Google Buzz is the new kid in social networking, and it hasn’t gotten a lot of love. It was rolled out a couple weeks ago with very little fanfare, showing up on Gmail users’ homepage one day.  The initial criticism was all about privacy controls, as Kesah explained last week.  To Google’s credit, they’ve moved quickly to address the most serious issues, and thus quieted a lot of the complaints.

But putting aside the rough edges and works-in-progress, Buzz has some potential.  What’s more, I think we need it, or something like it, in the social networking space.

Let’s look at two of the key players in this space: Facebook and Twitter.

Twitter is all about openness.  It’s got bare-bones features, with a robust API, so that most of the available functionality isn’t actually created by Twitter.  Many Twitter users don’t even use twitter.com to access their account, because so many 3rd-party tools give you that access.  It’s also almost entirely public.  While you can send private messages through Twitter, the whole point is public dialogue. There’s almost no personal data tied to Twitter; you can auto-tweet your content from other sources, but all your demographic info is separate.

Facebook, one could argue, is all about privacy, relationships, and data.  Their status update feature serves a similar purpose to Twitter, but can be limited to your circle of friends. They have very nuanced (and often hard to manage) privacy controls, and the assumed behavior for most users is that their content on Facebook is only available to their network of friends. Increasingly, Facebook is pushing itself as a marketing tool; their greatest value is the amount of your data that they own and can leverage for their advertisers and developers.  If Twitter is all about your public content, Facebook is all about your data and your network.

With Facebook’s recent updates to their privacy structure, a lot of people see them pushing for more monetizable content at the expense of user preferences.  Facebook makes no real secret about the fact that they are there to market to you. And as Facebook pushes harder on marketing and user data, I have to wonder if there’s a friendlier alternative.

I would love for Buzz to be that alternative.  It isn’t yet, but it has the potential. It’s clearly still under development, and I’m sure it will change as it grows, but there are promising signs that it could change into something good:

  • It’s well integrated with other Google services.  Maybe the integration’s a little clunky at this point, but they’re making it easy to move between Buzz and emails, chat, RSS, and other media.
  • It’s open, or will be.  Google has already announced their intention to make Buzz a “fully open and distributed platform for conversations”.
  • There’s no marketing yet.  And while there inevitably will be, it seems likely that it will be context-based like the rest of Google’s advertising – not based on your personal data like Facebook ads.  There won’t be the same pressure to surrender up your personal information to the marketing gods.
  • It’s easy to find your friends.  Odds are that the friends you communicate with over email are the same friends you’ll want to connect with on Buzz.  Now that Buzz no longer auto-follows all your contacts who use it, it could form the basis of a social network comprised of all the people you already interact with most closely.

Of course, Google needs to avoid some of the pitfalls other services have faced.  They need to figure out their privacy settings, to make them simple yet robust.  They also need to avoid becoming FriendFeed – it’s great that they made it easy to flow all your feeds into Buzz, but if no one uses it for the status update feature (which is at the core of Facebook and Twitter) then it’s a pale substitute.

Are you listening, Google?  If you are, I’d also like a lightning-fast internet connection, a flying car, and a pony…  you know, as long as you’re granting wishes.

What do you think? Is it crazy to think that Buzz could be the next, best thing in social networking?


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