Life is a beta: Google Buzz’ disruptive privacy settings

What Would Google Do?
What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis

I just finished reading What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis and was rather disappointed. I saw Jeff Jarvis speak at the Next Web 2009 and he is an excellent speaker and certainly knows how to entertain his audience with stories. However, as a writer I am not so impressed. The book is filled with numbers and figures of revenue, clicks, marketshare etcetera. On top of that it doesn’t read like a coherent argument.

The Next Web
Jeff Jarvis at The Next Web 2009

Please note that this is not a book review but a collection of notes of everything that I got out of this book for my research. I tried a new notetaking system for my research: Evernote. Instead of underlining passages I took pictures of relevant paragraphs with my Google phone, the Nexus One (the pictures in this blog post are taken with my Nikon D90) and directly uploaded them to Evernote. Evernote makes my notes available everywhere and it applies text recognition to everything that I upload so my pictures become searchable.

Evernote text recognition

Life is a beta

In both the Perceived Freshness Fetish and Identity 2.0 I describe the web 2.0 culture as a beta culture. I would like to argue that web 1.0 was always ‘Under Construction’ while web 2.0 is always ‘In Beta.’ The main difference is the disruption of the updates for the user or visitor. Websites that are ‘Under Construction’ are unfinished or are in the process of being updated. They bear signs of inaccessible construction sites that depict roadblocks. It is a disruptive update process. Services such as Google’s products that are in a perpetual beta state are invisibly being updated. Platform updates do not go unnoticed to users (as can be seen in the case of privacy settings in Facebook and Google Buzz), but it does not immediately disrupt their webflow. Updates are less disruptive because they are being performed in the backend instead of the frontend.

The term beta is also a social construct in the Google world similar to the Under Construction signs indicating “I’m sorry” or according to Jeff Jarvis a way of not having to say sorry:

“Beta” is Google’s way of never having to say they’re sorry. It is also Google’s way of saying, “There are sure to be mistakes here and so please help us and fix them and improve the product. Tell us what you want it to be. Thanks.” (Jarvis 2009: 91)1

Google’s products often start in Google Labs before they graduate for public use. The next step is usually a few years in beta which in Google terms means that the product is mature enough for public launch but that it may come with flaws. In the summer of 2009 Google decided to remove the beta label from its major products:

Today we’re paving the road. We’re taking the beta label off of Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs and Google Talk to remove any doubt that Apps is a mature product suite. (Rahen 2009)2

Recent Google experiments are launched in Google Labs or labelled with a Preview label instead of a Beta label, as in the case with Google Wave. Beta, as Google’s way of not having to say sorry, seems to have disappeared. However, the introduction of Google’s new service Google Buzz forced Google to publicly say sorry to its users. The service, similar to Twitter, was introduced overnight without the infamous beta/preview logo. It just appeared as a new feature within/on top of Gmail. Its default privacy settings revealed a list of contacts of “people you email and chat with most.” After complaints from users about the sudden publication of their contactlist Google admitted the ‘Buzz social network testing flaws‘ to BBC News. Products are usually extensively tested with friends/family or a relatively small set of users in a private beta. Buzz was launched without these tests and users immediately pointed to its privacy flaws. While Google considers our life to be a beta where experimentation is key, Google Buzz showed that its users base is not quite ready or interested in living life as a beta.

 What Would Google Do?
Life is a beta
  1. Jarvis, Jeff. What Would Google Do? New York: Harperluxe, 2009).[]
  2. Sheth, Rajen. “Paving the road to Apps adoption in large enterprises.” Official Google Enterprise Blog 7 Jul 2009. Web. 26 Feb 2010.[]

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