It was supposed to be the next biggest thing since Facebook and Twitter. Instead, the February 9th launch of Google’s social networking tool, Google Buzz, brought more anger than excitement. If you have a Gmail account, and tens of millions of you do, it must have come as a surprise to log in to your account only to find a big Google Buzz homepage. That’s because the project was kept pretty low-key. In fact, Google Buzz didn’t even go through a normal trial period like Google usually implements with all its new products and was only tested internally. Needless to say, many were confused and unhappy when they opened their email to see that their information was automatically being shared with their entire Gmail address book whether they liked it or not.

     For one woman, that meant that her abusive ex-husband was able to read comments posted to her Reader, including comments she shared with her current boyfriend. Children who were too young for Facebook and used Google Chat to talk with their friends had their conversations exposed not only to their parents, but also to random strangers. Remember the plumber that you emailed last year to get a quote? He was now able to gain access to your pictures and status updates. What’s more, “turning off” Google Buzz only hid the tool, making it so that you could no longer see it when you signed in to your account. It still allowed those who still enabled it to continue following you. Not surprisingly, the privacy concerns mounted and Google’s credibility took a plunge. They knew they needed to take action. A few complaints to the FTC later, they did.  

     Four days after its February 9th launch, Google tweaked its new social media tool by adding privacy features to address the growing number of concerns, beginning with its auto-follow feature. Instead of automatically following everyone in your Gmail address book, Google Buzz now prompts you with a screen that lets you select who you’d like to follow. Google Reader and Picasa Web Albums now have to be manually added to your Google Buzz account, whereas they were automatically added before. Finally, there are now options that allow you to choose which information from your Gmail account you want to share and who you want to share it with, as well as an option to disable the feature completely.

     Many argue, though, that the damage is done and Google might have actually taken a step back instead of forward. Whether or not Google Buzz becomes “the next big thing” remains to be seen, as it’s now being treated with a fair sense of skepticism and the complaints are far from over. It will be interesting to see how Google handles this in the coming weeks. Are you using Google Buzz?