Sunday, February 14, 2010

If ever a Buzz there wuzz

Google's precipitous plunge into the socially networking arena is basically beneficial for us Gmail users stuck in our old-fashioned email world. Powerful new forms of communication, work, socialization and entertainment are emerging as a result of platforms that are developed for the explicit purpose of connecting an individual to a network of other individuals. To learn to make the most of these new forms, we need to be able to pass seamlessly from our old models, based on metaphors like the letter (one-to-one) and the newspaper (one-to-everyone) to new models. These include, from to the new one-to-several and everyone-to-everyone models supported by Google Buzz.

Seamlessness is one thing, pre-weaving a friends network from a list of e-mail contacts is another. I find it hard to believe that Google launched Buzz in its initial form without anticipating the deluge of angry protests. In my opinion, relatively small scale user test would have allowed them to anticipate the overwhelmingly negative reception. Google's reaction, the adaptation of Buzz towards making concealing rather than revealing the default, has been remarkably fast -- are they really making it up as they go along?

It would not surprise me if Google realized in advance that they were stepping over an important line with the launch of Buzz. Whether it was meant in this way or not, it is worthwhile reflecting on the message the overstep relays. Google could have found no more effective way to remind the world that, although they invest in protection of our privacy and freedom of expression (cf. Gmail's quote to NYT), they cannot make a guarantee to Gmail users that Gmail is an entirely secure channel of communication. Effectively, in the face of threat from hackers traced to China, Google has reacted by engaging it its own sort of hacking. Because Buzz steps so far outside of what people general expect e-mail to do, Google has basically carried out a hacking attack on itself. Essentially, by momentarily making us feel exposed, by showing us the potential damage that could be wrought by a large-scale Gmail hacking attck, Google has given us a clear and memorable reminder: Gmail cannot, and never will be, able to guarantee 100% protection of our privacy. We must always keep in mind the potential dangers of large scale compromise of the system.