Tuesday saw the debut of Google Buzz, a new service for sharing status updates, links and media with your friends. It’s currently being rolled out to the public slowly — you can sign up at buzz.google.com — but we’ve had access to Buzz since shortly after it launched, and I’ve had a chance to play around with it.
Buzz integrates directly with your Gmail inbox, so updates and comments appear along side your e-mails. It bears a strong resemblance to other sharing platforms like FriendFeed or Twitter and Facebook’s News Feed — imagine all of those magically inserted into your Gmail inbox and you get the picture.
It has all the makings of a powerful, real-time social platform that’s ready to compete with, or compliment, those established players.
But for now, Buzz is a bit of a mystery. Only a handful of people are actually using it, so the sharing features don’t really feel that social. It’s as if you’re broadcasting into an empty void. In that regard, my first day with Buzz reminds me of my first few days with Google Wave, or my first few days with FriendFeed. That feeling of being in a big empty room will change once Buzz opens up and more of my friends join, just as it did for those other services.
There’s another more serious limitation: What happens in Buzz stays in Buzz. You can’t use it to post to your favorite social networks. You can add feeds from Twitter, Flickr, Google Reader and any other social site (except for Facebook, notably), and all that stuff gets aggregated into a single feed on Buzz where your friends can leave comments. But when you post a status update or share any sort of link or media on Buzz, you don’t have the option to CC Twitter or FriendFeed.
Google noted during Tuesday’s launch event that it does plan on adding the ability to post out to Twitter and other services soon. And, since all public posts in Buzz are available as an XML feed, you could hack together a way to post to Twitter if you know what you’re doing. But for now, for most every user, Google Buzz remains a one-way street.
Once those two things change — the volume problem and the cross-posting problem — Buzz will be a serious player on the social web. Right now, it’s worth playing with and getting used to, because once it gains momentum, it’s going to become part of our daily lives. It’s that easy to use, and that powerful.
Here’s how it works
Once you’re given access, you’ll see Buzz appear in your Gmail sidebar just below your Inbox. Click it and you’ll see something familiar: a white box inviting you to post a status update.
When you first arrive in Buzz, it’s automatically set up to follow the few dozen people in your Google Contacts list that you correspond with the most. It’s a rather genius bit of engineering — Buzz taps into your Gmail network so you don’t need to go through that process of importing contacts or “finding friends,” one of the most painful experiences on the social web.
Each post to Buzz can be public (for the whole web to see) or private (you select which friends see it). The default is public, but you can also address posts directly to a friend using a variation on Twitter’s @ reply syntax, like this: @firstname.lastname@example.org.
Send one of those updates and it shows up in your stream and in his stream, and anyone following either one of you will see it. But the note will also show up in his Gmail inbox, so you can make sure he sees it.
You can type text of course, but if you put in a link, Buzz will go gather photos or videos that live behind that link and give you the option of adding them to your update. Photos show up in a nice little gallery of thumbnails. Videos get embedded and can be played inline.
Above that white box, you can see the number of services Buzz is aggregating for you. Click on that number and you can add or subtract services to control what shows up in your feed.
All of your activities, comments and all those of your friends will show up here. Everything appears in real-time and the updates are very fast. If you or one of your friends posts something boring that doesn’t have any comments or media associated with it, Buzz will eventually collapse it. So long, clutter.
People can like, comment and e-mail anything that shows up in their feed, whether it was posted by you or them or whoever.
If you want to see your public feed of everything you’re sharing, check out your Google Profile (you know you have one, right?).
Posts can be geotagged, and the location-aware features really comes to life when you post from a mobile with GPS inside. There’s a mobile webapp optimized for Android and iPhone browsers — surf to m.google.com/app/buzz
Buzz will figure out where you are using the mobile browser’s geolocation abilities through HTML5. The interface for picking your location is elegant.
Buzz will then show you recent posts around your current location. It can also plot nearby Buzz posts on a layer in Google Maps.
Clearly, Buzz mimics the functionality of Facebook’s News Feed — minus all the Farmville, Mafia Wars and Superpoke notifications. It draws upon a common vernacular for sharing and commenting that Facebook helped establish.
So, is it a replacement for Facebook, or a compliment to Facebook? In a way, Google’s rapidly-expanding social stack — Buzz, Gmail, Contacts, Chat, Profiles, Picasa and YouTube — could be seen as a clone of Facebook that operates on the open web. If anything, it’s a version of Facebook for people who never got into Facebook, or chose not to participate because of its closed nature.
No matter how it ends up impacting Facebook, Buzz will go down in history as a transformative step in Google’s timeline. It brings a whole new utility to what is already our most critical social tool — the e-mail inbox.