In the original introduction of this Naked Media episode, I poked fun at part of Jeff Jarvis’ “What Would Google Do?” by using clips from the book’s marketing video.
In the book, Jeff runs down how a number of institutions and industries could remake themselves in a Googly way. A lot of it is valid, and fun to imagine — if a stretch. I joke that if a car company were to follow the Google model, we’d get “beta” versions of cars that sometimes lock up for a couple hours (as has happened with Google’s mail product), or veer in one direction.
When I told Jeff about the video he strongly objected (without having watched), that I shouldn’t hide behind humor and said I should apologize. But I think the joke is a valid one for a number of reasons I’ll get into. First, though, let me say that I respect Jeff and think he gets it right more often than wrong. His visions of how companies can and should behave are usually valid, even if his visionary pronouncements don’t necessarily include tangible methods or practical road maps to achieve what he says can be done, nor a real cost-benefit analysis.
He’s right that companies should listen better to customers. American car companies like GM could have stayed a lot stronger had they done so and produced cars people really wanted. Japanese car companies did so well before the days of the World Wide Web, and they are reaping the benefits today. (They also didn’t turn themselves into finance companies and saddle themselves with tons of debt, but those are separate topics).
It would also be great if we could customize cars, get personalized models with our own paint jobs or features well beyond what’s offered today. Jeff imagines such scenarios in the book, and they are possible. In fact, the after market car parts industry is a multi-billion dollar market. Still, for car companies to allow the kinds of customizing Jeff espouses would take years and a lot of expense to retool manufacturing processes, let alone corporate culture. Because of the kinds of capital investment and lead time involved, there’d have to be strong evidence that the investment would pay off — that people being able to individually paint or customize a car model would justify the investment to let them do so, wouldn’t violate government regulations, would allow for appropriate safety, etc, etc. Still, if people could participate more in creating their own vehicles, they might be more passionate about them, and car companies might do better for having brought them into the process.
So, why did I poke fun?
Well, for one thing, I was being opportunistic. It seemed that every time I turned on the radio or clicked a podcast or a link or looked at the feed of Jeff’s blog in my reader, I would get Jeff touting the book. The impression one took away was that Google was a shining light, an example of all that is or can be good in business. Never mind that in reading the book, I saw Google being portrayed as a proxy for a new kind of company that also includes Amazon and Facebook and others that do much more and much differently than Google.
Never mind, too, that some of those companies, like Facebook, may or may not ultimately have a profitable business model (I think they probably will, but it’s far from proven). Further, while Google does a lot of things right and has, as Jeff notes, grown faster than any company in history, it’s also a company with, essentially, one revenue stream, search ads, that by some accounts it discovered almost by accident (see Planet Google, Randal Stross’ September 2008 book, for a look into Google’s history). They have not managed, yet, to make money from their $1.6 billion purchase of YouTube, from social networking schemes they’ve tried, from some other advertising methods like video Ad Sense and Google Base, and a number of other products. One can even argue that a significant portion of what they and their ilk facilitate is not to the good of mankind.*
Still, Google does look like an unstoppable behemoth, just like Microsoft did a couple decades ago, and the zeitgeist Jeff describes probably is a shift in the ways companies need to think and act. Companies like Dell and Starbucks and JetBlue are, as Jeff notes, doing better because of their use of social media and their abilities to listen to and communicate with customers. But it may be a stretch to say that we can extend the model — which isn’t really a Google model, but more of a 21st century media mindset — to manufacturing techniques and expect to make a profit any time soon. Ford is taking some steps with its attempts to get into digital media; their new media guru Scott Monty (@scottmonty) jokingly Tweeted me a picture of the Homer Simpson vehicle I used in my send-up.
Could my video have been better? Sure. In my delivery, I accidentally left off a couple of bits that I’d scripted that would have added more nuance. Was it completely fair? Probably not. Humor and commentary often aren’t. Was I hiding behind humor? No. I was making a joke that taps into some serious assertions — that Google, while a great company, is not necessarily a panacea and that we can’t say it can serve as a model for all others. When I asked CEO Eric Schmidt how Google, in trying not to do evil, could even know what evil was in some instances — when Google Base, for example, helps individual sell goods, but potentially helps kill local newspapers that depend on classified ads for survival — he gave a thoughtful, considered response, saying that Google was working to help local news organizations in other ways. I don’t think newspapers can blame Google for their misbegotten plight.
I would be happy to try again to discuss this with Jeff. I offered when we spoke to do it on camera, so he could have at me on the record, raise objections in his own words rather than have me paraphrase it for him. I don’t especially like being shouted at, but I’m happy to talk — and, in the spirit of this medium — let the readers, viewers and listeners decide.
If nothing else, I’ve bought the book, read it, written and spoken about it, given some play to the marketing video, shown the cover and given it a bit more exposure. As Jeff, himself, writes in the book about someone putting up a clip of “The Daily Show” on their own site: “Even if I criticize the show, I’m saying there’s something here worth seeing and discussing.”
Exactly. I’m not really sure what I should apologize for. Except, perhaps, going on at this length about it all.
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* Some of the ways in which Google and other Internet companies may not be good for the world at large:
– Jeff writes that the Internet “explodes … points of control. It abhors centralization. It loves sea level and tears down barriers to entry. It despises secrecy and rewards openness.” Perhaps. But talk to some SEO experts. Because Google also can reward hidden manipulation done skillfully. Google always tries to punish the manipulators. But those manipulators can often game the system and get rewards not for the good they do, but for the game they play.
– The crowd is important, a tremendous boon. Google has done wonders to help us find and organize information and useful tools using the power of all of us. But if we leave selection or even overwhelming influence to the crowd we can unintentionally exclude sensibility a sole currator or free thinker or artist or engineer can provide. Google’s reliance on data above all else can tend to move us away from the creative beacon, the dissonant voice that may not, now, be popular, but which adds real value.
– There can be horrible breaches of privacy. We are trusting companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook to not share the most intimate details of our searches, communications, purchasing habits and browsing interests.
– Google is being called “just an amoral menace” that “produces nothing but seems bent on controlling everything.” I don’t agree. But it’s being said. “Despite its diversification, Google is in the final analysis a parasite that creates nothing, merely offering little aggregation, lists and the ordering of information generated by people who have invested their capital, skill and time. On the back of the labour of others it makes vast advertising revenues.” It’s also being said that “Google Should be Stopped .”
NOTE: I firmly believe that digital media, the spread of voices, and the kinds of social change being wrought by digital and Internet companies and their influence in Silicon Valley, New York and beyond are much more of a force for good than bad. But, like any tool, the Internet and all that goes with it can be used as a force for good or for more nefarious purposes — even if that is not the intent of those using it.