01.29.09

Jeff Jarvis Asks: Is Google an Evil Empire?

What Would Google Do? author Jeff Jarvis on which industries the search giant will take over next, how the company could blow it, and why life is just a beta.

Jeff Jarvis, the blogger behind BuzzMachine.com, has made a career out of challenging and tweaking news organizations as the Internet has vastly upset their business models. But in a newly published book, he also takes the Internet’s signature titan, Google, and uses it as a model for all business to consider.

What Would Google Do? (Collins Business) is Jarvis’ attempt to apply the lessons of the search giant to everything from the news business to hospitals to government. Of course, holding the hardcover in my hands, I wondered: “Book? Dead trees bound together? Surely, this is not what Google would do.”

Click here to read an excerpt from Jeff Jarvis’ book.

Jarvis readily agrees, but he notes that a scribbler needs to get paid. Before setting off for Europe, Jarvis answered some questions about his book, shedding light on the notion of WWGD. He hasn’t had bracelets made yet. He suggests that Google could blow it by getting too big and bureaucratic. And as Google’s quarterly earnings drop was announced last week, he laments that he bought stock at $512.

DB: What are most important rules if you are thinking in WWGD terms?

JJ: I'd nominate these as key rules of the Google age:

1. Be a platform: We are enduring more than a temporary financial crisis. We are witnessing a fundamental shift in the economy. Companies and industries will in great measure no longer grow by borrowing vast capital to make huge acquisitions. The way to grow to critical mass—the Google way—will be to become platforms and networks that enable others to build businesses, grow, and succeed.

2. Life is a beta. Voltaire said that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Google lives the rule as it introduces every new product as a beta. That is Google's way to say that it trusts us to help it finish its products. It is Google's way to open up its design process to our wisdom.

3. Get out of the way. This is actually Craig Newmark's law. As Google built the most powerful tool imaginable—the entire world of digital knowledge revealed behind a simple search box—so did Craig build a simple tool that changed society (and newspapers and real estate and more) without prescribing how we should use it. They create platforms to enable us to do what we want to do and then, instead of giving us rules about their use, then they stand back and put us in charge.

DB: It’s interesting that an online maven such as yourself penned a book on this subject—it seems a bit counterintuitive.

JJ: Counterintuitive? No, I confess: It's downright hypocritical. If I had followed my own rules—if I had eaten my own dog food—I would have created a digital book that is searchable and linkable, that can be corrected and updated and discussed and passed around. But I took my publisher's advance money. Hey, dog's gotta eat. The book publishing industry still works—for now—because it adds value with editing, promotion, sales, and cash.

I wish that Google would realize its own power in the cause of free speech. Google lives and profits by free speech and must use its considerable power to become a better guardian of it.

DB: There are obvious business models threatened by Google and its brethren, such as the music and newspaper industry. What other industries/businesses face a Google threat and may not even realize it? How can they think more like Google?

JJ: The industries closest to Google—media, advertising, and entertainment—are affected first. But the avalanche that is Google and the internet will overtake all industries and institutions—carmakers, bankers, universities, government—as we undergo a fundamental restructuring of the economy and society. Every industry and institution would be wise to understand the need for handing over control, for transparency, for collaboration and speed.

DB: You write about Google as a model for several businesses and even for government. As President Obama gets underway, what are some key WWGD words of wisdom you can offer him and his incoming administration?

JJ: I would like to see transparency become the default for government: Abolish the Freedom of Information Act so we don't have to ask government for information but government must ask to keep information from us. The more transparent government is, the more collaborative it can become. The more our officials learn to trust us—with information and a role in government—the more we can trust them.

DB: Google famously said it would not be evil. Yet, as you note, Google has not always walked the yellow-brick road in this regard. Since WWGD is your mantra, in what ways are you hopeful that Google will more completely embrace its own idea of not doing evil?

JJ: I wish that Google would realize its own power in the cause of free speech. The debate has been often held about Google's role in acceding to the Chinese government's demands to censor search results. Google says that it is better to have a hampered internet than no internet at all. I believe that if the Chinese people were threatened with no Google, they might even rise up and demand free speech—free search and links—from their regime. Google lives and profits by free speech and must use its considerable power to become a better guardian of it.

DB: You muse about Google running everything from a hospital to a utility company. If you could select an industry for Google to enter and run under the WWGD terms, which industry would it be and why?

JJ: Gawd, how I'd love it if Google ran my cable or phone company. Instead of making their businesses out of telling us what we can't do, GT&T would recognize the benefit of helping us do what we want to do: use the internet more and create more of our own stuff. Google might even figure out how to make connectivity ad-supported and free. Sadly, though, I think Google knows what it is and won't expand into other industries, even if it would be good at running a cable or energy or phone company.

DB: Did you get any flack from folks who wear WWJD bracelets?

JJ: I'm hoping even they have a sense of humor. If not, I'll hide behind the fact that my sister is a Presbyterian minister and I used to sing in the church choir.

DB: Google’s stock has fallen quite a bit recently, down about 50 percent since May of last year. Does this reflect any problems for Google beyond the basic economic crisis, such as the difficulty of maintaining a culture in the midst of massive growth?

JJ: I bought Google stock at $512. Oh, well. I think Google shares' current fall is the same fall we're all still experiencing. The larger question is: Could Google blow it? Yes. I hear that life inside is getting too big and bureaucratic. Growth creates opportunity and stress. Google has its systems to maintain culture—its hiring gauntlet—and innovation—its 20 percent rule requiring engineers to invent. Even its 'don't be evil' rule is important culturally, as it enables employees to challenge decisions (don't we wish that phrase had been carved over the doors of Wall Street?). Google is not God. It's not perfect. But I wouldn't bet against Google.

DB: Where can folks find out more about WWGD?

The conversation will continue on my blog, Buzzmachine.com. That's where the conversation—and the book—began. I explored the ideas in the book there and I'm grateful that my readers and commenters pushed me, corrected me, challenged me, and gave me examples and ideas. For example, on the blog, I said that I thought insurance could not become Googley, but my readers disagreed with me and gave me so many ideas that they took over that chapter. So I do hope the discussion continues on the blog. And I'll be searching for what people say elsewhere. Via Google, of course.

Dave Kansas is Editor at Large at FiLife.com and author of upcoming book The Wall Street Journal Guide to The End of Wall Street as We Know It (Collins, Jan. 27, 2009).