Monday, February 22, 2010

Keeping Social Networking Social

On this blog I've occasionally lamented the ways social and portable media can be perceived as reducing our social skills. Google may have given me reason to reconsider these arguments. A few weeks ago Google launched Buzz, a new social media outlet that encouraged sharing between users. The public response was not overwhelmingly positive as many users expressed concerns over privacy, the auto-generated contact list, and the auto-sharing feature that allowed Buzz to link to other Google applications, such as Picasa and Google Reader. Google moved swiftly to address concerns, and rein in the negative press: They turned off the auto-generated contact list and overall put more control over the utilization of the app can be utilizedback into the user's hands.

I've been thinking about the responses to Buzz a great deal. I admit that at first I found it surprising that in an age so oriented on digital connections and over-sharing that there would be such a loud public response to the perceived flaws in Buzz. But what this outcry has revealed is that the digital social scene is still very much connected to our offline lives. One of the primary concerns regarding Buzz was that the auto-generated contact list would reveal email addresses. This is certainly a valid concern, but the issued at the heart of the matter, I think, is that Google presumed to think that users would want to be connected to a particular set of people based on an algorithm they created. This is the point that I think has pushed most people's buttons. Yes, the public has demanded greater privacy features, but it has also demanded the reinstatement of the social in the social media app. 

Technology constantly drives us toward greater efficiency—it's all about maximum use: maximizing connections, maximizing sharing opportunities, maximizing the strength of networking capabilities, etc. New features are introduced to upgrade our digital media experience— though as perhaps Facebook could testify, you really can't please all the people all the time—but what seems to remain constant is the desire to keep digital social networking as social and personal as possible. This means that users aren't looking for a "plug and play" social network. An algorithm isn't going to create the perfect network for individual users. (Yet?) Networking satisfaction and success comes from the individual tweaks users make. That is, the features they enable, the lists they create, and their overall interaction with the application creates a unique experience for the user. This is what enables social networks to transition into the digital realm. The public response has therefore been for me a sign that people are still engaged in creating and managing their networks, and it's as a positive indicator for the future of digital social networks. There was never any question that they were here to stay and that sociality would have to evolve to allow users to navigate them successfully. But I think that the changes to sociality will follow in quick succession from this point. Users have recognized the importance of control, and they are asking for it. 

Google's Buzz isn't dead. On the contrary, I think that it has potential to be a powerful social media outlet—it could very well be one of the first to be adapted to user customization, and not the whims of the developer. Has anyone explored Buzz further? What do you think? Have the tweaks made it feel friendlier?


  1. I think the main problem for Google was conflation of e-mail account with a single, unified network (this term is used loosely).

    For example, my e-mail address book has a large number of contacts, but they belong to different networks, ranging from private, friends and family, to acquaintances, to professional contacts. Frequency of contact does not mean personal intimacy.

    I'm glad that Google has addressed the users' concerns, but I'm still hesitant to use Buzz at the moment.

  2. Yes—I have a problem with this as well. I took issue with the presumption that they felt this was "my" network. As you rightly state, "frequency of contact does not mean personal intimacy."

    I have great hope for Buzz, but I haven't yet turned it back on. I'm just wondering how quickly people will be drawn back in after the initial upset. Cheers!