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Google Buzz: No more ‘automatic’ following

For the second time in a week, Google announced major changes to Buzz, including those that will give users more control over Buzz than they had before, and apologized for "not getting everything quite right" with the program's release a week ago.
Image: Google Buzz settings
Google made further changes to Buzz over the weekend, saying "instead of an auto-follow model in which Buzz automatically sets you up to follow the people you e-mail and chat with most," they're changing to an "auto-suggest" model that lets the user decide who to follow. Google

For the second time in a week, Google announced major changes to its controversial social media program Buzz, including those that will give users more control over what information is shared.

The company also apologized for "not getting everything quite right" with the program's release a week ago. Buzz is part of the popular Gmail e-mail program, and many users have been outraged by Buzz' invasive nature.

Google said it will now "suggest" people for users to "follow" electronically, rather than telling users to "auto-follow" those who are e-mail and chat contacts, said Todd Jackson, Google's product manager for both Buzz and Gmail in a blog posting Saturday.

"We quickly realized that we didn't get everything quite right," Jackson wrote. "We're very sorry for the concern we've caused and have been working hard ever since to improve things based on your feedback. We'll continue to do so."

Since its Feb. 9 launch, Buzz has generated concerns about privacy. As PC World noted, Buzz "offers some cool ways to share photos, links, status messages, and more with fellow Google Buzz users. But if you're not careful, you may end up sharing more than you expect."

Buzz also has generated a lot of interest and participation. Two days after its launch, "tens of millions of people have checked Buzz out, creating over 9 million posts and comments," Jackson said, with more than "200 posts per minute from mobile phones around the world."

"It's good to see Google responding to the criticism and making changes to the Buzz experience," said Michael Gartenberg, longtime technology observer and vice president of strategy and analysis at Interpret, LLC. "On the other hand, how was it possible they released this, to their entire Gmail base, without the ability to opt out or at least understand the ramifications of the service before it was turned on?"

Auto-follow issue
On Thursday, reacting to privacy concerns, Google said it made it easier for users to hide lists of followers and followees, and to block specific people from following a user's Buzz updates. But some users said still more needed to be done to make Buzz less Swiss cheese-like in terms of privacy.

The controversial "auto-follow" featured was used to "make the getting started experience as quick and easy as possible, so that you wouldn't have to manually peck out your social network from scratch," Jackson wrote Feb. 13.

"However, many people just wanted to check out Buzz and see if it would be useful to them, and were not happy that they were already set up to follow people. This created a great deal of concern and led people to think that Buzz had automatically displayed the people they were following to the world before they created a profile."

It led people to think that because that's what was happening.

"Since it’s linked directly into Gmail, people can figure out your e-mail address," wrote Benn Parr, co-editor of Mashable, which monitors social media. "Since it auto-followed your most e-mailed friends, people could figure out your e-mail habits."

Jackson said that from now on, "you won't be set up to follow anyone until you have reviewed the suggestions and clicked 'Follow selected people and start using Buzz.' "

He added that "for the tens of millions of you who have already started using Buzz, over the next couple weeks we'll be showing you a similar version of this new start-up experience to give you a second chance to review and confirm the people you're following.

"If you want to review this list now, just go to the Buzz tab, click 'Following XX people' and unfollow anyone you wish. If you don't want to share the lists of people who are following you and people you are following publicly on your profile, you can opt out at any time from the edit profile page."

Picasa automatic contact off
Among other changes, from now on Buzz "will no longer connect your public Picasa Web Albums and Google Reader shared items automatically." Picasa is a free, online-photo sharing site that is owned by Google.

"Just to be clear: Buzz only automatically connected content that was already public, so if you had previously shared photos in an 'Unlisted' album or set your Google Reader shared items as 'Protected,' no one except the people you'd explicitly allowed to see your stuff has been able to see it," Jackson wrote. "But due to your feedback Buzz will no longer connect these sites automatically."

Google is also adding a "Buzz tab" to Gmail settings. From here, he said, users will be able to "hide Buzz from Gmail or disable it completely."

Jackson said Google has "heard" users' feedback "loud and clear, and since we launched Google Buzz ... we've been working around the clock to address the concerns you've raised."