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Google tapped its sleeping giant of a social network today with Buzz. The new product lets people follow Gmail contacts for status updates and shared articles, photos and videos.

While Google has fumbled on many of its other social efforts, Buzz holds more promise than earlier products like Orkut or Latitude. According to ComScore, Gmail had about 176 million unique visitors in December so there’s a very low cost of new user acquisition.

But there’s also another advantage — Gmail is intimate, while Facebook is semi-private and Twitter is public. E-mail takes more thought and effort and Gmail’s interface encourages constant interaction with a small number of people. It’s about depth over breadth.

That’s important. In social networking, there’s a theory that human beings have a cognitive upper limit to how many other people they can keep up with. Proposed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar and later dubbed the Dunbar number, it’s around 150 people.

People can have several times that number of friends on Facebook and Twitter. There’s a natural human tendency to want to collect more, whether that be Facebook friends or material objects. People are loss averse and don’t want to be rude, so it’s hard for them to de-friend, or even unfollow, others. Users accumulate more and more streams of information until at some point, it becomes noisy, unwieldy or too public.

That’s perfectly OK with Facebook. The company doesn’t want your social network to be limited to your Dunbar number. Its ambition is to map the world’s social graph. Facebook wants all of your relationships — who you knew in junior high, during college, at work, your family, your past relationships — maybe even your family dentist (if they have a Page).

Facebook wants you to rely on its smarts to sift through those hundreds of relationships and find the good stuff. Even if you have 1,000 friends, Facebook tries to infer who belongs in your so-called Dunbar community depending on how often you interact with other people’s status updates. Facebook’s in-house scientist Cameron Marlow told the Economist last year that users still only interact with a small number of people regularly even if they have several times as many “friends.”

Facebook tries to solve the filtering problem with news feed algorithms. They surface updates that attract lots of comments and “likes” or that are from people you interact with often. To be fair, the primary news feed is quite good.

But as people accumulate more friends, privacy controls become overwhelming, and Facebook loses its sense of intimacy.

Twitter has its own natural filtering system. Its asymmetric model of following, which doesn’t require both parties to request and accept each other as friends, lets people curate their own streams without offending others whose content they find boring. And of course, Twitter is public.

So a Gmail-based social network or another competitor can step in by offering the intimacy missing in these other networks. There should be an online space where people feel comfortable sharing with their very best friends.

Maybe it’s no Facebook- or Twitter-killer, but this is what Google Buzz could be.


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