Let’s get the simple stuff out of the way right off the bat.
Did Google screw up when; or rather in the way it launched Buzz? Yes it did.
Is it the end of the world and yet another failure in Google’s social media attempts? No it isn’t.
Will Google recover and still smell like a bed of roses when all is said and done? Probably. Most likely.
What hasn’t changed though is the irrationality from both sides of the pointless discussion that has been going on for the last ten; or more, days. It is an irrationality though that stems from a very basic error the team at Google made and it all has to do with how the very concept of how we think of our email addresses has changed.
Built-in email triage
There was a time when we considered our email addresses to be something of varying value that depending on the situation and circumstance which in turn dictated what email address we used or gave out. Back when I was doing more tech oriented work and consulting one of the first things I always did with clients was examine their use of email.
This was a time when the principal method of malware and spam distribution was done via email. It is still done that way today, but the overall field of attack for this kind of thing is much broader and things like the social networks make it much easier to find suckers than email. So while email might still be used it isn’t to the degree it once was.
So one of the first things I would do with clients would be to set them up with a starting point of three email addresses to use. The first one would be a throw-away address that would get replaced with a new one every few months. This was the address used to sign up for stuff on the web whether it be email lists of site memberships. Using a throw-away address provides a buffer against the inevitable onslaught of grab mail that always ensues on the web.
The second email address would be a more general public address. This would be the address you would give trusted websites, companies you did business with, as well as your wider circle of general friends. Since this sat behind the buffer of a throw-away email address you would know that any email coming into this inbox had a certain amount of implied trust associated with it.
Then finally there would be the last address. This was your private address – a private line so to speak – that you only gave out to those who you knew very well and as a result email from them had the highest level of trust associated with it.
This type of setup also provided the user with a built-in way to manage their email. The throw-away address email was safe to ignore for the most part. To deal with when there was absolutely nothing else to do. The second email address would let you know that this mail was more important but you could deal with it at your leisure. It was only the last email address, the private one, that was dealt with as the emails arrived.
Webmail and Gmail
When webmail, and especially Gmail, came along the idea of using a single email address started to gain a foothold. In the beginning with Gmail because of its by invite only way of gaining new users that first Gmail address was like a badge of honor. It almost became a symbol signifying that we had arrived on the tech scene and were cool.
The idea of having multiple email addresses became in a way almost uncool, archaic even. Soon our Gmail address became our online identity and the one way we were able to sign on to a whole slew of new, cool, services. It became our private email address, public email address and throw-away address all rolled up into one.
Our Gmail email addresses were our key into a world of free services all courtesy of Google. It became a part of our online identity which is one of the reasons why Facebook is wanting to have its own webmail service. It wants all the free advertising that comes every time we see an email address with the @facebook.com in it.
Sure as all these new forms of communication came along many people jumped on the email is dead bandwagon even though it was obvious with even notification email from some service that email wasn’t; and isn’t going anywhere. What did happen though is that as we began rolling all our previous email addresses up into one that email address became your public access point – you no longer had that private telephone line.
Email and Social Media
Even as services like Twitter and Facebook grew and became the face of what social media and social networks were, as well as how they should operate there were some who thought that our email inbox and contact lists were a much better example of what a social network should be based on. After all these were supposedly people you knew and to a large degree trusted.
Well at one point prior to the mass adoption of a single email address system such as Gmail this might have been the case. The problem is was that we had replaced that prior contact list of sorted trust levels with a single dump zone of email addresses. We could have addresses that belonged to every email newslist that we belonged to mixed in with one time correspondence that was also mixed in with addresses of people we would trust with our lives.
Rather than a finely tuned contact list to build a social network around we ended up with Buzz having to use something resemble a pot of stew.
You see I believe Google had the right idea of building Buzz around our email but the execution of that plan was done all wrong. Now whether or not this was intentional is something that only Google knows for sure but there is no denying that they blew it on this one.
They blew it because as much as Google might have thought we had reached that point where our single email address was our public face to the world a very large percentage of people consider it to still be a personal procession and that their contact lists are sacred territory. This wasn’t as some have tried framing just about our privacy being breached but even more importantly it felt to some that their personal property had been taken and pawned.
They feel that Google might as well have broken into their homes and taken the family cutlery and jewels.
Calling CSI to the scene of the crime
Louis Gray in a surprising post, well surprising for him anyway, tore a strip off of everyone who he feels is responsible for the possible neutering of Google Buzz.
And now, after ten days of being thrown under the bus by head in the sand privacy-shrieking luddites, Google has had to backtrack again, repeatedly apologizing and now, letting you extract Buzz from your GMail like shrapnel from the field of battle.
He also adds
In comparison, the real potential problems with Buzz’s gaining attraction, including assumed noise, and lacking of perfect integration into all networks on Day One, have been outshouted by the same people who squirm every time Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook team move more toward public sharing and search discovery, and away from walled gardens. But again, the shrill minority has taken its pound of flesh, as Google’s momentum with Buzz has taken body blow after body blow, primarily from an older generation of tech bloggers and business journalists unwilling or undesiring to embrace today’s world of active sharing and aggregation.
If you know Louis at all you know that these are some pretty harsh criticisms being leveled but as passionate as he may be for a new world of sharing and communication he forgets that there are still a lot of people who consider their email to be sacrosanct. As I said this goes beyond just a typical privacy issue and becomes one of ownership.
This is something that Thomas Hawk also seems to forget as he writes
Similarly a very small, but vocal, group of individuals are shrieking from the mountain top about the fact that Google Buzz might have allowed people to see who you email alot. Big deal. The story came out quickly. Those privacy zealots could quickly correct this by making their contact list private if they wanted to, while the vast majority of us don’t really care that Buzz lets people know who we follow. Want to know who I follow? It’s right here for the whole world to see, go for it. The whining about these privacy issues (which have now been fixed by the way) is getting old.
The thing is Thomas people should not have to think about this because for the vast majority users email is a private matter just as their contact lists are a private matter. They shouldn’t have to go looking for setting when they never have had to before. Just because you and people like Louis are more than willing to share everything about yourselves on the web that doesn’t mean everyone else has to nor should they be forced to now find ways to restore balance to their online/offline lives.
When Google turned on Buzz they didn’t take this into account, or if they did they didn’t think the outrage would be a wide spread or as deep as it has turned out to be. The fact is that as we move forward people are beginning to feel that there is nothing private anymore and when their last bastion of their private lives suddenly becomes an open book they are going to react.
There is no denying that the launch of Buzz was a massive screw up which considering that this is Google it caught a lot of people by surprise. However just because they screwed up does this mean that the idea of what they are trying to do is wrong? No, I don’t think so but I do believe that they are going to have to do a lot of work in a very short period of time in order to rectify a bad situation.
Even dumb moves can have smart outcomes
I am not a Google fan. I have a lot of questions about the things they do and what the future holds for us as Google consumers and the company as a whole. That said I believe that if they can get their act together Google has a lot of potential locked up in Buzz.
Of course since its launch there has been the inevitable comparison between Buzz and its two supposed competitors. Personally I don’t even see any reason to think of there being any kind of competition between Google and Twitter so it’s not worth wasting time or breath in any hyperbole on t hat end of the subject.
This of course leave Facebook. Big bad Facebook against big bad Google. The fight of the titans for social networking dominance.
Except there is nothing to fight over.
Look Facebook, with its walled garden history, is an attempt to frame social media within a structure of its making. It has a vision of how it wants the web and social media to look and behave which as it turns out is just fine for a whole lot of people – some 400 million of them.
Google on the other hand looks upon the web as something much more fluid. Maybe that is because of its roots as a search engine I don’t know but I do think that Google looks upon social media and its networks as the largest and greatest flow of human knowledge and information we have ever seen. Google also realizes, I think, that by its very fluid nature you can’t place place it within any specific structure.
What I like about how Google is trying to do this is that they are going to the root of all networks – the people. I think they really clicked onto the idea that rather than make people have to hunt out others to join with in a network the wise option was to let us utilize the network we have already created – naturally.
Yes they definitely screwed up with the original implementation and yes they really need to do a lot of improvements but that is to be expected. With Buzz, Google is trying to help us utilize that all important network that we have created over the years into something that is richer, potentially much deeper and based on real friendships not faux follower types of crap.
As much as I might not be a fan of Google I hope they do manage to pull this off because if they don’t we will be left with the structured visions of companies like Facebook. Personally I like the fluid, organic, natural flow of what potentially is available with Buzz. That doesn’t mean that I still don’t have concerns about privacy issues or what Google’s ulterior motives might be – other than the expected push to advertise against it.
I do believe though, like Mathew Ingram, that in light of how badly they did screw up the launch of Buzz that Eric Schmidt should stay as far away as possible from having anything to say about Buzz. Regardless of what Louis, Thomas or Schmidt might believe privacy is still a big, and getting bigger, issue for people and saying that it is just something that they need to get over or than nothing really bad happened is ridiculing people’s strongly held feelings – and we all know how well that kind of attitude will work out.