Google Buzz: A mea culpa
There are a thousand ways to say "sorry", but we all know that actions speak louder than words. Since Google launched its Buzz social network last week, there has been a constant stream of criticism.
The majority has centred on issues of privacy and Google's presumption that it knows best about what users want, instead of letting people work that out for themselves. Product manager Todd Jackson acknowledges as much in a blog post this weekend:
"With Google Buzz, we wanted to make the getting started experience as quick and easy as possible, so that you wouldn't have to manually peck out your social network from scratch. However, many people just wanted to check out Buzz and see if it would be useful to them, and were not happy that they were already set up to follow people."
One major bugbear, which I mentioned in an earlier post, has been the decision to have users automatically follow everyone in their Gmail contacts. That will now be replaced with an auto-suggest feature. Buzz will now show a list of your contacts and let you decide whether you wish to follow them or not. It does seem fairly obvious, doesn't it?
In essence that means any communication you have been having with a rival company about a lucrative job offer will remain private - as it should. Same with e-mails to an ex-partner, a current paramour or an illicit liaison!
Another bone of contention has been privacy.
The auto-suggest solution helps, but there has been concern over the fact that Buzz automatically connected public Picasa picture albums and links shared by users on Google Reader. That is all going to change with this series of updates; Mr Jackson is keen that he and Google are seen to be bending over backwards and reacting quickly to get things right:
"Just to be clear: Buzz only automatically connected content that was already public, so if you had previously shared photos in an 'Unlisted' album or set your Google Reader shared items as 'Protected', no one except the people you'd explicitly allowed to see your stuff has been able to see it. But due to your feedback Buzz will no longer connect these sites automatically."
Another feature Mr Jackson is highlighting is how easy it is to now disable Buzz and not be a part of Google's new social-media venture.
There is little doubt that Google has stumbled here, but why?
I had lunch with someone from the privacy sector who said it seemed like a case of over-eager engineers coming up with a product that they loved and believed in but which was pushed out without thinking about the wider ramifications.
At the technology news site Cnet, writer Chris Matyszczyk is not quite as easy-going regarding Google's geek set:
"Wasn't this outcry entirely predictable? Weren't these settings merely the behavior of machines - or, at least, machineheads - who didn't stop to think for one moment how real people might react, how real people choose to behave? There seem to be far too many people in the tech world who are fond of the notion that privacy is no longer the social norm."
Google has, it should be said, acted quickly and decisively in dealing with the criticism and in trying to resolve the issues. Mr Jackson tries to pour oil on troubled waters and even uses the "s" word. Perhaps anticipating further tweaking ahead, his post ends:
"We're very sorry for the concern we've caused and have been working hard ever since to improve things based on your feedback. We'll continue to do so."
And while these changes and the mea culpa should assuage some of the anger and frustration among users, some leading lights in the privacy community are refusing to roll over.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said his organisation still intended to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission this week pending its review of Google's changes.
"Even with these changes, there is still the concern that Gmail users are being driven into a social networking service that they didn't sign up for," Mr. Rotenberg said in an interview with the New York Times.
Given how much information Google already has about its users, and given the scrutiny the company is increasingly coming under from federal regulators, Google needs to go that extra mile when it comes to privacy and to be ahead of the curve when it launches new products and features.
Whether users will forgive this stumble is another thing. It will certainly take a while to live down and will continue to serve as a warning to all within the company when pushing products out the door.