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Google: Ruining Marriages One Buzz at a Time


Automatic contact list in a new app unearths some skeletons from years past.

This week, Google (GOOG) introduced a new social networking addition to its line of Web apps. Dubbed Google Buzz, the app combines status updates, link sharing, picture posting, and geotagging into the side panel of your Gmail inbox. The handy service is also available on most Android phones as well as the iPhone (AAPL) and could popularize live local updates more than any other social network.

But in its haste to provide a flashy alternative to Twitter, Facebook, and Yelp, Google neglected a very important aspect of creating a social network: privacy.

Setting up the service is quite simple -- it's merely an addition to your Google account -- and automatically chooses a list of people from your Gmail contact list to follow. But therein lies the tragedy.

The chosen contacts are based on activity, i.e. the people who you contact the most are placed on the list. Understandable. However, if the list isn't scrutinized while creating it, Buzz could automatically add people from your past that you haven't spoken to -- or even thought about -- in years. On their end, they see that you're following them. And if that's not awkward enough, it publicly posts that list in your Google profile by default!

That sound you hear is a million spouses frantically trying to tell a plausible story for why they're connected to a certain contact from the past.

In order to hide who you're following in Buzz, you actually have to travel away from the Buzz page and into your Google profile. Edit the page and uncheck the box that says "Display the list of people I'm following and people following me." It's a process so unintuitive that many Buzz users would never have found it.

The main problem with keeping the public feature on by default is how the app is set up. Buzz is an extension of email -- a private communication tool -- rather than a public forum like a Facebook profile or wall post. In confusing the two, new users will see their private sanctuary of email contacts posted for anyone to see. Jealous partners looking for signs of an affair, nosy bosses searching for wayward-bound employees, annoying windbags looking for any sign of a rekindled friendship. Google Buzz could provoke them all.

For a company that's been embroiled in several privacy scandals, Google really dropped the ball on the Buzz launch. While it may prove to be more useful and fun than Google Wave, many people will find very little need in signing up for another social networking service. And if it already carries the lack of privacy stigma that Facebook must constantly battle, Google Buzz has yet another obstacle on its way to popularity.
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