Upon logging into their Gmail accounts today, many users will find a splash page prompting them to try out Google's newest toy: Buzz.
What's the Buzz?
Whispers about Google Buzz have been floating around for a few days, and Google officially announced its existence and roll-out plans yesterday. But this certainly isn't Google's first foray into social networking - their social site Orkut has been around for a number of years, and is especially popular in Brazil. And Google Wave, a collaboration and communication product that is still in its infancy, hasn't really taken hold. All of this calls into question Google's direction in the social networking arena.
So what does Buzz have to offer the millions of Gmail users? Surprisingly, not much at all right now.
While the convenience of having a social platform right within Gmail is a nice idea, it is shockingly barren of the all-too-common features that can be found everywhere else. Buzz's interface can be likened to a stripped-down microblog, with the option of only posting text, a picture, or a link. However, the ability to automatically grab activity and posts from other social-centric sites such as Flickr and Twitter is welcome, even if it is just a simple rebroadcast.
For those who frequent Facebook, MySpace, or even LinkedIn, there is no logical reason to move all of your comfortable social networking routines to a new service. Google may tout that you can easily adapt Buzz to all of your Gmail contacts. But why would I do that? I don't utilize Gmail for keeping up with the day-to-day activities of all of my friends. That's always been the strong point of social networking platforms. In fact, very few of my friends even have my e-mail address - I only bother to keep about 40 Gmail contacts.
Comparing Buzz side-by-side with well-established social platforms may not be fair. If Google has any sense, it is obvious that this isn't exactly the direction it is heading. Better yet, that isn't the exact pathway that Google is taking to overthrow the popular social sites. So where is Buzz heading and how is it going to get there?
One possible answer is that Google is attempting to redirect some of the traffic that typically flows through its e-mail system. Data would probably show that most e-mails are small and discreet if you discount spam, chain letters, massively-forwarded messages, and data mails (e-mails that utilize Gmail's space like a hard drive). The maintenance of an e-mail server can be a burden, especially for a large number of users. But we can safely reason that Google has gotten e-mail down to a science at this point. So, Google isn't trying to replace the concept of e-mail, or is it?
If Google's vision of the future is one that antiquates e-mail, Wave certainly appears to be a better replacement for e-mail than does Buzz. But Buzz found its place right inside Gmail. In the world of Google services, getting placement within Gmail is a big deal. Gmail's interface has barely changed since its initial launch. Next to web search, Gmail is probably Google's most successful product. Upon close inspection, the method for sending messages in Buzz doesn't add up to a logical replacement of e-mail. The e-mails that would typically be CC'd to certain people could be made as private posts within Buzz. However, Buzz isn't designed to make a post visible for just one person.
While Google may not be intending to replace e-mail with a next-generation communication tool such as Buzz, it will definitely have some impact on the nature of e-mails within Gmail.
Organizing the world's social networks
The most probable course for Buzz is given plain-and-simple in Google's blog post talking about the launch of Buzz. Like Google's web search revolutionized the effectiveness of finding things on the web, Buzz aims to clear the muddle caused by the world's Internet social activities. If you are a heavy all-round social networking user, you may end up posting one thing to five or more platforms. If you're clever, you've found the tools to do this in one fell swoop. What rationale could Google possibly have in providing yet another platform, and then stepping back and saying it will help you clear the clutter of social platforms? Simple: it's Google's business.
Google has always had a clear idea (whether or not it was adhered to) of it's place in the world. It aims "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," as stated on their corporate information page. There's definitely a slew of social information on the Internet and, believe me, it needs to be organized. However, Buzz is painfully lacking in any formidable features. It only integrates with a handful of other platforms. It is excruciatingly minimalistic. As it turns out, the simplicity in Buzz is reflective of one of Google's best strategies.
Clearing the clutter (although Microsoft's Bing purports the same intent, but implements distracting things everywhere) is what Google does, in theory and in practice. It directly relates to, and complements, Google's mission. When Buzz is opened to the world's developers, it will have countless opportunities to prove itself. Additionally, I foresee Google doing a lot to make up for its lack of inherent features before an API is released.
It is easy to be critical of something new, such as Google's Buzz. It is harder to find the strengths that it might have. It's probably impossible to predict how it will all play out. I look forward to Buzz becoming a stepping stone in organizing Internet social networking.
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