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Buzzing, Tweeting and Carping

Thursday, 18 Feb 2010 | 10:35 AM ET

Funny, isn’t it? The people who review gadgets generally aren’t the people who buy them.

After all, whom would you hire to write your tech column, Average Joe Consumer or someone with advanced technical skills?

Exactly. So tech reviewers tend to be devotees, the people who get sweaty-palmed at the thought of 64-bit addressing and multiband radios — not members of the target audience, the hundreds of millions who will actually spend money on these things. That’s why tech blogs often savage easy-to-use products that become huge hits (the Flip camera), but adore more technical products that would overwhelm normal people (Linux).

All of this brings us to Buzz, the new would-be Twitter from Google .

At its heart, Twitter is dead simple: you type little messages into the box at Twitter.com — news, jokes, observations. Your messages show up on the screens of your followers, whoever’s signed up to receive them.

That simplicity has made Twitter a huge hit. But “simple” usually means “limited,” and Twitter is no exception. Your messages can’t be longer than 140 characters. There’s no text formatting. You can’t paste in photos or videos. There’s no filtering of messages. No way to rank or rate people or their utterances. No way to send messages out to canned groups of people, like Family or Co-workers.

Google Buzz overcomes all of that. It’s a lot like Twitter (with huge helpings of FriendFeed.com thrown in), but there’s no length limit on your messages. You can search for messages, give certain ones a “thumbs up” (you click a button labeled Like as you do in Facebook). You can forward messages by e-mail. Comments and replies to a certain post remain attached to it, clumped together as a conversation. You can link to your Flickr, Picasa or YouTube accounts, making it easy to drop a photo or a video link into a Buzz posting.

You can also post messages to your Buzz account by e-mail, which is great when you’re on the move.

Google Buzz
Google Buzz

That feature works only if you send the message from your Gmail account, which brings up a huge Buzz point: it’s deeply intertwined with Gmail, Google’s free e-mail service. In fact, Buzz is an icon nestled right in there between Inbox and Sent Mail. So you need a Gmail account to use Buzz. No problem, unless you feel that Google has its paws on way too much of the world’s personal information already.

And if you are, in fact, a privacy fanatic, Google Buzz may not be the social-networking tool for you. The service’s introduction last week caused a ripple of horror through the paranoia-inclined.

See, on Twitter, when you first start out, you’re not “following” anyone at all, which would make it a very silent, boring place. So when you sign up, Twitter shows a list of current members with a track record of being funny or interesting — a starter set of people to follow.

Google decided to go that one better: it would automatically sign you up to follow the people you communicate with most often on Gmail or Google Chat.

Unfortunately, that meant that anyone —friends, enemies, perfect strangers — could see whom you communicate with most often, just by examining your Buzz profile page.

Google worked furiously over the weekend; in several waves of updates, it fixed the privacy holes and wrote apologetic blog posts. Now when you sign up, Google merely suggests people you might want to follow; you have to approve or reject the suggestions. It’s also much easier to turn off Buzz completely with one click.

So now, Buzz isn’t nearly as much of a privacy concern. But don’t worry — it’s still got plenty of problems to go around.

The biggest one: confusion.

In eliminating the Twitterish bare-bones simplicity, Google stepped right splat into the opposite problem: dizzying complexity. At the moment, it’s not so much Google Buzz as Google “Huh?”s.

Why aren’t the incoming posts in simple chronological order, as they are on Twitter? (Answer: Because every time someone comments on an older post, it pops back up to the top.)

You can connect Buzz to Twitter. But it’s a one-way, passive link: your Twitter posts appear on Buzz — eventually — not vice versa. And there’s no Buzz-Twitter linkage of followers or replies. And connections are available to Facebook.

When you see a good Buzz post, you can e-mail it to someone. But, weirdly, you can’t pass it on to your Buzz followers (what, on Twitter, is called re-Tweeting).

Why isn't Buzz "beta"?

Inconsistencies and poor design choices are everywhere. For example, a new message can be Public or Private (addressed to one particular Buzzer). But you don’t have that choice when you’re responding to a post — only when you’re creating a new one.

Meanwhile, Google committed a kindergarten-level design gaffe when it put the Public and Private choices in a pop-up menu. If there are only two choices, why not make them both visible as buttons?

Sometimes, back-and-forths about a certain topic appear like the script of a play. At other times, they appear as they do in Gmail — as a collapsed set of file-folder tabs. Google says that there’s an algorithm that determines which look you get, but from your perspective, it’s just inconsistent.

Google’s recommendation system, meanwhile, tries to help you sort through the tidal wave of conversation by automatically promoting or hiding messages according to what it thinks you’ll find useful. So you may suddenly start getting messages from people you’re not actually following (because people you are following have liked it or commented on it).

Conversely, messages that Google thinks aren’t that interesting get dumped at the bottom of the page, collapsed into tabs. Unfortunately, they may include messages from your boss, best friend or lover. There’s no way to tell Buzz, “Never treat my wife that way.”

You can also do Buzz from your iPhone or Android phone (just not from regular cellphones; no length limit means no Buzzing by text message). Since these GPS phones know where you are, you can tap Nearby, and see other Buzz members on a map to see where they’re standing. (Of course, they can also see you, which is a little creepy; you can turn off this feature if you like.)

On an Android phone, like the Motorola Droid or the Nexus One, you can even see what people are saying about a particular store or restaurant that’s right across the street from you. That feature has big potential.

Then again, the whole Buzz-on-phone thing spells even more confusion. There are three different ways to get at Buzz — from buzz.google.com, Google.com, or the Google Maps app for Android — each with a different set of features. “There’s opportunity for us to improve that,” concedes a product manager.

He’s not kidding. True, at this point, you spend a disproportionate amount of your Buzz time absolutely baffled. But remember, it’s a Web site. It can be improved at any time — and Google has been making changes at an astonishing pace, even in its first week of operation. The company agrees with almost all of the criticisms you’ve just read, and says that it will address them soon.

Funny, isn’t it? It’s a running joke that Google labels many of its services as “beta” (meaning “in testing”) — and leaves that label in place for years. And here’s Buzz, a truly beta product that isn’t labeled that way.

Buzz probably won’t make much of a dent in Facebook or Twitter or FriendFeed. But because it’s nicely integrated with Gmail and Google chat, because it has powerful and flexible features and because millions of Gmail members can get in with a single click, Buzz will have its own following. In other words, its complex design is a challenge that Google will have to overcome — but it’s not enough to be a Buzzkill.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.

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