On Google Buzz's Awkward Launch

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Social media researcher and general internet guru Danah Boyd gave the keynote address at SXSWi earlier today, focusing on matters of privacy. On paper, Google Buzz was a perfect social network. So why did it freak everyone out so much?

Google Buzz was technically sound at launch, Boyd said, offering users the chance to opt-out or hide their friend lists, but it was rife with "non-technical" mistakes, notably its closeness—functionally and aesthetically—to Gmail, a decidedly private system.

In short, Google ended up getting stuck in the uncanny valley, that uncomfortable place where things are familiar but not quite right. Boyd explained:

Google managed to find the social equivalent of the uncanny valley...They have a tremendous amount of information about users, but it wasn't quite perfect...Technologists assume the most optimal solution is the best one, but this tends to ignore a whole bunch of social rituals that have value.


Just as Tom Hanks' Zemeckian treatment left him in some funky indeterminate space between animated character and real human being, Buzz failed by trying to poach what it saw as the best aspects of public networks, like Facebook and Twitter, and private ones, like Gmail.


After addressing the general Buzz kerfuffle, Boyd touched on Facebook and privacy in general. TechCrunch paraphrases her elegant take on how online privacy is different for the young and old: "teenagers are much more conscious about what they have to gain by being in public, whereas adults are more concerned about what they have to lose." Astute!

Boyd wrapped up her talk by noting, "neither privacy nor publicity is dead, but technology will continue to make a mess of both." If there's anything that's constant about issues of privacy, it's their stickiness, and I think she's right in that with every new social technology we develop, there will be a new privacy mess to clean up (or, at least, to sweep under the rug). [GigaOM and TechCrunch]