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What You Need to Know About Google Buzz

February 19, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Last week, Gmail users awoke to find themselves automatically signed up for a new (and very public) social network called Buzz. Alarmingly, it was created from what many people feel are private e-mail and chat contacts. And it showed their publicly shared items from Picasa photo albums and Google Reader, without their consent.

A surge of criticism ensued, and just days later, Google was backpedaling fast. It announced some quick remedies – automatic sign-up and links to Picasa and Reader accounts are kaput – and a few more are coming.

In the meantime, concern and frustration persists among Gmail’s 176 million users. Here’s our first installment of a primer explaining Buzz and how to use it in the way you prefer. Look for updates that answer your concerns and questions – please post them below.

How does Buzz work?

Buzz is a social network that in many ways mimics Facebook and Twitter, except that it maps your social connections based upon who you correspond with via Gmail – clearly a great shortcut for Google, which hasn’t been super-successful in getting people join its other, more voluntary social network, Orkut.

Buzz lets you post comments, or buzz, that people in your network can read and react to. In a box that resembles a thought balloon, you can type witty missives and post links to content on the Web, including on Google services like Picasa and YouTube. Get to the service by clicking on the link labeled Buzz that Google added under the Inbox link.

Buzz initially connected users to e-mail contacts automatically, but post-uproar, it now asks who you want to “follow.” Just click “Find people” and a pop-up box shows your top contacts and lets you choose to follow or ignore them. If these people have created profiles, you can click on their names and see things like witty banter with friends and colleagues on Buzz, status messages added to Gmail and posts to Twitter.

What personal data is exposed?

The most delicate information that Buzz potentially exposes is the identity of your e-mail correspondents, which as my colleague Miguel Helft noted, could include people like doctors and illicit lovers you’d rather keep private. Keep in mind that the names of people you follow on Buzz — and who are following you — is public unless you take steps to make the list private. Google has recently updated Buzz to make this deselection easier, but the default is that you will share your list with everyone.

Also, your Buzz profile itself is public and therefore viewable by the entire Internet, so don’t add information you consider private (things, for example, that would answer any secret questions tied to things like online bank accounts or that would aid identity thieves).

When you post content to Buzz, you have a choice of making the item public, private or visible to a group of people, much like on Facebook. Google has created predefined groups you can populate, like co-workers, family and friends, or you can define your own.

You can also block people you find objectionable by clicking “Block” beside their name on your follower list or on their profiles. That will remove them from your list, keep your buzz out of their stream, stop them from commenting on your buzz, and prevent them from re-following you.

So how do I control what is exposed?

Google also came under fire for complex privacy controls and an off switch that was difficult to find. It has since made some improvements and promises more, namely a new section in Gmail’s settings page due in the next few days where Buzz can be hidden or disabled altogether. For now, find user controls by clicking the “Edit” link beside your own name, and visiting the “Edit your profile” page.

There, a key setting sits near the top right: “Display the list of people I’m following and people following me.” If you prefer to keep followers and people you follow private, uncheck the box. (Find the same option at the bottom of the box that appears when you click on “Following X people” or “Find people.”)

You can also choose not to display your name, which will keep your profile from being found via search queries. But note that it will not disable the service entirely (or make you unfindable by someone persistent).

To delete your Buzz profile and any Buzz posts you’ve made and disable the service completely, scroll all the way to the bottom and click the link with the bright red writing. Remember to hit “Save changes” before you depart.

On this page, you can also, of course, add personal information that you do want to share and link your profile to other Google services, like Picasa and Reader, and to other services, like  Flickr from Yahoo, or Twitter. And you can choose to let people contact you through Buzz without giving them your e-mail address.

Have more questions about Buzz? Fire away. We’ll answer more in the days ahead.

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