Second thoughts about Google Buzz

So it's been a few weeks since Google Buzz launched, and because I'm a good little geek-soldier who eats his own (figurative) dog food, I've invested lots of time to learn how it works and, more importantly, how it can work for me. Although I'm doing my best to be an optimist, I can't seem to warm up to Buzz. Yes, folks, I think I'm falling out of like with Google's new social media darling service.

Or, to be blunt, Google Buzz sucks.

Maybe that's a little harsh. Maybe it sucks for me and not for others. Maybe other users absolutely love the thing because they feel it's already transformed how they connect to each other. If you're one of them, please let me know, because so far, no one I know has bothered using it to any great degree.

And there, dear readers, is the core problem. Despite the fact that Buzz leverages our existing Gmail contact lists to give us a head start in the friend-population game, it doesn't seem to be translating into actual, sustained, meaningful activity.

In the early going for Facebook, as you may recall, its friend approval process often left your universe as pathetically empty as a sixth grade prom dance floor. Google, by contrast, leveraged Gmail to avoid repeating Facebook's mistake, but its jumpstart philosophy doesn't seem to be resulting in anything remotely approaching an enjoyable party. Whenever I click on the Buzz link from Gmail, I feel like I'm right back in the sixth grade, down to the dim gymnasium with the lousy acoustics and watered down punch.

Carmi Levy Wide Angle Zoom (v.2)There are so many reasons to rant on Google for foisting yet another social media failure on us, but for now, I've narrowed it down to these four:

  1. Conversation stream hijackers. Every time I sign in, there's a monumentally long conversation thread from Robert Scoble at the top of my list. Now, don't get me wrong: I've long been a fan of Robert Scoble and decided to follow him precisely because I appreciate his perspectives on the rapidly evolving social media landscape. But his overwhelming presence at the top of my Buzz feed is starting to annoy me. To his credit, he's recognized this flaw and has apologized for it -- though he really shouldn't, because it's not his fault that bad interface design allows uber-users to overwhelm the feeds of regular folks like me.
  2. Interface from hell. I wouldn't mind Robert Scoble's extreme ownership of my screen real estate if I had the ability to move things around to suit my needs. But Buzz's no-customization philosophy means you're stuck with whatever's there. You can't filter out users or threads that don't interest you. You can't prioritize the ones that do. You're stuck. And those things that look like overlaid folders? They don't work. For all the criticism that Facebook has received over the years for its revolving door of radical interface changes, at least we can eventually tweak that interface to somewhat reflect the things that matter most to us. Google Buzz assumes we all subscribe to the old Eastern Bloc notion of one size (badly) fits all.
  3. Inconsistency with other Google services. Remember the nasty old days of DOS when every app had its own interface and command structure, and moving data from one to another was the PC-era equivalent of Babel? Well, after a couple of decades of getting used to Microsoft's cross-application philosophy -- with across-the-board methods for printing, saving files, cutting and pasting content, among others -- it almost seems as if Google wants us to go back to the pre-Cambrian period. Every Google service seems to come with its own unique interface and, as a result, its own unique learning curve. While I understand that a social media tool like Buzz will necessarily have a fundamentally different feature set than, say, an RSS reader like Google Reader, there's no reason why some of the baseline conventions of Google Reader, such as the ability to expand and collapse conversations and seamlessly connect to and manipulate feeds, can't be adapted for use in Buzz as well. Using the two services side-by-side reinforces my belief that they may as well have been designed on different planets. There's no reason for this.
  4. Cryptic contact management. After years of finding friends in Facebook and identifying interesting folks to follow in Twitter, the Buzz approach to adding contacts is a major letdown. Not that I'm surprised, as contact management within Gmail has never been a Google strong suit. But it's particularly botched here, starting with a "Find People" routine that first forces you to scroll through the friends you're already following. Once you get to the Suggestions field at the bottom, you're faced either with a long list of people you don't know (maybe they sent spam to your Gmail account six months ago) or a really short list of people you don't know. "Load More" buttons are few and far between. Right now, I've got one under the list of folks I follow. Which means it's useless to me. I'd like to have one that helps me find new people to follow, but that's nowhere to be found. Similarly counterintuitive design decisions abound throughout Buzz.

I'm apparently not alone, because the kinds of conversations that routinely happen on other social media platforms -- multiple back-and-forth messages that often pull in participants from near and far -- just aren't happening here. I fear Buzz may go down as yet another failed attempt by Google to figure out the social media Holy Grail.

I've always thought of myself as a pretty tech-focused guy who can figure out the peculiarities of virtually any piece of software or, increasingly, Web-based service. But Google Buzz makes it such a frustrating, annoying process to get anywhere close to functional with people who matter to me that I've concluded my time would be better spent elsewhere. I'm not convinced spending hours fighting with Buzz's busted interface will do anything to get my "friends" to wake up and engage in this new environment. From where I sit, I doubt it'll change without radically invasive surgery to the product. Even then, I wonder if users already entrenched in Facebook and Twitter will even care enough to chime back in to Buzz.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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