"When something new comes out, like Google Buzz, I always hope it sucks and no one uses it, so I don't have to either," writer Laura Belgray tweeted two weeks ago. Secretly, crotchetily, I agreed. It had taken me months to feel in my element on Twitter. I was going through a rough patch with Facebook. I didn't have patience for any more drama. The seductiveness of Buzz, which was touted as a highly functioning mash-up of my two old standbys, was going to have to far outweigh any difficulties I might have with it.
Around the same time, I read the results of a study of social media by RJ Metrics that showed "the sign-up rate for new users has slowed significantly." It made me wonder, did the launch of Buzz coincide with some newfound collective fatigue? And if so, who would win in the battle for our attention, that ever-dwindling resource?
Signing up to Twitter had been effort enough for me (although I am a loyal user now), but Buzz was an even harder sell. It had barely been launched a week before it got in trouble for its loosey-goosey privacy controls, which automatically made public all your contacts to anyone on your Gmail contacts list. (It moved quickly to reverse this but it is still currently under review by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.) As someone who had never had a Gmail account - I can't believe this makes me feel uncool - this was the least of my worries. Instead, after signing up, I found myself with no one to follow. Buzzkill.
Meanwhile, the Net was glutted with predictions of how the Darwinian struggle between Facebook and Google was going to pan out. (Twitter, which found a way to parse itself into both forums, was not in peril.) Much as it pains me to say this, it wasn't looking good for Facebook.
Look, we used to be tight. Facebook was my homeslice! Then, about three weeks ago, it began shutting me out. Literally. I couldn't open my e-mail or look at photos without it crashing. I wanted to report the problem to the Facebook authorities, but there was no discernible way to contact them directly.
When it came back up again weeks later, it was a distorted version of its former self, apparently the victim of a botched face(book)lift. My once-entertaining newsfeed was glutted with irrelevancies.
I get it: Facebook's a corporation. It wants to corner the market. But look: Evolution is about specialization. Know what you do best, and refine it. If you're a fish, don't slap on wings and try to tweet; be a better fish.
Which brings us back to Google Buzz. Unburdened by users' expectations, it has the opportunity to be a new, refined species of social network that avoids making the mistakes of its forbears. When, eventually, I scraped together three people to follow, I saw its advantages immediately: Like Twitter, it gives you a live-time news feed. Unlike Twitter, there are no character limits, and you can post anything: not just links to photos or songs, but the photos and songs themselves. And like Facebook, it invites dialogue.
But whereas Facebook and Twitter dovetailed nicely (Facebook for involved socializing and, uh, stalking old high-school acquaintances; Twitter for fast info bites and brushes with celebrity), three was a crowd.
So who is doomed to extinction? Facebook gives the impression of being governed by a slightly inscrutable Politburo that mostly guesses what users want rather than listening to them. (For example, despite flaps over privacy, the site's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, said last month that if he were to do it all over again, he'd make privacy settings public by default.) Every set of changes they make is greeted with groans from its constituents (granted, they seem unable to handle changes of any kind; I stopped counting "Bring Back the Old Facebook" groups at 200).
Google seems poised to learn by making mistakes and redressing them, which is an appropriately transparent process, I suppose, for a company whose biggest failing to date was to make information too available. Their approach is a risky one, but if Buzz is good enough, it could succeed - that is, if we are willing to adapt.
But the battle over platforms may not be the most pressing one. Perhaps the real question here should be, who will get left behind in the evolutionary race: Users who can't adapt to new forms of social media? Or social media that can't adapt to its users?
Follow Lisan Jutras on Twitter @lisanjutras
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