If your life is abuzz with privacy worries right now, you are probably one of those who signed up for Google Buzz after its launch on February 9. Less than two weeks since its birth, Buzz has already seen what the collective ire of the online community looks like.
After a public apology from Buzz’s product manager Todd Jackson and promises of “major improvements,” the real issue at stake seems the nature and relevance of online privacy in an increasingly connected world.
On the day of the launch, Mr. Jackson wrote on the official Google blog that apart from following specific people whose posts one wants to see, Buzz “recommends posts from people you’re not directly following, often ones where your friends are having a lively conversation in the comments.”
Monetising user data
It went on to say that besides checking out buzz from people you’re following, the location-aware mobile version will allow you to see nearby buzz from the people around you.
That, in a way, explains Google’s approach to social networking. Aggregate data from various sites, initiate conversation around it and maximise the ability to monetise user data.
It also shows what can go wrong when you inject private contacts into a public stream.
Explaining the integration with Gmail inbox and pre-existing contacts, Google in an email response said: “Even people who want to keep their inbox focused on professional correspondence might discover that it is beneficial to share articles about what’s going on in their industry.”
But that doesn’t explain why publishing one’s frequent contact list on Gmail wasn’t ‘opt-in;’ or why Google Reader, Picasa and GChat posts must automatically become part of one’s Buzz stream for all the world to see.
Google quickly responded with modifications in all those areas. One can also delete Buzz using the tab in the ‘Settings’ page, which wasn’t available during launch. But it happened only after user outrage, only after the empire struck back.
Somewhere along the way, the online social movement has slowly turned into a corporate take-over, from Facebook’s Beacon to Google’s Buzz. From being virtual watering holes where people could meet up, social networking sites are increasingly moving towards monetizing means infringing on privacy — without consent.
There is a serious problem with any algorithm determining who my closest friends are using a frequently contacted list.
After all, it was the community that created @replies; it created the hash-tag interface; it sustains the amazing expanse of virtual identities, and only it can decide what the future will look like.