In the light of the new service Google Buzz and the announcement a couple of days ago that Google has acquired Aardvark, I thought I'd attempt to write a couple of posts about getting it wrong and getting it right about online social networks. I'm starting today with "getting it wrong". I'm not going to link to Google Buzz and Aardvark, but you can easily find them via a web search.
Google Buzz is automatically part of gmail (googlemail), so if you use that you will see a GoogleBuzz icon in the list of "inbox", "compose message", etc. This means you are "opted in" to a network of anyone else in your contacts list who has a gmail account. Via a pop-up window in
the middle of your screen you can see what these people are doing on the internet and they can see what you are doing. I've immediately deactivated it because most of these people in my contact list are unknown to me, my dealings with them being limited to things like ordering goods from them or having them comment on my blog. At least I am not like the person who wrote a long rant because unknown to her, Google Buzz had put her ex-husband and her (secret) new boyfriend in direct contact, but you get the picture of what can go wrong with this "automatically opted in" method. Google, this is called "doing it wrong".
Aardvark is a good idea in principle – a semi-automatic question and answer service. I joined it because I received a recommendation from a colleague (now an ex-colleague!) who had told Aardvark three key areas of expertise that I have (in his opinion). I accepted Aardvark's invitation to join. The idea is that people who want to know the answer to a question ask Aardvark. If the question relates to your area of expertise (all users provide three), Aardvark passes the question on to you via a little pop-up window. You answer it. I have to admit that one reason I joined is that I was looking for an Italian tutor and could not find one, so I asked Aardvark but never got a coherent answer. But, I myself began to be bombarded by all kinds of questions on topics I know nothing, or very little, about. On the odd occasion when I received a question on one of my specialities, I found myself embroiled in silly responses about, eg, the relationship between science and religion, from questioners who simply would not go away and whom Aardvark could not or would not block. Pretty soon, I unsubscribed -not easy to do, and I still get auto-email messages from the organisation even though I attempted to remove myself completely from their database.
I assume that by its acquisition of Aardvark, Google will be integrating it into its Buzz feature, leading to a life of hell as one is constantly interrupted by lunatic questions and arguments from people who don't like one's answers. I hope I shan't have to find out anything about it, as I have no interest in signing up to it in its new incarnation, but I hope that the filtering functions are improved so that users receive relevant questions, and I hope that there is some system for blocking/reporting inappropriate and abusive questioners.
The key issue is that if a company wants to introduce a social network onto an existing service, the users should be invited to join it, not automatically signed up to it, and the users should be able to control how they use it. The Internet is full of rubbish and distractions, and the art of making it useful is to filter it. Anything that introduces a lot of unwanted information into one's screen is just not only annoying, but positively harmful to the delicate balance between being enlightened and being swamped.
The next time I write on this topic, I'll write about social networks that "get it right".
[The image is not relevant for the post but it is nice and calm.]