The economics of social networking favor whoever attracts the most users first, so it's no surprise Google used its vast trove of user data to create millions of instant members when it launched a social networking site.
Social networks become more valuable as more people join them, and Google's new site still has fewer users than Facebook. But coverage of Google's new social network -- Buzz -- focused instead on vehement user complaints that forced Google to make multiple changes in the privacy settings.
An estimated 176 million people have Gmail accounts, and Google made all of them automatic members of Buzz. The problem is that Google used information from each user's account to automatically make public a list of their frequent correspondents, along with information from photo albums and other tools that come free with a Gmail account.
It's the "free" part that really caused all the problems.
Google --like its rivals Facebook, Yahoo, and Microsoft -- routinely trolls through e-mail and other user data so it can make money that pays for "free" email and other services. Sophisticated data about who users communicate with and what they communicate about is used to target advertisements that provide the bulk of Google's revenue.
So Google's engineers might not have thought much about revealing to users some of what the company knows about each person's network of personal connections. Google probably was just trying to convince users that Buzz might be an attractive alternative to other social networking sites.
Facebook, for example, claims it has more than 400 million users. Facebook uses a business model that is similar to Google because Facebook collects information on users to sell targeted advertising. So Google cannot be happy about having just 176 million Gmail users.
Social networks become more attractive as they add members because that increases opportunities for each person to, well, network with other members. Nonmembers know that larger networks offer more chances to find interesting people. This cycle can rapidly become self-reinforcing -- increasing size makes the network more attractive, so more people join and make the network even larger.
Google appears to lag far behind Facebook in this competition. Revealing each Gmail user's network of correspondents was just an ill-advised attempt to begin catching up.