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Why buzz has lost its fizz

2010 Crap

I've been meaning to write up about Google Buzz for a while now, but what with one thing and another, I've not been able to get around to it. So, what do I think?

As with anything Google, the minute they announce something, it receives rave reviews (largely based on the media attention from a large-company release, rather than anything beneficial). There's then the usual gold rush to reserve well known profiles, and then, in essence, a bunch of people standing around asking “What now?”

Unfortunately for Google, Buzz was a real stain on their release process in more ways than they could have expected. One wonders whether there was an attempt to “Do an Apple” and keep a feature wrapped until global release; but either way, it launched with some serious, and subsequently acknowledged, flaws. In fact, these flaws were reminiscent of earlier mistakes with Google Reader and the “like” badge, as well as the auto-add to chat list for those who you mail. But whilst annoying in both places, these didn't automatically export your contact list to the world, which was the net effect of Google's Buzz at launch.

So, they've listened, and now your profile can be anonymous; further, it doesn't show your followers unless you explicitly ask it to. However, there's still a distinction between “people that you mail” and “people that you wish to follow”. As open-source projects are typically global and diverse, it's not necessarily the case that people whom I mail about bugs in their projects (or conversely, receive bugs about mine) will necessarily have blogs (or buzzes) that are interesting to me.

Secondly, people are interested in different things. An open-source project represents an intersection of those interests; whereas following assumes a union of interests. Those who read my blog or tweets will know that I'm interested in Eclipse; but also, Mac OS X, and to a lesser extent, other activities like flying, first aid, and a whole host of other minor references. It's unlikely that just because I happen to have mailed someone who's helping out with Eclipse on Objective C on the Mac is going to be interested in my thoughts on the new JSR 310 date format, or where OSGi is going; or for that matter, what the weather is at EGTC. So auto-following (in either direction) is likely to be equally wrong; and so too, is for Buzz. (There is a separate question which asks whether such monoculture is a good idea; but that's not relevant here.)

So, on to implementation. Arguably Twitter succeeded not just because of the novelty of the idea, but also because of the openness of the clients. The Twitter API is a very simple REST-based access, which has resulted in a plethora of different clients for both desktop and mobile systems. Google Buzz, on the other hand, uses a more complex (but, it should be noted, equally open) Atom data structure and the PubSubHubbub protocol, which isn't the kind of thing one throws together over a coffee break. Yes, there's implementations available for a handful of languages, but it's not wget. One might argue that Buzz is in fact a stripped down version of Google Wave – which I never got around to writing up, but again seems to be one of those 'meh' moments from Google.

However, the Buzz integration just sucks. It appears that Google, similar to pushing Wave as much as possible, are asking “Where can we shove Buzz next?”. As a result, it's turned up in Google Mail (hint; a mail client is not a chat client) and shortly, no doubt, in Google Reader in a more in-your-face-annoying-way than the 'stuff your friends saw'.

I've also hooked up my Twitter feed to Buzz, so if you're following me, you have a choice of whether to follow me on either Twitter or Buzz. I don't see me abandoning Twitter any time soon until Buzz achieves feature parity with Twitter (or more specifically, clients of the same). But what really gets annoying is when I post something in Twitter, the Buzz feed picks it up (OK) but then mails me the Buzz. What? I know what I said – in fact, I said it. No need to mail me to tell me what it is that I already knew I said, FFS. I've had to put in a Google Buzz rule in Google Mail to specifically delete all buzzes from me (is:buzz subject:Buzz from Alex Blewitt) just so they don't litter my inbox or All Mail boxes on my IMAP clients. I wouldn't mind so much if they were just telling me someone had commented on the Buzz, but there aren't any such comments and it's just what I already said.

Where Twitter still excels is the ability to find new people and subscribe to their feeds. You don't get this in Google Buzz yet. That's probably because no-one is using it (I only see feeds that are regularly updated from a small number of people; and all of those are from Twitter). So the @alblue messages don't get translated to a follow-able Google Profile, which means I still need to manage my interests at Twitter.

What's really needed is a quick and easy way of finding out what other people are interested in. Arguably, the reason that Twitter succeeded here was their “search” field, which rapidly evolved hashtags as a way of tagging posts by an open category set (rather than a closed category set, as found on InfoQ or DZone). In fact, arguably the success of the Google Code Issue tracker is its use of labels to mean absolutely anything; which means that you can attribute specific meanings to each item without being constrained about how the tool wants you to work. What we don't have (yet) is Labels for Buzz, nor for that matter a way of searching for Labels.

The main thing I miss about Twitter (or, for that mattter, an e-mail client) is marking which tiems I ahve read or not. It's not the case that I have time to read all my buzzes; but when I go into the Buzz tab of Google Mail, I get the option to expand and then mark everything as read (even though it might not have been). It also coalesces updates from the same person in a short period of time; which is generally no use, since they're typically unrelated to each other. People tend to check twitter/tweet in sporadic bursts, rather than hosting a you-me-you-me-you conversation, so Buzz's default everything-that-occurs-together-is-related model is a pretty poor fit for the real world.

In all, Buzz when first released was a privacy-busting Alpha release. Now, it's just a Beta release, and much like Google Wave, I don't think I'll be going back any time soon.

Update: Seems like Google is Listening. I think it's too late for Wave though.