Social web for the long-term

Now that the biggest waves of Buzz hype are hopefully behind us, it’s a good time concentrate what Google Buzz actually is and what it isn’t. I have followed Buzz with great interest and I’ve previously talked about Jaiku, feeds and discussions on the web on general here. I even pushed Plaxo at one point, but they are pretty much dead in the water right now. I was couple of years off and a technology wrong with my prediction of sort-of real-time web in 2008.

buzzwelcome-croppedIn a way I view Google Buzz as a reference platform, like Google Wave Preview, instead of a finished product. Of course, because Buzz is right there in Gmail’s interface, it’s Buzz deserves to get all the critical comments about its launch it got. It could be argued that without exposing it to the larger public at start, it would have been impossible to get all those great ideas to make it better. One interesting thing to note is that most requested features for Buzz are UI-related. However, I’m more interested in what makes Buzz work behind the scenes, because if Google can get the critical mass behind this, things are going to be great.

It was again a sad example of the sorry state of technology blogging when Buzz first hit the web. In that little world that’s so enamored with Twitter, Facebook and status updates, it never occurred to anyone that Google was aiming much higher. One of the worst offenders was the serial-troll Lyons. He was followed with lots of others who came up with as lame puns in their headlines without actually figuring out what they were looking at. Instead we got petty lists of “fails” in Buzz. Yeah, on jovencitas the surface that these Techmeme all-stars barely skim, Buzz might resemble Twitter, but the differences are pretty obvious from the start.

The attention spans are so incredibly short that that they have completely forgotten that even in this age of agile Web 2.0 iterative processes, things take time. This was probably best illustrated by this post, where the author totally oblivious to the lineage of Buzz claimed that

As always, time will tell whether this is a game-changer or just another Jaiku, the Twitter competitor that Google bought but never found a way to leverage.

In their defense, even Ars Technica got it wrong.

The only reason I can come up with why people associated Buzz instantly with Twitter was the simple user interface. Much more interesting comparisons would have been with Friendfeed (which kind of tried to do this in simple way), Yahoo Updates (which kind of tried to do this in a difficult way) or it’s genetical ancestor Jaiku (which kind of did this LBS twitter thing in a pretty nice package a good three years ago).

While I agree that Buzz is a rather odd combination of product/platform/project, I do find it exciting that Google has the resources to just try things. We are so early to this social web thing that if someone pretends that they know what exactly works, they’ll be proven wrong in a fortnight. Sure, I do agree that Google might be forgetting that what people want are applications and not technology (a mistake Nokia keeps on repeating, and one reason why they are so incredibly lost in the technology woods. Or like Yahoo, which just pumps out nice web tech with no apparent apps or revenue streams). Google has the money to experiment and the mindset to test things on a large scale. That takes balls. That’s what the whole world wide web was about in the first place, experimentation. You have to be pretty clueless if you take anything on the internet right now as granted.

Seriously, take a long view here. Even on the internet, you need some time to lay out the groundwork even when you’re working in the application layer. If you think about the 2,5 year timeline between Jaiku’s acquisition and Buzz, there were little hints along the way in many of Google’s products. To be able to have something like Buzz, Google had to first come up with a friend/follow system and a location system. You know like following other people on Google Reader and Google Latitude? The ADD-riddled tech bloggers were pretty hyped about Google Latitude and how it was going to kill Brightkite, Foursquare and other LBS services, but somehow Google Buzz failed to generate a single comparison to these services?

But all this is just technology. What about the revolution that I hope Google can pull with Buzz? What’s the beauty in Google Buzz? You only need to check Google’s API page for Google Buzz and you’ll soon realize that all the stuff behind what makes Google Buzz work are open standards, which enable pretty ground-breaking integrations that could just solve the mess discussion on the internet is right now.

As a sidenote, when tech bloggers complain how they can’t add this and that twitter stream to their Google Buzz timeline or how the tweets are not in real-time and all that, they would only need to look at that API and realize that because Google looking at the whole thing at much higher level, it’s actually the publisher who needs to find a way to enable a thing awkwardly called PubSubHubbub, and in that instant all the content is pretty much real-time. Of course, I have no idea if it is at all feasible to use PubSubHubbub in the scale of Twitter, but the point is that Google is not planning to have custom pipelines to Buzz, but to play with common, open protocols and APIs. Another point is that once your content works with Buzz, it works with any aggregator/social app that has decided to have that same common, open infrastructure.

So, instead of trying to centralize every user, every piece of content to their site, like Facebook and Twitter, Google has had the guts to try and harness all the discussion on the web to their service. It’s going to be a happy day when this post right here and all the discussion and the comment this might generate are all happily syndicated in Buzz.

The open nature of Buzz is not all news to some creatures on the web. On Twitter and Facebook you can follow and be followed by inanimate products and abstract brands and they can have pages and whatnot, but right now, to be able to take part in Buzz you need to have a Google Account and that means that you have to be a natural, real person and you shouldn’t have more than one account. This is pretty bad news to all the “SEOs” and other “internet marketing experts”. It is also excellent news and pretty amazing on this forcing-marketing-down-your-throat in this “social” happy place we call the web 2.0. Simply, that means real people and real feeds that try to integrate the real discussion on the web. All those @’s and #’s? What about real discussion with real threading and real topics? What about a renaissance of long-form personal publishing? (If you didn’t follow any of the previous links, please read this. I’m totally with DeWitt Clinton here).

The trick to make all this work and where Friendfeed and Plaxo failed is critical mass. I’m pretty sure that the guys at Facebook are really looking at Friendfeed again and rethinking what parts they should chop off it instead, because if Google can truly pull this off and make this pipe-dream of semantic and social aggregation nirvana that plumbs everything out of what it can get it social graph on work, Facebook has no other option than to open up and that’s pretty much the end game for them right there.

The technical challenge is really complex and it’s going to take some time until all the pieces are in place. Google has put their thing out in the open and it is now the publishers’ turn to do some back-end changes so that this discussion utopia can get its legs. I’m not expecting the social web to turn on its head in a day, but this is some serious stuff for the long term. The reason why I think Google can pull this off is that Google just needs to show ads on the web to make this worthwhile, Facebook et al. need to monetize every inch of their userbase. Google can, and it is in their advantage, to utilize open systems and not lock people in. And, hey, maybe things don’t pan out. Google has the cash to try something else.

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