Google's New Buzz: Not Exactly Light Years Ahead
Google has clearly put a lot of thought into injecting their ideas about social networking into Gmail with Buzz. However, I don't think Facebook and Twitter have much to worry about quite yet. Yahoo and AOL have tried similar moves in the past, and the results fell short of groundbreaking. For social media junkies, Buzz represents an interesting new fix, but for other consumers, it's just one more profile to maintain.
Innovation was certainly on display at this week's Google Buzz press conference, but there was only one moment that truly registered an 9.5 on my personal CQ (Coolness Quotient) meter. That was during the mobile segment of the demonstration. Vice President of Engineering Vic Gundotra spoke into his Android phone, and the magic of Google Voice, combined with GPS-tagging and location-based services, allowed him to post his "buzz."
I know that reads like something Jeff Spicoli of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" might have said, but blame the marketing gurus at Google for their new social media tag. I'm just reacting to what I saw. "Buzzes" that can be spoken from wherever you are speak to new ways of interacting with your devices, the Web and, by extension, the world. Gundotra spoke his example phrase, and within seconds it not only appeared in a conversation "bubble" on his mobile Google map, it also appeared in the Buzz box within Gmail, and his followers -- or contacts -- saw the phrase show up in real-time.
That, to me, was coolness in action, the kind of thing that shifts us just that much closer to a Vernor Vinge-style future of natural user interfaces and geo-positioned, instantaneous communications. I envision a press conference in a couple of years that introduces Google Wetware, a new division of Google Health that implants all the microprocessors we need into our brains so we can eyeblink our way to status updates and Web searches.
The other Buzz features do indeed show that Google product managers and algorithm-wranglers have given a lot of thought to integrating their ideas about social media into the existing Gmail framework. However, I don't know that Facebook or even Twitter are shaking in their digital boots because of Buzz. That's because while some in the media might be in love with Google's new social media features -- and a few think that journalism will benefit too -- the average consumer that isn't as wedded to the technosphere as the rest of us might not think the same thing.
Not Social Media/Email Pioneers
Take a look at Yahoo and AOL, and you'll see previous efforts to integrate the hot new social media thing of the moment that all the kids are talking (or texting) about. Yahoo gives you Facebook, Flickr and Twitter along with your top stories and stock quotes. What used to be called "hot searches" or "top searches" has morphed into "Trending Now," a tip of the hat at -- or underheaded swipe of -- Twitter's trending topics. The same "Trending Now" shows up on your Yahoo Mail inbox, along with updates from mail contacts you select and email applications for Flickr, PayPal, Evite, etc.
"Yahoo Mail tried the same thing (as Buzz) and it flopped," IDC analyst Karsten Wiede told me. "The reason why is that people who are interested in this kind of functionality is the Facebook crowd, not the Yahoo Mail crowd. Why would I use this if I'm already on Facebook? Why use two services?" In a semi-pathetic attempt to avoid being eclipsed in the Buzz buzz, AOL this week introduced Lifestream to its Mail AIM service, selling it as "Social Mail." It too integrates Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Flickr and YouTube updates into instant messaging, all of it using contacts from your Buddy List. Some of this might have been fresh and different for AOL if it had been introduced, say, six months ago, or at any other time when Apple or Google weren't introducing something that would suck all the oxygen out of the media tent. However, launching this right now smacks of "me too"-ism worthy of Kristin Wiig's character Penelope on "Saturday Night Live."
It is true that Google's Gmail has a much bigger base of users, and therefore a much stronger foundation for launching something like Buzz. And the media spotlight burns hotter and brighter on Google right now than on any other tech company with the notable exception of Apple. However, we're still talking about another megaphone being added to the cacophony of voices on the Web. The new devices that give us Internet access on the go aren't filtering anything; they're magnifying the effect, and while media junkies and technophiles might be able to handle it after a while, it's going to take longer for the average Joe or Jane to get over their intimidation factors. And that's where the real money and critical mass is for Google: converting the average folks who have become quite comfortable with Facebook and may have even learned to post photos of their grandkids on it.
The Web and social media are "becoming a crowded space, and a lot of information -- user-generated information -- is out there now on the internet," 451 Group research director Chris Hazelton said. "That information already needs to be filtered, and Buzz will create another layer that again needs to be filtered."
What About Journalism?
However, when it comes to giving journalists more tools for their storytelling toolbox, Will Sullivan, interactive director for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and visiting faculty at the Poynter Institute, is a little more optimistic about Buzz. He's impressed with marrying the technological, geo-positioning aspects of Buzz with the coverage of breaking news and the gathering of voices and opinions on the neighborhood level. However, he's also worried that the same location-based services, when applied to targeted mobile advertising, will push even further into traditional media's revenue model.
Sullivan's take is spot-on regarding the potential on display here. However, once again, enough users have to be using Buzz to get an idea of what the (excuse me) buzz is in a particular neighborhood: What zoning issues are on everybody's minds? What traffic problems, crime trends, and political complaints are people buzzing about? Social media is about enabling the conversation between journalist and news consumer, so anything that gives feedback or story ideas/leads is welcome, in my opinion. Yet that conversation can't just be with media first-adopters or social media mavens. It's got to be with people like my 79-year-old father, who just recently opened up a Facebook page and is exploring it much like his grandson explores a new Buzz Lightyear toy.
That's the audience for Buzz, and they are the ones who have to have their CQ meters tipped in Google's favor.
TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.