Google, Buzz off! A reflection..

On: June 6, 2010
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About Marc Stumpel
Marc Stumpel holds a MA degree in New Media from the University of Amsterdam. His main research interest is the antagonism within the political and economic dimensions of digital culture. Especially in relation to social media. Marc also holds the degree: Bachelor of Communication & Multimedia Design, Business & Organisation, Interactive Media at the Hoogeschool van Amsterdam (2005-2009). In addition to his academic work, Marc is a musician and producer under the alias of Zuurstof. Follow Marc on twitter: @Zuurstof

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While many technology and media journalists are now focusing their attention on Facebook’s recent privacy moves, I’d like to shed some light on an earlier privacy issue: the implementation of Google Buzz. Some of you might be are aware of its intrusive introduction, five months ago, whereas others might have completely missed it. This is a recap of the actual scenario, to gain understanding of Buzz’s problematic implementation and the consequential resistance.

'Google Buzz Off' by Flickr user Oversocialized, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license.

Google Buzz was introduced to Gmail users in February. Generally, it functions like any other social media; it generates an information stream which other users of the same platform can follow. Although many people are usually excited to be part of Google’s unfinished products, like testing Google Wave for example, the case of Buzz demonstrated that the opposite is possible as well.

Shortly after Buzz was implemented into Gmail users’ accounts many privacy concerns were raised. The introduction was anything but flawless. Instantly, Gmail users got a ‘Buzz’ tab, in their Gmail account interface. They were automatically assigned to follow other users on Buzz, whom they chatted and emailed the most with (1). In addition, when they visited a profile from another user, the communication between the users and their followers was openly visible (2). Another criticized and dubious feature was related to other Google services that Gmail users might use. Pictures from Picasa and personal activity on Google Reader were automatically shared through Buzz (3).

Considering the users’ privacy concerns, many argued that Google Buzz was implemented quite intrusively. Moreover, for a short but crucial time, Google Buzz users’ intercommunication and activity on other Google services was openly visible for automated followers. Was this Google’s intention?

On the day that Google launched the service this is what posted on their blog: “Buzz brings this network to the surface by automatically setting you up to follow the people you email and chat with the most (4)”. But even more explicit: “ (..) Buzz itself is not designed to be a closed system. Our goal is to make Buzz a fully open and distributed platform for conversations (4)” (emphasis added). In another Google blog-post about the meaning of openness, it is even stated that open systems win, and lead to “more innovation, value, and freedom of choice for consumers, and a vibrant, profitable, and competitive ecosystem for businesses (5)” (emphasis added). Contrary to this idea, the way that Google Buzz initially was implemented led to anything but freedom of choice for consumers.

There were many different actors that expressed or reported heavy critique on Google’s move, including (micro)bloggers, news websites and citizen journalists. Crucially, two complaints were filed against Google Buzz, by the EPIC and a Harvard law student, Danah boyd and the Electronic Frontier Foundation also made their statements about the lacking privacy control. Promptly after what Google called ‘loud and clear feedback’(6), the corporation literally let go of its initial goal of a fully open and distributed platform, by making drastic and immediate changes to Buzz.

Google even personally responded to the blogger Harriet Jacobs. In her blog-post ‘F*ck you, Google’, she explicitly describes her negative encounter: making her personal Google Reader data available and automatically connecting her account to her abusive ex-husband’s account:

F*ck you, Google. My privacy concerns are not trite. They are linked to my actual physical safety, and I will now have to spend the next few days maintaining that safety by continually knocking down followers as they pop up.”

Jacobs’ story is a significant example of produsage-based journalism; her story became part of the news and the issue itself. Her story was blown up in such a way that she even received an email from Google Buzz product manager, apologizing for the extremely confusing product experience and letting her know that they would do something about her reported issues (7).

After acknowledging the criticism, Google responded with apologies for causing the concern and not getting “everything quite right” (8). Supposedly, Buzz was not properly internally tested, before its launch (9). They swiftly changed the service by giving the users more options to use its features –instead of automating them- which they did not have before. Eight days after the service was launched, Google executive Eric Schmidt suggested that those who complained about privacy invasions were subject of confusion and that nobody was harmed: “I would say that we did not understand how to communicate Google Buzz and its privacy”(10). This shows that by redefining the issue, Google tried to move away from the fact that their intention was to build a fully open distributed platform.

The implementation of Buzz and the resistance to its architecture and initial features exemplified a contemporary scene where the particular ‘open’ architecture of a new medium became an issue of contention. Those individuals that were rightfully upset (11) articulated the issue, in numerous ways. Most importantly, their voices were heard by Google, which resulted in drastic changes to the company’s initial goal, the technical architecture from Buzz and its policy. This shows that power relations in communication networks can swiftly change.

Although everything seems to be ‘fine’ again, with the users back in ‘control’ of their privacy and information flows, Buzz’ implementation shows that social media users must continue to be alert, for the tables can turn very fast, even without noticing. Furthermore, I’d like to make some remarks about openness and connectedness, which seems to be the mantra that some social media corporations are chanting right now.

Users like to connect to others in these networks, to share information and create meaning. The corporations who largely facilitate these processes, however, have the tendency to often change default settings, the terms of use, and push new features that are permanently beta. Protocological control takes new forms, which arguably render new ways to exploit user data. In the case of privacy concerns, it is very likely for ‘apologies’ or ‘justification’ to follow, which certainly calms the users and the critics down. Moreover, it seems as if we are gradually getting used to forgetting about these problematic instances and undoubtedly accept the apologetic discursive framing of these events. In the meanwhile, we continue the anticipation of new issues, resulting from intrusive changes enacted by social media corporations in their quest for more openness and connectedness. Arguably, social media users should be able to manage their information preemptively.

When new features are introduced to a social media service, it should be opt-in by default. Looking back on many opt-out disasters, apologies and justifications, this is something that we can no longer expect from large social media corporations. They will need to work very hard to regain trust and credibility from their (critical/aware) users.

Fortunately, alternative social media systems are constructed, while I’m writing this. But will they play their cards right?

Marc Stumpel (@Zuurstof)


This blogpost contains exerpts from my paper for the
New Media and the Transformation of Politics seminar. I’m currently writing my master’s thesis about control and resistance in social media. Do not hesitate to contact me for any useful exchange of information.

References:
(1) http://www.accmanpro.com/2010/02/11/google-buzz-off/
(2)  http://knack.rnews.be/nieuws/technologie/-google-buzz-schendt-privacy-/site72-section27-article46646.html?cid=rss/
(3) http://gmailblog.blogspot.com/2010/02/new-buzz-start-up-experience-based-on.html/
(4) http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/02/introducing-google-buzz.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+blogspot%2FMKuf+%28Official+Google+Blog%29&utm_content=Google+Reader
(5) http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/12/meaning-of-open.html
(6) http://gmailblog.blogspot.com/2010/02/new-buzz-start-up-experience-based-on.html
(7) The email can be read here: http://fugitivus.wordpress.com/2010/02/12/screw-you-google/
(8)  http://gmailblog.blogspot.com/2010/02/new-buzz-start-up-experience-based-on.html
(9) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/8517613.stm
(10) http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/feb/17/google-buzz-schmidt
(11) http://epic.org/privacy/ftc/googlebuzz/

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