NOTE: For an official Microsoft statement on Google Buzz, go here. This post is a discussion of recent trends in social networking features in our industry and how they impact web users focusing on a feature of Google Buzz as a kick off point.  

One of the much lauded features of the recently released Google Buzz is autofollowing which is described as “No setup needed: Automatically follow the people you email and chat with a lot”. This feature solves the what if you build it and they don’t come problem that Google Buzz faced. What if when presented with a bunch of FriendFeed-like features in Gmail, people decided that they don’t want to build another social network when they’ve already done so on places like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter? Auto-following ensured that Gmail users already had a populated network of people they were receiving status updates from once Google Buzz was launched. So from the perspective of Google, it’s a great feature.

But is the feature in the best interests of users? Ignoring some of the privacy issues of the people you email with becoming a public friends list there is still the question of whether the feature is good for users in isolation. Here’s a story; my wife is divorced and has kids from her previous marriage. This means she exchanges a lot of email with her ex-husband and his new wife around kid visiting schedules, vacations, etc. Do you think my wife would consider it a great feature if one day she started getting status updates on how her ex-husband and his new wife spend their days due to introduction of social networking features in her email client?

Those of us building social networking products have a responsibility not only to ask if a feature is good for our product but also whether it is good for our users as well. Sometimes these goals align and sometimes they do not. What we do when they don’t is what defines us as an industry.

I want to also call out some of the thought leadership on this topic that has come from Marshall Kirkpatrick over on ReadWriteWeb with posts such as Why Facebook is Wrong: Privacy Is Still Important where he discusses Facebook’s privacy changes from last year. Personally, I think Facebook cleaned up their privacy model because they used to have privacy setting based on regional networks where user data was visible to people in a geographic region (e.g. everyone in New York city or everyone in Australia can see my profile information) which is actually kind of dumb. There have been legitimate privacy issues related to such loose settings such as Rudy Giulani's daughter being a Barrack Obama supporter being visible to everyone from New York city on Facebook. With the change people with such settings were asked if they wanted their profiles to be public since they effectively were in the old model. The question Marshall Kirkpatrick brings up is whether it is better for Facebook users in such situations to be asked do you want to go from everyone in New York can see my data –> public or only visible to my friends and networks? It is clear which is better for Facebook as a service but not so clear what is better for their users with regards to their personal notions of privacy and mental well being.

Social networking has transformed the way people communicate and relate to each other in many tangible ways. However they are built on real human relationships and connections. I hate the thought that people’s relationships and communications are becoming the ammunition in a war between web companies to dominate a particular online space. We can be better than that. We must be better than that.

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