Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Google Buzz

[The following post is a thought exercise in which I imagine an idealized content aggregator. Today Google rolled out Buzz, its new social media service, which links Gmail, Google Reader, and realtime commenting in a Facebook-like interface. It got me thinking. -EAC]

I'd like for Google (or some service) to aggregate everything timely on the web. Static web pages are yesterday's news (quite literally). Besides the information you search for (maps, yellow pages, Wikipedia), living the web is about finding the latest video, photo, blog post, news, tweet, whatever. And I don't want to have to go to individual pages to get that stuff.

Today's Aggregators
RSS readers go a long way in this type of aggregation. I read/skim 56 blogs (adding up to about 300 posts a day), only because I use Google Reader to gather the posts and sort them quickly. There are ways to get Facebook posts and Twitter posts through gReader, and maybe even ways to post to those services through gReader, but it's really not ideal. It's hard to set up and post to those services through gReader.

I've been using Threadsy to access Facebook and Twitter (it also works as an email web app), and the interface is very nice. It's easy to set up and use, at least for FB and twitter. The email part isn't nearly as functional as gmail. It has promise, but the limited number of supported services and lack of complete integration are significant drawbacks.

Google just started rolling out Buzz, a social functionality within Gmail. It adds a link on your left sidebar (where "Inbox" "Sent Mail" and all your labels are) for Buzz posts. You choose contacts to follow, and when they share something in gReader or in Buzz (or Twitter, supposedly, but I haven't seen it work yet), you get buzzed. You can comment on these posts in real-time. You can also share items (or just comments like FB status updates) directly in Buzz.

It has potential. But it's not ideal (in the way that Gmail is ideal) yet. So what would be ideal?

First, I have to think about my approach to the many types of information I get. There are three types of items (and one other kind of thing):

1. Messages sent directly to me, to which someone may be waiting for my reply. This is most email (not mailing lists), Facebook and other sites' (like Swingmonkey) personal messages, and direct tweets.
2. Messages that aren't directed to me, but that I want to read no matter how long ago they've been sent. Usually these are things written by people important to me. If a friend wrote a blog post a week ago, I'm still interested.
3. Messages that are really only valuable for an hour or so. Disposable messages (like most tweets and FB status updates) can go unread and I won't really be missing anything. But if I'm bored, they might be interesting.
4. Realtime messages, like chat. Honestly, I live without chat because I don't have the patience. But sometimes I feel like I'm emailing back and forth with someone who is just across the interwebs at their computer, and it would make more sense to use a chat app than email.

Some people are more important to me than others
I admit it: I have friends whose status updates are always important to me, even if it was a week ago. Instead of lumping my entire FB feed into group 3, I want to be able to say, "Don't let Rachel's posts expire." Sure, there should be a default, but if I care enough about Rachel (and I do), I'll bump her FB posts up to level 2. Likewise, I would downgrade email newsletters to level 2 or 3, depending on the sender.

This is the biggest issue I have with feed readers: people use them differently. I like to read ALL my messages, and I manage my subscriptions so that's possible. But other people have so many subscriptions, there's no hope of that, and they simply want the latest 50 posts to entertain them for half an hour or so. That's fine, but when feed readers are designed to be used in one way or another (not either), it doesn't work.

Buzz seems to be designed for someone who doesn't need to read everything. It highlights new posts/comments, but it doesn't move them up to the top so you're sure to see them. Since it aggregates tweets and gReader shared items all in the same feed, it assumes that I only want to read the latest of each. But it's wrong.

Labels, not folders
Gmail uses labels to tag messages. I can label messages from friends, coworkers, chorus members, etc. I have filters set up to do this automatically by sender. It's better than folders because each message can have more than one label. It's tags.

But I want my labels to go much further than Gmail. I want to label my life. I want to label my tasks, my calendar events, my contacts, and yes, my (incoming) feeds, facebook messages, and tweets.

Right now, pretty much only the most tech-savvy of my friends are on Google Reader. (Buzz will probably draw a lot more people, being integrated with Gmail. Still, only some of my contacts use Gmail.) But let's pretend everyone I know used this idealized social aggregator. I would be getting messages and posts from people in all different parts of my life. Why not label them?

Sorting my life
So far, we have two ways to sort items: by priority (1, 2, 3, or 4) and by realm (work, friends, chorus, etc.) The last way is to sort by type. Google already does this by providing different services. The types (and services) are: messages (gMail and gReader), events (gCal), tasks (gTasks), photos (Picasa), documents (gDocs), contacts (Contacts), etc. Google does a pretty good job integrating those already, and it uses the little taskbar at the top of each window to offer each service.

But imagine if I could aggregate these items, label them all, and sort them by realm? In Gmail, when I click on my chorus label, I find all the emails sent to/from anyone in my chorus. In an ideal gWorld, I could click on my chorus label and find all those emails plus all the photos, events, tasks, etc. having to do with my chorus. I'd see that there's a rehearsal coming up on Tuesday, and what songs I have to learn by then (tasks). If someone posted photos from our last concert, or shared an article about singing, they would be there as well. If someone new joined the chorus, a blurb would tell me that her contact info was added to my contacts list.

In essence, I could explore that realm of my life using tags.

Other sorting ideas:
Location (what's going on with my friends in Chicago?)
School (what's the latest news from my high school buddies?)
Groups/Associations (like my chorus, whatever group you want to join)

This sorting can be done manually with overlapping labels, but in an ideal gWorld, Google would facilitate it.

My ideal aggregator: Google Everything
A single page with four sections as a left sidebar (for lack of better titles): Mail (priority 1), Feeds (2), Tweets (3), and Chat (4).

Click on Mail (1), and you get basically the same Gmail inbox as always. Conversations, labels, etc. But now it also pulls direct messages from twitter and facebook (the ones that show up in your inbox or on your wall) and whatever you set as top priority. When you reply to them, it sends the reply back using the same interface. So for instance, if someone writes you a message on your FB wall, you can read it in Google Everything, and reply to it in Google Everything, but it shows up so they can read it on your FB wall. (Or theirs. I'm still not clear on that wall-to-wall crap.)

Click on Feeds (2), and in the same frame as where your gmail inbox was, you get a list of your feeds. This is basically the same as gReader, only it does a better job of utilizing labels. The left sidebar would morph slightly so that it applies to your feeds, but it would still include your labels. These are the items you want to read even if they're old, but they aren't as important as emails.

Click on Tweets (2), and you get your twitter feed, facebook status updates, gChat status updates, whatever. These are things you read when you're bored. They expire after some amount of time, and you don't so much care that you miss some.

Click on Chat, and the sidebar shows which of your contacts are online and available to chat. You can start a conversation (or several) in the frame to the right. (It would be awesome if it would automatically arrange chat windows to fill that space.)

But what if I don't like Google?
You can still go to the Twitter website, go to the FB website, go to your email client, go to each blog you read, etc.

The beauty is that Google Everything would be able to interact with all the other services that people use, and not everyone needs to be a member (like is required in FB and Wave). I should be able to subscribe to someone's Twitter feed without having a Twitter account myself. (I wouldn't be able to tweet them back, but I'd be able to read their posts.) I know someone who joined FB for the sole purpose of seeing photos of her grandkids. Nobody should have to do that. It's like torture. Likewise, you should be able to use an aggregator without signing up for Gmail.

Anyone should be able to create an aggregator. Since Google Everything would pull feeds from other services, any aggregator made by anyone should be able to do the same. If I knew how to program and had a few thousand hours on my hands, I'd make it up myself, give it a pretty interface, and release it as open source software. My Google account already groups all my Google information into my Google profile. Any other aggregator should be able to identify my Google profile and add it to another user's contact list, and interface just as if we were all using the same service.

I would like it if Google Everything were a separate app, not a browser page, that acts as an internet portal. I shouldn't need to run Firefox (or even Chrome) just to get to MY gWorld. I should be able to access it in a cloud from any computer or mobile device. I'd save my browser for things like search, shopping, online banking, or games. (Of course, all of those will eventually be replaced by dedicated cloud-connected desktop apps.)

So there it is. I tried to make this a Wave (so that this could become a conversation), but Wave is so complicated that I failed to embed it in my blog. I'd like to read your ideas. If you want to use the wave, let me know and I'll invite you.

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