December 04, 2007

For Google and Others, Few Good Deeds Go Unpunished

Greetings. Back in July when I inflicted upon the Net my Gilbert and Sullivan parody I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major Googler, these lyrics were included:

But companies worth billions are between a rock and a hard place,
Try do things really right and stockholders may just spit in your face.

I was reminded of these words very recently while reading a few of the responses to my recent commentary regarding Facebook, where I suggested that Facebook was treating users like nothing more than raw materials to be squeezed dry of every drop of potential profit.

The rather disheartening attitude expressed by some of these responding e-mails could best be summarized as:

What the hell do you expect? These are extremely valuable corporations. Why should they do anything other than maximize profits by any and all legal means possible? They don't have any responsibility to treat users as anything other than profit center fodder or to do anything that doesn't help their bottom lines.

Better duck down -- the spit flying! And it doesn't portend at all well for the Internet if such a mercenary philosophy proves to dominate, given the immense information and transactional powers of the most popular Internet services.

Does it have to be this way? No, but the balancing act can be a tightrope walk extraordinaire to be sure.

Look at Google for example. There's been quite a bit of chuckling in some quarters whenever Google undertakes a project that seems not to have an immediate profit motive. Some stock analysts couldn't wait to pile on criticisms over Google's renewable energy efforts, for example -- seemingly ignoring the fact that Google indeed has serious interests in energy sector issues -- those gazillion (more or less) servers aren't running on happy thoughts alone.

But putting the power bill aside, is there really anything so unspeakably awful about devoting some resources to efforts that don't necessarily pile gold bullion in the vault from day one?

Similarly -- and no doubt I'm inviting more emotional retorts -- I simply don't sense in Google today the sort of utterly predatory attitude toward its users that does seem to pervade some other major Internet-related firms.

This is not to say that I agree with all Google policies -- as regular readers of this blog know. But I believe it's safe to say that even many (or most) Google employees also don't necessarily agree with all of Google's policies. It seems clear from public statements that even the Google leadership feels internally conflicted at times regarding some of their own policy issues -- torn between fiduciary considerations and the real world complexities of operations in a politically-charged international arena.

Such conflicts and associated nuanced views are actually a very healthy sign. There are few more reliable indicators of potential problems in an organization than blind faith that never questions policies. It's not necessary -- and in fact can be counterproductive to openness of internal discussions -- that the details of such debates and deliberations be visible to the outside world. But the fact that vibrant policy debates are taking place within organizations such as Google is a factor that must not be ignored, even in cases where one disagrees with the outcome of those deliberations.

Ultimately, whether we're talking about Google or Facebook, it's users themselves who carry most of the high-value cards, for as I've noted before, Internet users can change their service allegiances essentially at the click of a mouse. Our collective interests are best served by not belittling or devaluing the efforts of firms that try to move beyond the bottom line, especially in their treatment of their customers and users.

Or to quote Charles Dickens' Ghost of Jacob Marley:

"Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

And so it goes, even today. Especially today.


Posted by Lauren at December 4, 2007 04:54 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein