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Rafe and Josh debate Google's Buzz

Is Google Buzz effective competition to Twitter? Or is it just FriendFeed light? Webware writers Rafe Needleman and Josh Lowensohn debate.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Rafe Needleman
Josh Lowensohn
9 min read

Google on Tuesday released Buzz (news), its Twitter competitor. Or is it a swipe at FriendFeed? The new platform has elements of both. It joins other Google communication tools inside the Gmail service, so you can't miss it if you're a Gmail user (if you haven't gotten the notice yet that your account is Buzz-enabled, just wait a few days). Should you use it? That depends on whether your network of friends is on board.

If they are experimenting with it, you might find Google Buzz is an easier status-update app to get into than Twitter, since when you join it, your network is mostly pre-built from the people you already communicate with on Gmail, and you'll start getting Buzz updates from your friends in your email unless you turn that feature off. Buzz isn't ready yet to knock Twitter off its perch, though. Josh Lowensohn and I (Rafe) looked into its pros and cons in a few areas.

Getting started

CNET Editor-at-Large Rafe Needleman: When you first start using Twitter, it can take a little some time to get what it was about. But not much. Twitter is pretty straightforward. Its conversation-management features are basic, but that makes it easy to understand. Buzz is more complicated. The timeline of items isn't chronological like Twitter is. Instead, it's like FriendFeed: items bubble to the top when other people comment on them. That commenting system makes conversations possible in Buzz, though, which isn't quite as easy in Twitter. (Friendfeed, by the way, was founded by ex-Googlers and acquired by Facebook in 2009.)

There are a few confusing things about the Buzz user interface, but hopefully they're just early-stage missteps. Google Wave only got sorted out after it launched in preview to a limited set of users and with limited functionality. But Buzz is being rolled out to a much larger group, and it's surprising how unfinished the interface feels.

I've already had a few conversations in Buzz, though. Updates and comments show up on the Buzz pages in real time, as in Wave, so it's easy to get in and have a short, ad-hoc group conversation. That's pretty neat. And I really like the capability to mute a post (and its comment thread) without unfollowing a user.

Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

CNET Associate Editor Josh Lowensohn: I think where Buzz can succeed over Twitter (but not necessarily Facebook) is in getting people like my parents to use a service like this. They don't want to have a bunch of windows open when they could just keep using Gmail like they already do. That said, do I want to know what my dad is up to throughout the day while scanning e-mails? Probably not.

But the FriendFeed comparisons are the most apt. FriendFeed did (and still does) many of the things that Buzz can, including a recommendation engine of sorts. Where Google has changed things up is in building this thing in an already successful product (Gmail). I'm probably not the best example here, but say I had FriendFeed, Twitter, Facebook, and Gmail open at work. Which one do you think my IT department is going to try to block? Gmail is Buzz' Trojan horse.

The privacy toggles on Buzz are good, although the private messaging feature is nonexistent. Instead, Google's solution is to just use e-mail, or Google chat, which are both integrated into Gmail already. This seems like a big oversight to me, but at least you can hop to these features without leaving that Buzz/Gmail ecosystem. I think Google could learn a thing or two from FriendFeed, which does a much better job at letting users very quickly toggle who they want to send a post to. In the case of Buzz, it's either public, which goes out to everyone, or private--to just your followers.

Buzz' privacy controls leave something to be desired, although they are simple to use. Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Rafe: The interface that controls which posts goes to whom is horrible. You have to press the "public" button to see the "private" option. It's like the old press-Start-to-turn-off weirdness in Windows. It would be really nice if there was a shortcut, like the direct message syntax in Twitter ("D @username").

Josh: Or just a simple radio button. Why have a drop down menu for just two items? Isn't this the same company that spends an inordinate amount of attention on a few pixels on its homepage?

Rafe: There's one technological advancement in Buzz I really approve of: no artificial 140-character limit. It's not needed. People aren't going to be using this app through SMS, and the format of the update window tends to naturally cut people off from rambling.

Josh: Yes, but it also means people can copy paste epic chunks of text. There is something to be said about brevity when you're going through several hundred messages.

Rafe: Personally, I admit that I like Twitter's text limit. I like the enforced pithiness. But I'd rather we build tools based on what users want than on some arbitrary technological anachronism.

Mobility and Location

Buzz as seen on the iPhone's Safari browser. Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Josh: The location aspect of Buzz freaks me out, but I'm like that with Twitter too. It's just way too easy to forget to toggle it on and off, and then the whole world knows where your house is, and maybe your shiny new TV you just wrote about. That said, the implementation on the m.Google.com version of Buzz is easy to use, and will really help fill out Google's local results the same way Yelp reviews do. With just a few taps you can say what venue you're in and see other people nearby. On my aging iPhone, it's a whole lot faster to visit m.Google.com, than to load up Foursquare.

Rafe: Location reporting and mobility are gigantic parts of Buzz, and in that regard this service will likely compete with Yelp and with location-reporting apps like Foursquare. And also, get this, with a service coincidentally called "Buzz," still in development at AT&T. Can't wait to see the sparks fly on that.

You say that Gmail is Buzz's Trojan horse. I think instead it's Android. Google is going to layer this thing into Android and make being mobile and social at the same time as easy as possible. And since Google controls the direction of the operating system, is designing its own phones, has all the information about where everyone is (including iPhone users) and the data on who's socially connected to whom, Buzz has potential to become the big next social mover...all because of Google's mobile chops.


Rafe: Considering that it's a Google service, I'm surprised how poor the search experience is in Buzz. The updates aren't live (as they are on Twitter search...or even Google.com when it includes Twitter items in its results), and they show up in what appears to be a random order. The order is probably page-ranked, but it's confusing to see status updates like that. There's also no help for creating advanced queries.

Josh: I completely agree on the search aspect. It's nice to have it, but it's sorely missing the "show options" menu we've been trained to use in all the rest of Google's search products. You can still use Google's same search operators though, I just don't think most people know how to use those.

Buzz's search orders search queries by relevancy, although more often, users are looking for what's new. Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Follower management

Click to enlarge Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Rafe: No social site yet does follower management all that well. Once you have a few dozen people following you and you want to figure out if they're worth following back, there's no fast way to rank them for suitability. However, Buzz does do a good job of suggesting people that you might want to follow, based, it appears, on social connectedness. This is a more egalitarian way of getting people to use the system, compared to things like Twitter's suggested user list, which capriciously promoted some people to Twitter super-stardom.

Josh: Google's followers list is intentionally barren and heavy on the scrolling, but it's been designed that way in order to fit into the Gmail ecosystem. In Google's mind, users should never have to worry about unfollowing someone. If someone is being spammy, it's probably already been blocked by the same filters that weed out bad e-mails, and when you mute conversation items you don't like, Buzz' recommendation engine will learn. At least that's the premise, and there's a big plus side to that if it works. I certainly follow people on Twitter who only provide one useful or interesting tweet out of twenty. If Google can find a way to highlight that one, it's a reason for me to use it instead of Twitter or some other service.


Rafe: My big beef with buzz is that it's yet another social communication system aimed at an audience that's already deluged with communications methods and networks. I don't mean to suggest that Google shouldn't try to compete in this space, or any other, but there's more that could have been done here. Recognizing that Twitter is still a destination for millions of users would be been good. The capability to put items on Twitter and have them show up in Buzz is nice, but for some reason Google decided not to enable the reverse: That posts on Buzz appear on Twitter. That's cracked--it would have made it possible for users to move from Twitter to Buzz, and would have helped highlight the differences between the services.

I'm curious to see if Google can be successful in creating a form of federated Buzz. Google made the Wave communications system open, allowing companies to set up their own internal Wave servers and connect them in a "federation" to other servers. It's time for status updates like tweets and buzzes to leave the domain of a single company, just as e-mail has. An open, federated system for Buzz would be a start.

Josh: It's coming. Google said as much this morning. Although I think the not posting to Twitter bit is--for now, by design. Google doesn't want to lump itself into a long line of cool, but me-too Twitter posting products. Instead, Buzz is just the beginning of a much larger information tracking ecosystem within Google's products.

Rafe: Speaking of third-party access, we need apps for Buzz. For Twitter (and Facebook and Friendfeed), apps like Seesmic and Tweetdeck give you a more inclusive dashboard than the services on their native sites. Apps also bring social streams from multiple services together, which is valuable for people already using several services. I'm a little surprised Google didn't announce any partnerships here, although for sure the news would have been leaked early if it did.

Where it fits

Rafe: Google has a menagerie of real-time communication platforms: Gmail, Chat, Wave, Voice, Buzz, and also Google Docs, which can be used for real-time collaboration. All these apps can be used for different types of communication, but they also overlap quite a bit. I for one find it overwhelming to be reading a Buzz thread in Gmail and have a Chat message pop up. It's just a bit too much. It's good that all these apps share an address book, but i would like to see Google do some work to rationalize these different media and their inboxes.

Josh: I think Buzz does a better job at integrating these Google services than Wave did. Yeah, it's a little weird the chat isn't there, but you can just as easily pop out a conversation as its own window while you're cruising through other Buzz posts. There are some productivity benefits to be had there--assuming that's what you're using the service for. Having two in-boxes in the same service though--that's a little funky.

What's next for Buzz?

Josh: Buzz is a carpet bomb in the social publishing/networking space. It's Google taking charge of a data stream that until today, it was merely sucking up from others.

In the long term, it's important for Google to get a hold of this real-time, public news stream, not only for advertising purposes, but in case Twitter and Facebook get bought up by a competitor who is less inclined to share. Doing all of these things within Gmail is also telling, although no surprise. Gmail is one of Google's fastest evolving products, with experimental features that go out to a large group of users who keep it running all day. While it may seem a little undercooked at the moment, it could end up being just as important a communication medium as e-mail in just a few short years.

So what to look forward to in future iterations? More media and feed types for one. Right now Buzz is anemic when compared to FriendFeed and Facebook. Expect to see previews for more video hosts (just like Google's search result previews offer), and Facebook's status updates. Also expect to see more mobile apps, and places to update your buzz profile. Google is coming out of the gates with APIs that will let third party devs slurp up people's Buzz notes, but if Twitter has taught us anything, third parties tend to find more innovating ways to help people expedite, and improve their posts.

First look video:

Watch this: CNET First Look at Google Buzz

Further reading:
Google's social side hopes to catch some Buzz
Google Buzz press conference (live blog)
Google co-founder Sergey Brin on Buzz
Google struggles with social skills