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Cheat Sheet: Google Buzz

The gateway to all your social media apps - or just another digital distraction?

The gateway to all your social media apps - or just another digital distraction?

Don't tell me, Google has decided to use a bee as a mascot...
Not quite - Buzz is the most recent addition to the company's Google Mail platform.

Right - is it the noise you get when an email arrives or something?
Nope, not that either. Google Buzz is a new social feature that appeared in Google Mail user homepages last week. Essentially, it's a system that allows you to bring together your various online social interactions into a single feed.

What's the point of that?
Well, according to Google, the so-called social web has become the primary way for many people to remain connected to their friends and to share interesting stuff that they've seen or done in real-time. Google has been losing out to Facebook and Twitter in the social media space and it hopes Buzz is its way back into the game.

Or as Gmail and Google Buzz product manager Todd Jackson put it on a Google Blog post: "In today's world of status messages, tweets and update streams, it's increasingly tough to sort through it all, much less engage in meaningful conversations."

Buzz is designed to organise the information you want to share from your various social media applications - and bring it into one place.

This fits with other Google initiatives such as real-time search and social search that use social content to provide information, as well as the Open Social project that aims to promote the development of APIs to share information on the web.

how Google Buzz looks on the screen

Google is going big on the social web with Buzz (Image credit: Google)

That's enough theory - how does Buzz work?
Buzz appears on the menu bar in the top left of the Google Mail homepage. To access Buzz, you simply click the link and are presented with a start page where you can choose the friends you want to connect with.

At launch, Buzz automatically set up a list of people a user was following based on the people they emailed and chatted with the most. This soon changed, however, following privacy concerns - more of which later.

Once you've set up and have selected which contacts you want to follow, you can start to post comments, photos, videos and web links to share with contacts. Information can be shared publicly - so all of your followers can see it - or privately to selective contacts.

So what other applications does Buzz connect with?
As Buzz sits within Google Mail, you can link it to your Google Chat status or the Google Reader RSS feed aggregator. When you change your Chat status it will appear in Buzz while stories you decide to share publicly from Google Reader will also appear.

Other Google properties, YouTube and online photo album Picasa, are also part of Buzz so when you post photos or a video or comment on something, Buzz will let your followers know.

So can you only link to stuff you do in the Googleverse?
Not at all. You can link Buzz up to a number of external websites.

Like what?
Well, you can link your Twitter feed to Buzz for a start. So when you post or comment or retweet something, it will appear in your Buzz feed with a tag indicating it's from Twitter. Your Buzz followers can then comment on these posts to get a conversation going.

Or you can link Buzz to your Flickr account so that when you upload a picture and choose to make it public it will flag this up in your Buzz feed with a thumbnail and comment.

And it's likely that more third-party companies agree to link up with Buzz in the future. Google wants it to be "a fully open and distributed platform" and is...

. . .already working on an API for developers to work on to help develop Buzz further.

Has it taken off then?
Yes and no. According to Google, in the first few days after its launch, tens of millions of people used Buzz creating more than nine million posts and comments. But despite this, concerns quickly emerged about the privacy implications of Buzz.

Tell me more. . .
Well to start with, Buzz automatically set up a list of people who you were following. The idea was to get people up and running so Buzz selected the people from users' Google Mail contact lists who they interacted with the most and automatically set it to follow them.

Another issue was people could only see the people following them who had created a public profile. Users who had signed up but not created a public profile could follow people without being shown in the follower list. In addition these followers could not be blocked.

This created a feeling for some users that they had too little control over who could follow them and created the possibility of users sharing information with people they didn't necessarily want to.

There was also concern that contact lists would be made public without the user's knowledge.

how Google Buzz looks on the screen

Users can have real time conversations in buzz, much like Facebook
(Image credit: Google)

So what happened?
To be fair, Google responded to these concerns pretty quickly with various tweaks to how Buzz works.

Initial changes included the need to create a limited public profile when you first post something on Buzz, reducing the amount of users without a user profile. Users can also block anyone who starts to follow them regardless of whether they have a public profile or not.

Buzz now notifies users about who they're following, and also informs them about their followers - allowing users to edit and hide the lists if they so desire. This process also includes the option of whether you want to share your contact list or not.

It's also been made clearer which followers users can follow back. Previously just the people with public profiles would appear in your follower list but now Buzz distinguishes between followers with and without public profiles.

When announcing these tweaks, Google said transparency...

...to the user will be at the forefront of any further changes to the system.

Did that make everyone happy?
Not quite. As is often the case with online services that share your information, people continued to voice concerns, obliging Google to make a few more changes.

So the auto-following function, which automatically picked out contacts without approval from the user, has been changed to an auto-suggest option, so Buzz will suggest people to follow but not automatically set them up.

For people already set up, Buzz will offer them a chance to review their contacts to make sure they're not following people they don't want to.

A similar change was made to sites connected to Buzz - so users are no longer automatically linked to Picasa Web Albums and Google Reader, although it should be pointed out that only content on these sites that users had made public was picked up by Buzz.

Speaking to BBC News following the changes, Buzz product manager Todd Jackson apologised for the problems with the service. He admitted Buzz had only been tested internally before being rolled out to Google Mail users, bypassing the Trusted Tester programme that most Google products undergo before launch.

how Google Buzz looks on the screen

Buzz also links to Flickr so can show updates when users add pictures, as shown above
(Image credit: Google)

And some groups are still not happy with the implications of Buzz: the US-based Electronic Privacy Information Center has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission asking it to open an investigation into Google Buzz due to its impact on user privacy and user expectations.

Plenty of buzz around Buzz, then. But does it look like Buzz could have a use in business?
Potentially. Google says it's going to make Google Buzz available to businesses and schools via its online software package, Google Apps. These versions of Buzz will have a number of extra features aimed at making them more appropriate for use in these kinds of organisations.

I bet you'll have to wait to use it on your phone though. . .
Nope, the mobile version was launched at the same time as the web version and is available as a standalone mobile web app or as an additional layer to Google Maps.

The mobile app also includes location as an extra feature, so if you post something with geographical information that'll show up in your feed as well.