Using Gmail with Google Buzz should be optional

I had got so used to Google launching a service and then immediately dropping it before it descended into oblivion that I was unprepared for the agitation that has surrounded Buzz since it was launched. Jason Calacanis, on his blog (God how ugly his layout is, considering he's supposedly a God of blogging), calls it "brilliant" and concludes Facebook has just lost half its value. I think Buzz could have been brilliant if Google had launched it two years ago. Although, in keeping with Google's best traditions, the interface is ugly as hell, the service is incredibly easy to use and has many things that Facebook lacks.

Update on February 13th 2010: Of course I know feed management is notoriously difficult. But I thought Google, with the resources at its disposal, would have managed to get Buzz to pull feeds from what it calls connected sites reasonably elegantly, a feat Friendfeed has managed for years. It doesn't, though: I set up Buzz, creating a totally useless and unwanted Gmail account just for that purpose, with Google Reader, Twitter, Flickr and Digg enabled as connected sites; by the following day, all my Google Reader items had appeared, but Buzz had only aggregated one post from Flickr and Digg and none from Twitter (whose feeds are notoriously difficult to pull). Unless Google move in to correct this quickly, the service won't work as advertised.

In particular, Google Buzz has one thing going for it: in contrast to Twitter and Facebook, it actually does make it easy to "generate your own buzz" by asking you to simply add services to your pre-existing Google profile (yes, a lot of us have one, even if we've forgotten about it). Facebook, on the other hand, as I pointed out in an earlier post, has been making it increasingly difficult for users to share their web content, because Facebook's ambition—and, in my view, a strategically mistaken one—is to turn itself into a closed shop, forcing its users to keep their photographs on Facebook rather than Flickr, despite the fact that Facebook's photo utility, for serious photographers, is ridiculously mediocre in comparison to Flickr, and discouraging them from any interaction between their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

But then Facebook bought Friendfeed, which most people have never even heard of, despite it having been at least as brilliant as Buzz. Yet nothing ever came of it in the three years since it launched, because no one had ever heard of it and it looks like the Facebook acquisition was targeted more at acquiring the brains behind Friendfeed than integrating it into Facebook's mainstream product.

Those who disagreed have tended to focus on the new tool's supposedly unclear privacy settings to justify their skepticism, and they responded to that criticism quickly, showing that this is a product whose success means a lot to them. There are three things I don't like at all about Buzz:

  • first, you need to use Gmail to even be on Buzz; I don't use Gmail; ironically, I use another, much superior Google product for my email, Google Apps, which is effectively Gmail branded with your own domain name; but once again one of my pet peeves about Google, the fuzzy distinction they insist on maintaining between Google Apps accounts and so-called "Google accounts", means that I can't use Buzz; using Gmail for Buzz should have been made optional, not mandatory;
  • second, I don't believe it will take off: even for people who do have Gmail accounts and use them actively, I doubt that they will be able to get enough people to follow their Buzz activity to make the service gather proper momentum, which is another reason why tying Buzz to Gmail is a mistake: such people will be left posting stuff which no one will see; and with this handicap I doubt whether, even with the mighty Google behind it, Buzz will ever succeed in getting much further than being a third player in an admittedly increasingly oligopolistic social network market;
  • third, Google hasn't addressed the issue of user names properly; when Facebook launched its vanity usernames in July, it made it easy for anyone who wanted to to grab the url that they wanted; one reason why I haven't opened a Gmail account, and thus that I'm not on Buzz (my Google profile goes under the delightfully ergonomic slug of 115489052742572881451), is that Google is the only service on which both my online usernames, astorg and donaldjenkins, are unavailable, because when anyone uses any Google service, Google creates an account under the slug chosen and from that moment, no one can use a service.

Despite settling the privacy concerns, Google hasn't clearly positioned its service as a private, friends-only oriented one, like Facebook originally was and should have remained, or a public one, like Twitter; the privacy slip-up shows they obviously didn't think this one out at all when they designed Buzz, which is a pity; if they'd positioned Buzz from the outset as the social network where you can easily share some content publicly, and some just with your friends, they would have been onto a winner —well, possibly. Maybe. Good luck, anyway.