10.14.09

Google's Velvet Rope

Rather than make its new telephone service available to the masses, Google Voice will be invitation only. Douglas Rushkoff asks if you block them, will they come?

Ubiquity ain't what it used to be.

For Google, the problem with being a free, abundant, and rather infinite set of services is that it's hard to create much of a stir about anything. There are so many major software service options under the "more" menu on the Gmail page that they've had to go and add a final item called "even more." Blogger, Calendar, Docs, Earth, Health, YouTube, Chrome—it's all there, all the time, for everyone.

While that may be great for a 21st-century technology movement dedicated to offering the infinity of the info-sphere to the masses, it's not necessarily great for a 21st-century technology company looking to increase value for its shareholders. To do that, a company needs some mystique, some barriers to entry: a virtual velvet rope that—just like the one used by a nightclub—has less to do with any real threat of overcrowding than the need to create the illusion of exclusivity. If you block them, they will come.

Google gave away everything from search to the Android cellphone platform, and yet they’re now regarded with the same suspicion as Microsoft during the 1990s “browser wars.”

That's why Google has decided to slowly mete out the "invites" to its new Google Voice telephone service. Current users (a select group of people who either have friends at Google or used the original service, Grand Central, before it was acquired) are each being given a few invites over the coming weeks. They may then use them to invite their best or most appreciative friends to use the service. Without an invite, you can't get in. While Google did this before when first launching the Gmail service, invites were so plentiful that they amounted to little more than a formality—or even just a way to slow the creation of spam accounts. This time, it feels much more about exclusivity.  

From the desperate onslaught of requests now flooding the Twitterverse, it's a strategy that appears to be working. Bloggers and online columnists are busy holding contests through which their readers can compete for the coveted invites. And of course, the more appetite Google can create in this way, the more buzz, excitement, and brand value they can create for themselves. It is Social Marketing 101: Find a way to get people to spread word of your new product or service, so that you don't have to advertise it yourself. Only in this case, the sinister beauty behind the strategy is to give those crowd-sourced armies of word-of-mouth advertisers something for their trouble—the ability to decide who else gets into the club.

It's hard to get too outraged by this. On the one hand, Google claims it wants to ramp up its new services at a measured pace, to make sure servers don't suddenly get overloaded by millions of users trying to make or receive phone calls through servers and switchers that have only contended with a trickle of activity until now. While I have a hard time bringing myself to believe Google's engineers and server technicians haven't already built a system capable of handling the entire world's telephone needs from the get-go, I can see why they'd act like this, all the same.

Google's technologies are either taken for granted, or attacked as predatory. No sooner do they develop a suite of free cloud computing services that work—such as Google Docs—than they are accused of breaking the software industry's business model. They give away everything from search to the Android cellphone platform, and yet they're now regarded with the same suspicion as Microsoft during the 1990s “browser wars” (another case of a company getting in the most trouble when it tried to give something away).

Think of what it must be like for them to watch the way people line up overnight outside Apple stores for the privilege of being among the first to dish out $200 or $300 for the latest iPhone (not to mention another couple of thousand over the next two years for an AT&T contract). Apple enjoys Harry Potter-like adoration and queues because it sells physical objects, limited by the pace of assembly lines in China. To own is to have, to have is to hold, and to hold is to show off.

Google's “invite” strategy one-ups Apple on the social-marketing scale. Getting behind the velvet rope—being the person who has gotten in—empowers that user to get others in, and so on. It's like having an iPhone that can create others for your friends. For the next week or so, until the geometric progression of three friends telling three friends, and so on, and so on, takes effect, owning invites will earn social currency for more than a few Google loyalists.

Google loyalist. It's an odd construction at that. Unnecessary even, given that a company's strength in today's virtual marketplace doesn't derive from its exclusivity but its accessibility. Google is in a position where it doesn't even have to strive to become a hip, conscious choice. Brands are temporary fads. Functionality is forever. Google just has to “be,” and everyone will end up there sooner or later. Sure, anyone who wants Google Voice service will be able to get it in another couple of weeks anyway, and this momentary frenzy may be understood as the marketing tactic it really is. Those who have dished out social favors for the privilege of a Google Voice account will feel like those silly people who beg to get into the nightclub—only to learn that the place was virtually empty.

Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of media studies at The New School University and producer and correspondent for the PBS Frontline Digital Nation project, is the author of numerous books, including Cyberia, ScreenAgers, Media Virus , and, most recently, Life Inc.