Watching social networks roll out new features in a wrongheaded fashion and seeing those features blow up in their faces is now a popular spectator sport. Until recently, Facebook led the way with misconceived or poorly-explained new features. But a few weeks ago Google joined the parade with its ham-fisted foisting of Buzz, a new social network based on Gmail users.
The idea behind Buzz is that it allows you to keep up with all the people you email with most frequently via your Gmail account. Fair enough: sounds like a cool idea, even potentially useful, and what's one more social network, more or less? The problem was the way they went about "recruiting" people for the new network: they didn't. They just automatically enrolled everyone who has a Gmail account in Buzz, and populated their new Buzz accounts with the people they emailed the most. Predictably, some newly-Buzzed Gmailers objected that this bordered on a violation of privacy, since it allowed other people to see whom they emailed the most.
Amid a minor to mid-sized negative PR storm, Google fixed the problem by dumping the auto-populating feature, switching to a less intrusive account start-up approach which merely suggests other users to "follow" - basically an opt-in rather than opt-out approach to adding individuals to your Buzz account. Aside from a threatened class-action lawsuit (which is probably a long-shot) the Buzz kerfluffle seems to have settled down.
But dang it, I still have a grievance about Google's auto-sign-up approach to new features that pre-dates Buzz by a good couple years. It concerns the way they introduced Google Chat, which to my mind made some of the same basic mistakes. To be clear, I am no Google-hater: I have been an enthusiastic Gmail-user since it was first introduced, and I think it is a terrific, well-designed service on the whole (and the fact that I have about 8 gigs of free memory is pretty neat).
Then one day in late 2005 there suddenly appeared the Google Chat bar on the left-hand side of my Gmail page. An explanation was posted on the Gmail sign-in page, but there was no question of opting in: I was already signed up, and my profile was set to "Available," so everyone could see when I was on Gmail. Being neither vigilant nor particularly bright, I shrugged and went about my business, not thinking about the implications of this new feature, and the importance of attending to my "setting"... until people started sending me chat messages. Some were from my friends on Gmail, and thus not unwelcome, but (as people complained about Buzz) not everyone I email via Gmail is a friend. Not that they're sworn enemies, but they're just people I don't know very well.
Now, the world is full of all kinds of people, and some people appear to have no grasp whatsoever of interpersonal realities; these are the people who won't stop talking to you on the airplane, even when you try to hint you'd rather read a book. In the world of Gmail, they're people who I have emailed with once or twice after a marginal, tangential encounter -- but who started sending me chat messages the instant we happened to be online at the same time (I'm signed into Gmail, looking at one of these characters floating ominously in the chat field right this very moment).
Yes, I figured out that I could alter my settings to restrict contact and visibility -- I am currently invisible, and plan to stay so forever -- but only after a number of awkward moments worthy of a Seinfeld catchphrase. I ended up ignoring a bunch of chat messages -- quite rudely, considering I was clearly "Available," and had just signed on, meaning I was definitely there and definitely brushing them off. Even worse, I sometimes got sucked into a disjointed chat conversation, while swearing at Google for being so "helpful."
Is this a petty issue? Oh, certainly. Are there worse problems in the world? Just about any problem is probably more serious than this. But it's symptomatic of a basic error in judgment which online social media seem to make again and again. Of course a new function always strikes its designers as useful - after all, that's why they designed it -- but this great potential somehow blinds them to the possibility that some people just don't want whatever it is they've designed, or that it might have undesirable repercussions they simply haven't imagined. It's a big problem because in their effort to improve user experience, the social networks sometimes adopt a paternalistic approach which can alienate users. Considering how many millions of users they have, and the myriad varieties of social relationship (good, bad, ugly, weird) these users might have with one another, to imagine you can anticipate every possible sort of interaction facilitated by a new communication feature is nothing less than intellectual arrogance. Until social network engineers understand this and resign themselves to a "soft-sell" approach when introducing new features, they will continue to get privacy pushback.