There was a time, not long ago, when web services would launch promising the opportunity to share photos, videos, our innermost thoughts, and we'd excitedly rush to sign up. But that was then. And when Google launched its new Buzz service last Tuesday with that exact fanfare, my reaction was similar to that of some- one who's just been offered a substantial cheese board after a three-course blow-out. Interested in theory, but ultimately ambivalent and almost surprised that it's being offered.
On reflection, it's easy to see why Google have taken the plunge. The social web is currently its weak spot – aside from Orkut, a Google service that has only really caught on in Brazil – and it need a bigger foothold in English-speaking countries to remain the ultimate information hub. Why? Because when stories are breaking, and virals are circulating, it's on Facebook and Twitter where we're seeing them and sharing them; Google's automated web crawling system finds them much later. Facebook drives three times more traffic to news sites than it did a year ago, and Google needs to compete by getting us to pull in information to a social network that it's firmly in control of.
We're already as connected as overactive neurons, our social network synapses crackling with information. But Google assumed that making yet more connections could only be a positive thing so, at the launch of Buzz, there was no option; if you used Google's email service, you were in, and pre-connected to everyone in your contacts list – work colleagues, ex-partners, friends, landlords – all brought together in an unholy social mess. They were all suddenly made aware of things you were doing on other Google services like Picasa and Reader, and, most worryingly, they were aware of each other. For many of us that's no problem, but for those in sensitive lines of work, living under totalitarian regimes, in delicate job negotiations – or philandering – a layer of privacy was suddenly peeled away. Google backtracked after an outcry, but their failure to beta test Buzz and simply foist it upon GMail users could be seen as a watershed in the issue of social networking. Because many people suddenly realised why it might not always be a force for good, and became weary.
There was once a school of thought that social networks would be permanently transient, that we'd continue to flit from one to the other, abandoning Facebook and Twitter as we did Friendster and MySpace. But the urge to up-sticks is wearing off, and Google may have a trickier time getting us to start Buzzing than it thinks.
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