Google Buzz re-invents Gmail

When I first heard about Google Buzz, I was worried that I might be seeing the birth of another “me too” product. After all, everyone wants a piece of the Twitter halo. But with the release of Buzz today, you can see how Google has taken the social media lessons of Twitter and applied them to their own core products.

I’m especially fond of Gmail Buzz, which adds the power of asymmetric following to email.

AWESOME idea. There are many of us for whom email is still our core information console, and our most powerful and reliable vehicle for sharing ideas, links, pictures, and conversations with the people who constitute our real social network. But up till now, we could only share with explicitly specified individuals or groups. Now, we can post messages to be read by anyone. Sergey Brin said that Buzz gives the ability “to post a message without a ‘to’ line.” That’s exactly right – something that in retrospect is so brilliantly obvious that it will soon no doubt be emulated by every other cloud-based email system.

Buzz items can be shared directly in Gmail, but are also pulled in from other social sharing sites, including Twitter, Picasa, YouTube, and Flickr.

What’s particularly cool is that the people you “follow” are auto-generated for you out of your email-based social network. If you communicate with them, they are the seed for your buzz cloud. Over time, as you like or dislike buzz entries from that network, the buzz cloud adapts.

Google has also done a neat hack on the Twitter @name syntax, allowing you to prefix @ to an email address to have a message show up for sure in that user’s Gmail Inbox. Saying (or will put a message into foo’s Buzz cloud in the same way as saying @foo does on Twitter, but it will also show up in their Gmail Inbox, to make sure they see it. You can also make messages private to only named recipients or groups. (I love this – right now, I have two Twitter accounts, one for public sharing, and another for private sharing.)

I’ve always found it perplexing that vendors who manage pieces of our communications network for us – our email, IM, and phone – have failed to build social networking features into their products. Google is clearly now tackling that job, increasingly making its communication products into a powerful social media platform. Gmail already includes IM and some automatic social learning in the address book; adding Buzz makes it that much more powerful. And the fact that whatever you buzz is added to your Google profile (and immediately picked up in Google search) will turn those seemingly vestigial Google profiles into something that might just become the next generation personal home page.

You can begin to see where all this is going: the integration of Gmail, Buzz, Reader, Voice, Geo, Blogger, YouTube, Calendar, Contacts… Buzz is a game-changing first step, but when you think about where Google will take this over the next year it gets exciting…

There’s a real lesson here for anyone who wants to enter a crowded market: play to your strengths. Think through what job that hot new startup does for its users. Don’t copy what they look like. Apply what they’ve taught you to your own business.

There are real benefits to using email as a social media platform. Just about everyone knows how to use it. (Despite claims that young millenials look down on email, it’s just too useful to go away anytime soon.) It’s incredibly flexible – you can share anything you want, and comment on it at any length, from 140 characters to as many as it takes to get your point across. It has a global address space that allows you to find almost anyone, an address space that links people to content. It’s multi-platform, and accessible from anywhere.

In some ways, Gmail Buzz brings many of the benefits of Google Wave to Gmail. Every Buzz item can be turned into a conversation (much as in Wave or Friendfeed.) People can comment on your Buzz, comment on your comments, or @ reply you. Sure, it lacks the hyper-cool wiki-style shared editing features (though those perhaps could be added in a future release), but it also lacks the critical flaw that made Wave into more of a “concept car” than a real product: I don’t have to adopt a new tool or build a new social network. It just adds rich new capabilities into the tool and network that I already use.

Google has also done a terrific job of giving inline preview to links you share. This is especially awesome for photos and videos. The inline slideshows are terrific – actually better than you get in most native photo or video sharing apps. And I love that you can share a Flickr link as easily as you can share one from Picasa (bucking the trend of vendors to try to lock you in to their own services.) Google says it’s committed to Buzz being “the poster child for what it means to build an open, standards-compliant social product that serves the interests of users…” I’m looking forward to seeing more signs of this commitment as Buzz (and other Google products) evolve.

You can read more about the functionality behind Buzz at O’Reilly Answers: “Google Buzz: 5 Things You Need to Know.”

P.S. There’s also a great, related Buzz announcement for Mobile, which shows off Google’s platform thinking. On the mobile phone, Buzz is automatically “snapped” to your location, also using metrics like time of day to figure out the most relevant location (e.g. during the day you might be at Google, but if it’s nighttime, it may be more likely that you’re at the Shoreline Amphitheater across the street.) Buzz related to a location will show up on the relevant Google Placepage, and in a new geotagged Buzz layer on Google Maps. What we’re seeing is the application of algorithmic relevance to buzz – and the power of what I’ve long been calling “the internet operating system.”

P.P.S. Buzz will be rolled out starting at 11 pm today. Apparently, it will take 2-3 days to show up in every Gmail account; if you don’t have it right away, be patient.

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