2.19.2010

google may be its own worst buzz-kill

When I saw the new "Google Buzz" icon in my Gmail, I was curious, so I clicked. Much to my surprise, 13 people are already following me. (This is different than following wmtc. 61 people are now doing that, and 135 people have wmtc on their Google Reader feed.) All but one of my Buzz followers are either readers of this blog or "IRL" friends or both.

It seems harmless enough, but do I really need another social-networking tool? I bought into Facebook with great reluctance, and still don't (won't!) live there. I don't do Twitter. Or any others.

Yet... when you see people following your feed, it's tempting. We know that. They know that.

Here's something you might not know about Google Buzz: unless you change your default privacy settings, a list of your most-emailed Gmail contacts may be made public. Google in bed with the NSA, Google using invasive default privacy settings... it doesn't bode well.
The launch of Google Buzz has set various parts of the technology blogosphere afire -- and for all the right reasons: it does introduce a number of interesting social features that could make our email experience more social (whether it has to be more social is a different question).

However, what tech pundits have mostly overlooked is a peculiar privacy choice made by Google's designers: unless you tinker with Buzz's settings, a partial list of your most-emailed Gmail contacts might be automatically made public (see this post over at Silicon Alley Insider; it appears that contacts those who already had a Google Profile account before Buzz are at risk; also see this excellent and very angry post at CNet for additional background. UPDATE: Google has promised to fix some of these problems).

Yes, that's right: without you ever touching Google Buzz's privacy settings, the entire world may know who you correspond with (yes, including that secret lover of yours and that secret leaker at the White House).

This could be an extremely uncomfortable and tragic privacy disaster for Google, potentially of the same magnitude that Beacon was toFacebook. I certainly don't have many concerns about those who are cheating on their spouses or are leaking sensitive information to journalists-- they will survive (even though the future of whistle-blowing does not look very bright in our increasingly overexposed information environment).

Nevertheless, I am extremely concerned about hundreds of activists in authoritarian countries who would never want to reveal a list of their interlocutors to the outside world. Why so much secrecy? Simply because many of their contacts are other activists and often even various "democracy promoters" from Western governments and foundations. Many of those contacts would now inadvertently be made public.

If I were working for the Iranian or the Chinese government, I would immediately dispatch my Internet geek squads to check on Google Buzz accounts for political activists and see if they have any connections that were previously unknown to the government. They can then spend months on end drawing complex social circles on the shiny blackboards inside secret police headquarters.

But potential risk from disclosing such data extends far beyond just supplying authoritarian governments with better and more actionable intelligence. For example, most governments probably already suspect that some of their ardent opponents are connected to Western organizations but may lack the evidence to act on those suspicions. Now, thanks to Google's desire to make an extra buck off our data, they would finally have the ultimate proof they needed (if you think that this is unrealistic, consider this: the Iranian authorities have once used membership in an academic mailing list run out of Columbia as evidence of spying for the West).

It's business decisions like this that make me very suspicious of Google's highfalutin rhetoric about their commitment to defending the freedom of expression.

. . .

Otherwise, all their promises about their stance on freedom of expression is just empty talk. Their recent partnership with NSA does not make Google look any more trustworthy; Chris Soghoian, an expert on information security, made a hilarious point on Twitter: "How do I sign up for the Iranian government's new emailservice? At least they are not in bed with NSA."

Read more here.

Anyone want to tell me about following Buzz? Is it more useful than redudant? Am I expected to reciprocate?

36 comments:

James said...

This pretty much captures my feelings about Google Buzz. It's tightly tied to Gmail, which means it's not as useful as Twitter for the kind of things Twitter is good at. It's a lot like Google Wave in some ways: a solution looking for a problem.

So far, all the Buzz traffic I've seen comes from one friend and his gaming group (which I'm not part of).

The whole thing was badly done -- launched with no ramp-up, opt-out rather than opt-in, etc.

L-girl said...

So it's a poor man's Twitter?

M@ said...

While I understand the reservations about privacy, and I agree that Google should have taken an entirely different approach to that, I like Buzz a lot.

About 75% of the internet content I read comes through Google Reader. (The other 25% are mostly from news sites like the CBC, and a link aggregator I like called Reddit.) Now when I come across something of interest to me -- a good blog post, a funny webcomic, whatever -- I can share it with just a couple of clicks, without opening a new window, compressing the link (as people do with Twitter), logging in to a different site (Twitter refuses to keep me logged in for some reason)... I can share things almost without thinking.

Does anyone else care? Dunno, but I don't think I'm causing problems for anyone else. If my Gmail friends were to use Buzz the same way I do, I might get exposed to more stuff that my friends are interested in, which is in most cases a good thing. (Most of my friends don't blog about what they're interested in, and I don't either for some reason.)

So for me, Buzz was something that works the way I work, and it lives the way I live. It might die off, and I won't be much poorer for it, but if it becomes very popular I would be happy about that.

James said...

It's hard to call it a "poor man's" Twitter, since both are free... It's more a "Twitter wannabe" with extra "features" tacked on that make it less useful.

"Twitter" isn't quite the right analogy, since each "buzz" can have comment threads, so it's more like a micro-blog than Twitter's "broadcast texting" model. And I can see this being useful: sort of like a miniature threaded mailing list, great for small groups of friends chatting -- but with the limitation that everyone has to be using Gmail.

James said...

(Twitter refuses to keep me logged in for some reason)

Me too, actually, though I follow it as much through Trillian as through the website.

L-girl said...

It's hard to call it a "poor man's" Twitter, since both are free...

Hmm, just an expression... what we used to say before the word "wannabe" existed.

without opening a new window, compressing the link (as people do with Twitter)

This is why I never go to anyone's Twitter links - ever. Since I can't click on those compressed links, I have to copy/paste, and that's enough to keep me from bothering.

* * * *

M@, thanks for the description, it's very helpful - and shows me that I should never join Buzz, for the same reason I don't do Twitter. It will only add to the feeling of being massively overwhelmed all the time, another flood of information I can't get to or can only glance at, more distractions, less focus.

It's a shame, because I know I'm missing lots of good things. I absolutely do not understand how so many people keep up on so many things, but I can't.

This is probably a big clue why more people don't blog.

johngoldfine said...

I was horrified after I saw Buzz on my gmail and read about the privacy problem. Dumped it immediately.

Dharma Seeker said...

What I found disconcerting is that everyone I'd ever e-mailed from my gmail account was "following" me and vice versa. And it links to my blog, which is great for my friends because they'll automatically know when there is a new post. On the other hand I'd rather strangers not have "Dharma Seeker's" or "KimsDharma's" first and last name. I'd rather be in control of who has that information and who doesn't.

impudent strumpet said...

I was surprised to see that I was already following someone, a friend with whom I had briefly experimented with Google Talk (and promptly rejected it because it doesn't give an audible alert when you have a new message). I also had co-workers, relatives, and friends all mixed in together, many of whom I don't even regularly email. Could be problematic. And all this for something that doesn't appear to be of any use to me.

Mike said...

off topic:

Glad to know you can track how many people are reading your rss feeds (or at least subscribed to them). I worry that I'm doing you a disfavor by not "visiting" your site to read your stuff. I guess I'm not!

Keep up the good work...

L-girl said...

Glad to know you can track how many people are reading your rss feeds (or at least subscribed to them). I worry that I'm doing you a disfavor by not "visiting" your site to read your stuff. I guess I'm not!

Keep up the good work...


Thank you Mike. :)

I wish I could get a more accurate assessment of how many visitors/readers this site has, but there's really no way. Statcounter tells me that wmtc gets anywhere from 400 to 700-ish visitors a day. Are the 135 Google Reader subscribers included in that? I don't know.

Of course, it doesn't really matter. Knowing how many people read wmtc doesn't serve me in any way or change what I write. I just become mildly obsessed with the stats.

So which Mike are you?

L-girl said...

What I found disconcerting is that everyone I'd ever e-mailed from my gmail account was "following" me and vice versa.

Ugh. No way I can sign up then.

I also had co-workers, relatives, and friends all mixed in together, many of whom I don't even regularly email. Could be problematic.

Eyup, here too. Did you cancel it or un-subscribe or whatever?

Mike said...

So which Mike are you?

Not sure how to answer that. I've been reading you since around 2006 (or it might have been 2005?), and I don't comment much. I found your blog via JOS. But again, don't comment much just read.

I once suggested you use www.wmtc.com (you ended up using ca) when you were originally just a blogspot address.

Mike said...

It was definitely 2005, since I remember you moving.

L-girl said...

I found your blog via JOS. But again, don't comment much just read.

I once suggested you use www.wmtc.com (you ended up using ca) when you were originally just a blogspot address.


That's a perfect answer: I know exactly who you are.

Obviously I should have just clicked on your profile, "Gang Green" would have answered my questions. But lately I've had comments from several different Mikes with no visible profile, and I assumed you were one of them.

IIRC, you were a fan of Allan's late great political blog, too.

L-girl said...

It was definitely 2005, since I remember you moving.

Yup. You once paid us a very high compliment, which I will not repeat here, but I never forgot it. I'm honoured you're still around.

Mike said...

You once paid us a very high compliment, which I will not repeat here, but I never forgot it. I'm honoured you're still around.


I have two daughters now. Our second was born 16 months ago.

Again, keep up the good work.

L-girl said...

I have two daughters now. Our second was born 16 months ago.

Congratulations! Belated, but I didn't know. Our knowledge of each other's lives is a bit one-sided. :)

Mike said...

IIRC, you were a fan of Allan's late great political blog, too.

Yes, he changed the name a few times. I liked his original mix of political stuff and Red Sox stuff on the old JOS, but I understand that it's probably for the best to be separate.

I think I've reached my quota of comments... :-)

hhw said...

If you go to your gmail settings, there is now, finally, a "buzz" category, where you can completely opt out of buzz. (this was not an option when they first turned buzz on.) if you don't want completely out, there are other options there to manage your buzz network.

L-girl said...

HHW, is that different than simply not joining?

Amy said...

I also haven't figured it out. I don't do Twitter, but I do use Facebook. Why do I need Buzz? I posted something there (basically saying, Does anyone out there understand what this does?) and have not gotten one response. So far, I just don't get it.

hhw said...

If you have a gmail account, you can't "not join" because google automatically set you up to follow and be followed in buzz based on your gmail contacts when they added buzz.

The "turn buzz off" option underneath the main gmail message screen is not the true "opt out" option -- you have to go into gmail settings for that.

L-girl said...

hhw, thanks very much. I know Google automatically set me up to be followed - hence my surprise at finding out I had followers! - but I thought I had to click "view and follow back" to join. Now I'll change my settings to opt-out entirely.

Amy, I saw your "what is Buzz" post on FB, but I didn't realize you actually wanted an answer - I thought you meant it rhetorically, as in "who needs this". M@'s explanation above might help. It's Twitter-like, with some differences.

L-girl said...

OK, I just did this:

Gmail - Settings - Buzz

Click "Do not show Google Buzz in Gmail" and "Disable Google Buzz".

When you click "Disabled Google Buzz" you see a warning that you cannot undo the action. Ooo, scary! :)

Amy said...

I never posted it on FB! I posted it in on Buzz...and never got any response. Does that mean my Buzz post went to FB, or does it mean you actually saw it through Buzz? And it was more, "does anyone get this thing?," rather than What is Buzz?

So far my comment has been up there, I have gotten no responses, and I have not seen one thing that any of the people I am supposedly "following" have posted.

Buzz=bust.

L-girl said...

Well, I definitely didn't see it on Buzz, since I didn't sign up to follow anyone. I haven't seen anything there.

I thought I saw it on FB, but could it be you also posted it on JoS or wmtc?

Buzz posts most definitely do not go to FB. They're competitors.

I don't think Buzz sounds like a bad idea. M@ points out some usefulness. I am just extremely resistant to companies signing me up for things I didn't ask for, and for opt-in vs opt-out clicks.

I uninstalled my Google toolbar until they removed the feature that changed your right-click functions without user content. I recently installed a free pdf application, and I had to uncheck 5 or 6 different things to avoid various toolbars and home-page changes. I seriously disapprove of that kind of devious marketing.

L-girl said...

without user content

typo: without user consent

L-girl said...

You know, this conversation about Buzz made me realize how many good links I find on my FB feed, since my network includes so many activists and just generally people interested in social issues.

Unfortunately, the medium - the flood of links, the brevity - works against really delving into any of them. But I actually do get more out of FB than I thought.

Amy said...

I thought I saw it on FB, but could it be you also posted it on JoS or wmtc?

No recollection of posting anything anywhere...but then you know how my memory is!

L-girl said...

If anyone is subscribing to this thread...

I am dumping iGoogle, and going with Google Reader, maybe in conjunction with something else for feeds that don't work as well in Reader.

M@ mentioned Reddit, which I'll check out. [Why Reddit? What do you like about it?]

Any other recommendations for aggregators?

Amy said...

I use Google Reader, and it appears on my iGoogle home page. Why would you drop iGoogle?

I am subscribing, but probably of no use to you on this topic....

Steve said...

*Never click on the link* First rule of computing. ;-)

L-girl said...

Why would you drop iGoogle?

It's just not useful to me anymore. I used to use it as my home page, but it took too long to load. Once I dropped it as a home page, I found myself not using it at all.

I think I want something simpler that I can just throw all my feeds in, maybe arrange in folders, as opposed to tabbed pages.

L-girl said...

Someone has made a helpful table of link aggregators. First criteria: which have ads and which don't! Very nice.

L-girl said...

I might try using Google Reader for almost everything. Keep "following" for blogs with high visual content, and use Reader for everything else.