By even writing this post I am breaking a promise to my friend Mack Collier. Earlier today I publicly promised to him on Twitter that I was going to wait a while before posting any opinions on Google Buzz until I got a firm grasp on how to use it. Yet, after only toying with it on and off for a handful of hours, there are a couple of issues I can't help but call out now, primarily around the intrusiveness of the way this thing works. Mack, I am sorry.
If you haven't tried it yet, Google Buzz integrates with your Gmail account (and other Google services) and turns it into a social experience. A "buzz" is a threaded conversation not unlike what FriendFeed tried to be (with pictures and video and blog links and more) and you can either post publicly (which shows up on your main Google profile) or selectively choose who in your friends list sees your buzz.
This is all fine and I was having a good time with it for a while. I briefly complained about the amount of Buzz notifications that I was getting through my external email client but that was quickly fixed with a filter. But the whole experience makes me feel somewhat violated and out of control. And, unlike other social networks that I can hide while I try to do work or catch up with communications, Buzz is in my face every time I go to Gmail.
For one, there's no hiding from it. If you're on Gmail, you're buzzable. You can choose not to buzz and you can choose not to follow others but you can't really choose not to participate (Updated: There is an option to turn off Buzz at the very bottom of your Gmail pane). 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. Yes, Virginia, there are people who don't live and breathe social networking.
Two, the 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?) I wrote about the PR issue back when Google Wave (what?) was hot and fresh. It's annoying and it makes me want to avoid Gmail on the Web even though I usually live out of my Gmail box.
Finally, and most intrusively, this whole notion of "recommended" buzzes. I was reading through my buzz stream today and saw a familiar face (I won't search bait him, but his name rhymes with Malacanis) that I usually choose not to follow. Next to his name was a green tag that said "Recommended" and what followed was a ridiculously out of control buzz. I muted the buzz, but later on I got another recommended buzz from him, and then another from someone else. I really only want buzzes from my friends.
I can mute recommended buzzes from specific Buzzers, but short of blocking those people or reporting them for abuse, I don't have a way to keep recommendations from coming back. Buzz is already starting to mimic the Twitter popularity contest that soured so many people about the service some time ago. Remember Robert Scoble's rant about the recommended Twitter list (though, his rant was mostly in response to his not being placed on the list)? At least on Twitter users have a choice whether or not to seek out recommended users. With Buzz, those recommended Buzzers are thrown into our faces, making the the same old noise we filter out of every other social network already infiltrating a new one. For those folks who blindly follow all of the big names like the Pied Piper's rats, well, that's great. For the rest of us, it kills our ability to start afresh with a new, untouched social network.
One of the things I am learning about all of this is how different Buzz really is than Twitter and Facebook. On Facebook, I add pretty much everyone I encounter but I have the option to put them into different news feeds and privacy groups. With Twitter, it's a bit of a promotional mechanism (as pointed out by ZDNet colleague Jason Perlow), but it doesn't have as intrusive of a feeling because it's not in your email box.
I'm still open to trying out Buzz and I will not make a final recommendation or call on it before using it for a bit. And while this is true, I have realized that I am significantly going to lock down my Google buzz, severely lock down who I am following, and anxiously await additional privacy settings so that I can avoid the feelings of violation and loss of control.