Among esteemed social networkers who count their “friends” by the thousands, fire off a hundred Tweets a week and have every week of their lives documented in photo galleries, the reaction to Google’s new social networking platform, Buzz, has been nearly unanimous: Why now? Despite the slick production value, the Buzz feature set appears, on the surface at least, to overlap with the likes of Facebook and Twitter nearly completely.
But you never know until you try, and when Buzz went live Tuesday morning, we dug in. Although the product remains in beta mode and is only partially accessible through the desktop, most of its features for mobile phones appear to be live, and we’ve put them through the paces. Will Google really be able to put a dent in a pair of established social contenders, or will it settle back into obscurity after a vibrant coming out party like Wave?
Let’s find out.
Like most of Google’s iPhone Web interfaces, Buzz successfully replicates the look and feel of a real iPhone app. Safari navigation bar aside, we might as well have downloaded it from Apple’s App Store. It even encourages you to bookmark it with a shortcut on the iPhone springboard right off the bat to simulate the behavior of a standalone app.
As an existing Google user, setting up Buzz was as easy as logging in. Interestingly enough, agreeing to Google’s user agreement means you agree to use your location when you use Buzz.
However, Google does offer the option to hide your location all the time, or for a single post, if you don’t feel like being a pin on somebody else’s map.
For the truly paranoid, remember that Safari will also ask you before sharing your GPS coordinates with any Web site (unless you’ve gone out of your way to disable this feature).
Depending on whether you’re a believer in the power of technology to connect people, or a tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theorist, Google’s default “opt-in” policy looks either like a good foundation for one of the most comprehensive location-aware social networks ever built, or the beginning of a dystopian nightmare.
From the mobile phone, Google requires you to manually add friends to follow, rather than importing your whole list of Gmail contacts.
In theory, this should divert the barrage of useless updates from folks you swapped e-mails with at one point in your life, but who you don’t care to hear recount the details of their dog’s latest vet procedure in detail. Even so, we were a little disappointed that Google wasn’t able to “recommend” friends based on the frequency of our interaction. It’s possible that the non-mobile version could handle this differently.
In its most basic form, Buzz acts precisely like Twitter, allowing you to swap random thoughts with friends and strangers alike whenever the mood strikes you. However, the location-aware features strike us as far more promising. By clicking the “nearby” tab, you can immediately see the latest chatter from folks down the street and around your city.
Depending on how much you value your privacy, this is either really cool, or really weird. In either case, it’s something that Twitter doesn’t readily do out of the box. Right now, we think of Twitter as a platform to cast out your thoughts and get feedback from friends and people who have somehow stumbled upon you through some previous connection, however tenuous.
Buzz has the potential to create connections where none existed, based only on proximity. Imagine commenting about the fight you just watched go down out the window of your tenth floor office building, only to have someone 20 floors up comment about the same thing and strike up a conversation. On Twitter, the two of you might never cross paths. On Buzz, the system has practically been designed around making that happen. We watched the feed from nearby Buzz users all day as word caught on about the service, and heard anecdotes about nearby restaurants, comments about the lucky streak of sun Portland has been having, and bored quips from other folks who work nearby.
In contrast to Twitter, which feels a lot like hearing the stories your friends will eventually tell you in person in truncated 140-character chunks, Buzz really allows you to hear the collective chatter of a place in ways we haven’t seen before.
Maps and Other Features
Besides reading nearby comments in “feed” form, you can click on “Buzz map” to literally view comments pinned to a map with comic-book-style dialog box icons. Click one, and you’ll see what a person there had to say recently.
Although Google hasn’t yet flipped the switch on the version of Buzz built into Gmail, Buzz sent us e-mail whenever other users responded to our comments. Clicking around through them, we were able to edit a Buzz profile from the desktop.
Like a Facebook profile, you fill in basics like your name, occupation, city, and education, along with some Google-specific oddities like “Something I can’t find using Google” and “My superpower.” We were also able to successfully import pictures from Flickr, but sharing and commenting on them doesn’t look to yet be enabled.
As an important note, Buzz still behaves like a very beta product. We encountered several refreshes that never ended, missing pieces, and more than a few posts that never made it out to the world. It also behaved rather sluggishly on our iPhone 3G, especially when dealing with maps.
This isn’t Twitter. Although Buzz possesses a more-than-passing resemblance with the popular micro-blogging platform, deep location awareness adds a level of relevance and potential that Twitter doesn’t yet possess, despite an API that technically makes it possible. That said, Google still needs to prove that the other aspects of its platform – like photo and video sharing – really add up to something better than Facebook and other platforms already offer. We expect to evaluate those in time, but from our first encounter, Buzz looks like a promising product that could genuinely unlock new possibilities for existing social network users.
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