver" group, and only family members who do not live in Denver would see the post.

Last but not least, I really think Google should allow syndicating RSS feeds into your Buzz stream. Third-party sites (like Twitterfeed) are going to do this eventually anyway, and this would allow information from a multitude of other sources to flow easily into Buzz. Allowing input from RSS feeds is a key to getting even more of people's online identity into Buzz. I would also like to see customizable RSS feeds out from Buzz, so that I could create feeds that do not include information from certain sources or that are filtered by keywords or other criteria. This would be another way that users could deal with the feedback loop problem I mentioned before... if I could generate a feed from my Google Buzz that includes all sources except my Twitter information, I could syndicate that feed back to Twitter and never get a duplicate post. It would also be useful to be able to customize the titles of the items in the feeds; the single outgoing Google Buzz feed is configured in such a way that it really needs some post-processing to be useful... and I don't have time to learn Yahoo Pipes (and does Google really want their information to be processed through a Yahoo service anyway??)

Google Buzz has so much potential. Google creates very solid online software... much better than Facebook's unattractive and accident-prone offering. And although Google doesn't have a perfect record on this account, they do have a much better uptime track record that Twitter, whose "fail whale" page that informs users that the system is down has become something of a pop-culture icon (and when your "our site is down" page is famous, that is known as a BAD thing!) My take on the first week of Google Buzz is that Google has gotten off to a somewhat feeble start, when they could have come out of the gate like a race horse if they had only implemented ALL of the functions of FriendFeed, which Buzz is unabashedly modeled after. But in the current online climate, I think Google has a lot of motivation to make the service better, and they have a lot of potential to make it really dynamite. Even if you're not actively using Buzz yet, I think it's a good idea to keep an eye on it. It may be the next revolution in social networking!