Social networks need time to grow up – thoughts on Buzz

Email is the ultimate social network. There is no doubt about that. And yet not many companies have attempted to unwrap that opportunity.

Google made a big, bold move in that domain last week. Which is remarkable considering Google does not play (or play well) in the social domain. Buzz has unleashed all sorts of reactions and social gaffes (including pretty serious ones).

While I am looking forward to Buzz for my company (we use Google Apps), there are some fundamental problems with the Buzz approach for personal email, and even more so, with the way it was launched.

Most social networks do not launch fully developed. They start small, plant the seeds, watch it grow, react and build on it. At birth, the social network is a newborn baby which slowly learns to crawl, then walk, then run. This is how every successful social network has been built.

In contrast to a newborn social network which develops in relation to its surroundings, Buzz is a fully developed adult who popped out of the (Gmail) womb one fine day. It received 9 million messages in two days (how many did Facebook/Twitter receive in first two days). Buzz has not had time to adapt to users or let them adapt to it before getting scale.

Turning the Google firehose on means instant growth – a huge advantage for other types of apps, but a huge disadvantage for a social system which needs a strong foundation and to get the fundamental of social interations right. Think of how important it was for Twitter to the sociality of the basic tweet right, before letting it grow.

Secondly, not all social networks are the same. We have our private social networks and there are public social networks. Email is a public soical network – with me as the center of my network. Which is why a tool like Xobni can expose that network and fit in, without disrupting the basic nature of email.

In contract, Buzz makes our personal social networks public. This is huge – its a problem (or an opportunity) not just for Buzz but also Gmail itself. The question in my mind is less about user acceptance of Buzz, but more about changes in perception of Gmail. Will people start seeing Gmail as less private because of Buzz?

Is Buzz going to succeed? I honestly don’t know. But its sure interesting to watch Google trying to be “social”.