Google's poor social score

February 9, 2010: 4:21 PM ET

Google co-founder Sergey Brin at the company's New York office in 2008

Just after Google (GOOG) co-founder Sergey Brin and his team unveiled Google Buzz, the company's new Gmail feature that brings in Twitter-like social updates, a discerning audience member asked Brin why Google's social efforts to date have failed. Brin denied this, and then hedged, explaining, "Past services have focused on friends and entertainment." This one, he explained, also enhances productivity.

Like many of the services Google has launched, Buzz is technically magnificent and could be disruptive if users embrace it. It will have five key features: You can follow the people you email and chat with. You can share content like YouTube videos, photos, and newspaper articles. You can update your status both publicly and privately. You can get social updates in your inbox. And Google will use an algorithm to recommend popular content.

That won't be enough to woo Gmailers to the service. Google has a deep history of launching social services that don't take off. Remember Orkut, it's early social network? Now even the Brazilian audience that once kept it going is migrating over to Facebook. OpenSocial, Google's attempt to create common standards for development on social networks, has had a quiet evolution, in part because the most popular social network, Facebook, didn't embrace it. Recently Google's Joe Kraus, who has led the efforts, moved over to become a partner in Google Ventures. And Google tries new things often; many are eventually left for dead. (Remember Notebook? Dodgeball? Jaiku?)

Google's most recent attempt at a more social communications platform is Google Wave, a service it launched at a developers last May that blends email, instant messaging and online collaboration. Designed to replace email, it has yet to take off. When I wrote about it last fall, I found it very confusing to navigate and since then, few people I know have gravitated toward it.

Ultimately, new communication platforms are rarely imposed from the top down. Rather, they evolve with users' demands. Facebook is a great example. In 2005, when college kids first started logging on, the idea of posting anything to a "wall" or a moving public stream of information struck mainstream Internet users as absurd. But Facebook evolved as users joined and asked for new services. Now only troglodytes refrain from creating a profile, and about half of Facebook's 400 million users log on every day to view their stream of status updates, photos, and links.

But it's unclear whether Gmail's users are asking for new social functions for their email. Aren't we all already swimming under copious amounts of status updates and shared media coming from services like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, Foursquare, etc.? Do we need another social filtering system? Will Google Buzz offer a user experience that easily extends what Gmail's users are doing already, or will this new service, like so many that have come before it, simply lose its buzz and quietly disappear?

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About This Author
Jessi Hempel
Jessi Hempel
Senior Writer, Fortune

Jessi Hempel is a New York-based technology writer for Fortune. She has written extensively about digital media, online advertising and social networking. Before joining Fortune in July 2007, Hempel worked at BusinessWeek and most recently served as their innovation department editor. Hempel is a graduate of Brown University and received a Masters in Journalism from The University of California at Berkeley.

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