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What’s ours in the Age of Google?

William Gibson has an brilliant op-ed in the NYT about our inability to make sense of an entity like Google. “Google is not ours. Which feels confusing…,” he says. Exactly.

But then I think Gibson misidentifies the cause of the confusion. He continues: “Which feels confusing, because we are its unpaid content-providers, in one way or another.” He says our “every search” is “a miniscule contribution.” But, that’s not why were confused. I’d venture that very few people realize that Google uses our searches to refine future results. And if they did know, I doubt they’d care. Who would expect to be paid for that, any more than we expect any company to pay us for learning from its logs?

The confusion many of us feel about Google is based on a different problem with the “ours.” Yes, “Google is not ours,” as Gibson says. But why on earth would we think that it is? Do we think GM is ours? Ok, bad example, but you know what I mean. It seems to me (i.e., Im guessing and generalizing) that we think confusedly that Google is ours both because as Gibson says it is such an important part of our shared ecosystem and because Google has presented itself as being so consistently on the side of its users.

This started right from the first day Google went on line with a search page that had nothing on it except its logo, a search box, and two buttons. There is nothing on that page that is not there to help users. That search page has become one of the most valuable pieces of “real estate” on the Web, and just about every marketer on the planet would be selling off pieces of it to advertisers. Google did not. This design aesthetic embodies a cultural aesthetic and an ethics that has been relentlessly pro-user. (Craigslist, too. Wikipedia, of course. And many, many sites down the Long Tail.)

Yes, of course many Google pages run ads, which is not something users have asked for or would ask for. Even so, Google has strictly limited the permitted obnoxiousness of ads, a policy that — given Google’s need to make a living — comes across as being on the user’s side. Google sells us to advertisers, but it controls the worst predatory urges of those advertisers.

So, whats confusing about Google is that it feels so much like it is ours — for us, like us, of us. it is not just another entity in our ecology but is an important enabler of it. But, we also know that it’s a corporation out to make money. We don’t know how to make sense of this so long as we hold both sides of what, traditionally, would be a paradox. As Gibson says, we have not seen its like before.

The confusing part reflects the hope: Perhaps in this new world were building for one another on line, we can get past the age-old assumed alienation of business from customer. The Net is ours. We built it for ourselves and for one another. We’ve done so using collaborative techniques few would have predicted would have worked. The Net is ours profoundly. Google has seemed to be the one BigCo that genuinely understands that — understands it beyond a mere alignment of interests dayenu!, understands the depth and importance of the way in which the Net is ours.

So, when Google acts in a way that seems to benefit itself but not us — arguably in its initial proposed Google Books settlement and the Googizon proposal — the violence of the shock measures the depth of our belief that Google is ours — for us, like us, of us. If even Google is not ours, is there then no hope that this time, in this new world, we can get past the structural antagonisms and distrust that have characterized the old world of our economy and culture?

7 Responses to “What’s ours in the Age of Google?”

  1. David, I have commented on your blog before about the naivety of thinking of the Net being ours, when it is run by a bunch of BigCo’s who are required to act in their own interests. But I agree with your sentiment here, and think it is beautiful, and hope our future world makes it so.

  2. As you rightly say, Google presented us with a way of serving our ends unobtrusively. Enabling our space, not filling it with garbage. This posture has worked quite well for it. One remarkable thing is how the pre-Google giants seem to have failed to even see this, let alone emulate it, until quite recently. And they still get it wrong. Bing tries for the simple, but it still thinks it’s smart enough to know that we are consumers and our main goal is to shop, consume, fill our maw. This is another way MSFT et al are wrong, and deviate from GOOG, which makes fewer manipulative assumptions about us.

  3. I think a lot of people actually do know that Google makes money from searches, and in that way our searching feels like a transaction: we get results, they sell ads. We understand that relationship.

    But Google really “feels like ours” when it gives so much other stuff away — albeit only in the service of an ecosystem designed to keep the Google money machine (AdSense and AdWords) at the center.

    I wrote about this last November, saying in part “Google’s supremacy grows from the fact that it makes so much money on its brilliant, friction-free advertising it can give away billions of dollars worth of services — YouTube, Maps, Gmail — to create and protect a self-serving ecosystem that keeps Google at the center. Meanwhile, its search pages and algorithmic Google News aggregation have become a crucial source of news distribution that gain strength every day. Net result? Google now combines the equivalent of yesterday’s newspaper monopolies with control of today’s state-of-the-art distribution system.” (

    As somebody has wisely observed, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”

  4. Google’s real trick was to convince users that because of all the money it made in its ad business it could offer other services to us for free. The fact is that we should not confuse our free use, with the fact that Google doesn’t generate revenue from our use of those services.

    Whether we use their search engine, Gmail, YouTube or Maps, Google’s ability to gain insights into what we search for, what we read, who communicates with us, what entertainment we enjoy and seek, provide much more long term value to them than any price they could expect us to pay for these services.

    I believe our extreme reactions towards their missteps comes in part because we wanted to believe their “don’t be evil” motto, it’s aspirational in the way many have thought of the net and it’s evolution. Open source initiatives could be said to be another embodiment of this sentiment. Think back to the The Well, and it’s community spirit. This is what Google evoked and we loved it. While we’ve always respected their technological arrogance as being just geeky behavior, now that this arrogance is crossing over into social norms like privacy, fair access (net neutrality) and intellectual property rights issues, the waters have gotten murky. All of a sudden, “don’t be evil” seems like no less a campaign promise than that of any run of the mill politician. Pretty words, with a powerful sentiment, shared for the expedience of immediate credibility. A short-sighted goal that is becoming harder and harder to reconcile with their actions.

    Agreed with Howard as well, Bruce Schneier recently repeated that quote about users being the product being sold, and advertisers and data buyers being the customers.

  5. Hello just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The text in your content seem to be running off the screen in Opera. I’m not sure if this is a format issue or something to do with browser compatibility but I thought I’d post to let you know. The design look great though! Hope you get the problem fixed soon. Kudos

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