Since the troubled launch of Google’s new social network earlier this month, the company has introduced a flurry of changes in an effort to address user confusion and privacy concerns. Google says its engineers have been working nonstop to adjust features and incorporate user feedback. But the product, called Buzz, has already spurred criticism, a complaint to the FTC, and a lawsuit. While experts say there’s no way to undo the damage done by botched privacy controls in the first few days after launch, some believe the service still has a chance to redeem itself.
When Buzz launched on February 9, Google touted the power of its algorithms in particular. As Google’s official take on social networking, the service was designed to use powerful analysis to automatically select connections for users and show them the most interesting posts.
These features quickly came under fire when, for example, a woman who maintains an anonymous blog about surviving spousal rape and abuse found herself automatically followed on Buzz by her abusive ex-husband, his friends, and a group of people who regularly e-mailed her anonymous blog account (she set up those e-mails to forward to her personal account).
Google has since launched many changes geared toward giving users more privacy controls when they sign in to Buzz for the first time and clarifying who will see their posts and information. In the process, Google downgraded its autofollow feature to an “autosuggest,” and backpedaled on some of its original language about the power of automation.
“With Google Buzz, we wanted to make the getting started experience as quick and easy as possible, so that users wouldn’t have to manually peck out their social networks from scratch,” says Google spokeswoman Victoria Katsarou. She says Google thinks autosuggest “reaches a good balance between giving users more control over their experience and offering a smooth getting started process.”
Experts believe Google’s goal of populating the service on day one led it to misstep.
If Google had launched Buzz with lots of warnings about privacy and information about controls, people would not have wanted to use the system, says Joseph Bonneau, a University of Cambridge researcher who did a study last year that showed that social networks have strong incentives to bury the privacy settings they build.
But by burying these settings, Bonneau says, users were confused for the first 24 hours about who they were connected to and who would see their posts. “Confusion is the privacy problem,” he says.
While Google’s recent changes help, Bonneau notes that there’s no way to undo what was exposed in the first week. He says he wants to see companies such as Google and Facebook establish privacy review teams separate from the engineers who build products. These teams would review features before they are released.