Here’s the story of how panicking just enough may have saved Google’s answer to Facebook and Twitter.
Last week, Google launched an add-on to Gmail called Google Buzz. Almost immediately, the world howled with complaints that the product exposed users’ privacy by publishing lists of followers made up of the people a user e-mailed and chatted with most.
This made Google Buzz a danger zone for reporters, cheating spouses, mental health professionals, and anyone else who didn’t want to tell the world who they e-mailed or chatted with most.
But since this early failing, Google employees — specifically VP of product Bradley Horowitz and Buzz product manager Todd Jackson — have done a rousing job answering criticism from users and the media with rapid-fire updates to the product.
It wasn’t easy.
Horowitz and Jackson’s first move was to set up a “War Room” for Buzz, where engineers and product managers could plot and push immediate changes to the product. Then, on Friday, the team took questions at a company-wide meeting with Google employees. With that feedback, Jackson pushed Buzz into “Code Red” starting on Saturday so that all updates to Buzz code would push as soon as possible.
With the proverbial alarm bells ringing, Buzz team members decided to stay at Google until the product was fixed. A Google spokesperson said, “Some of them [were here] straight through Friday and Saturday nights and through late Sunday, making changes.” A bunch of Googlers actually slept two nights in a row at the Googleplex.
A week after the complaints, Google corrected all the privacy flaws. Back in 2007, it took Facebook a month to figure its way out of the Beacon privacy mess.
Here’s the Google Buzz timeline:
- February 9 — Google Buzz launches.
- February 10 — In a post titled “WARNING: Google Buzz Has A Major Privacy Flaw,” Silicon Alley Insider complained that before you change any settings in Google Buzz, someone could go into your profile and see the people you e-mail and chat with most. Their complaint was that Google forces users to opt-out, rather than opt-in, to exposing this private information publicly.
- February 11 — Google updates Buzz to make it easier to opt-out of publicly displaying lists of followers.
- February 12 — Silicon Alley Insider suggests this change doesn’t go far enough.
- February 12 — A woman complains that Google automatically set her up to be followed by her abusive ex-husband.
- February 13 — Google goes all the way, replacing an opt-out feature, auto-following, with an opt-in feature, auto-suggesting.
- February 16 — Google promises more changes, including a more prominent “mute” option. Said a Google spokesperson, “Some people feel like there is too much noise in the inbox and this is something we are working on better controls for.”