That’s the sound of yet another social networking site crashing into the online community. Google Buzz was released earlier this month as the latest attempt by the San Franciscan technology giant to saturate the market. What originally started as a search engine has spawned a map service, a phone, a web browser, email and countless other gadgets to negotiate the internet. But the way in which Google has constructed Buzz is a fundamental misunderstanding of the unwritten rules of the web.
In early February, Gmail users were given the option to get the Google Buzz add on with minimum hassle. Those who clicked to accept were immediately directed to a screen showing their “followers” and contacts. Google say that the system aggregates information from who we email most, and instantly designates these people followers.
Scroll down to see a stream of posts by your followers, a la Twitter.
Startlingly, you have no memory of asking to follow these people. And you’d be right, because Google made that choice for you. “Big Deal” I see you shrug. The web has created a laissez-faire attitude towards privacy, but in this case Google has cut you out of the agreement. When we put personal information on Facebook or Twitter, for better or for worse, it’s at our own behest. Google taking email contacts and making them public is something altogether more sinister. For example, imagine you’re conducting some potentially controversial research via your Gmail account. Sign up to Buzz, and suddenly your contacts are laid bare for millions to see, with the possibility of undermining and even endangering your reputation. After waves of complaints, Google have now changed their policy, and quickly redesigned Buzz to stop this from happening.
I am loathe to sound like a luddite on this topic. I think Twitter is fantastic, the idea of convergence intriguing and blogging the perfect platform for free thought and expression. But is the web really free? Why is there so little competition amongst social media? No one uses MySpace anymore, a smattering use Twitter, with the majority of the herd plumping for Facebook.
If social networking is to be truly taken seriously then competition must be encouraged. Car manufacture, mobile phones and high street stores all compete for the consumer, so why not online? Because the main social media platforms hold a monopoly, it means that progress and improvements are at the discretion of a handful of CEO’s, dictating how we communicate with each other online.
Much is made of the so-called democracy of the web. In a column last year, I waxed lyrical about “an army of bloggers”, willing to blow apart the structures of traditional media. Now I’m not so sure. Much of the web still focuses on the marketing of a product. That product is you. When you tap in a phrase to Google, it automatically throws up a list of suggested search terms, based on the most popular results.
This auto suggestion not only restricts your own searches, but is telling you what’s best to search for, instead of vice versa. An advertising technique called Behavioural Targeting also plays a huge role in this. As you skip merrily around the internet, visiting a range of sites, data is collected regarding what you’ve been looking at. Consequently, future web advertising is targeted with you in mind, matching with a unique set of searches on your computer.
This targeted marketing simply goes against any notions of a democratic web. We are stratified into types of customer stemming from our likes, dislikes and hobbies. Advertising and marketing is based on selling a product to a particular demographic.
If you don’t fit with a particular type, you’ll be shunted into one. Love the Coen Brothers and books by J.D Salinger? Well, take a look at these novels, Amazon proclaim. Companies who work on this idea of targeting argue that by providing these suggestions, the customer is empowered, being directed toward the films that make them laugh most, and reading the books that entertain them. Instead, it restricts free choice. We end up consuming only a very small range of information, based on our supposed wants and needs.
So why aren’t we concerned about this? Because the reward is greater than the risk. We’re prepared to sacrifice individual power over convenience, take the good with the bad. Yes, the web can be a playground for extremist views, vicious scamming and other unsavoury material. But it’s also a global network, where people can communicate like never before.
That, I think, is good enough for most.