What Would Google Do?

There’s this example in Jeff Jarvis’ new book What Would Google Do? where he talks about how newspapers could respond to Huffington Post setting up a new blogging venture in Chicago. He basically says that they should become their new best friend – forget that they are competition and think long term. They’d get more out of magnanimity than being territorial.

But, he concludes, it doesn’t matter because “news organizations don’t yet think that way.” The thing is, no one does. People, like Marcus Aurelius said, are “meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly.” We shouldn’t be surprised when they act that way.

The benefits of being open minded, collaborative, honest, and helpful are not new. We’ve been extolling those virtues since Aesop. Or on Google’s business end, being scalable, keeping overhead low, treating your customers like partners, pocketing less value than you create. Those are the basic, bedrock fundamentals of business.

My point is that we already know all that stuff is good. Awareness isn’t the problem. Children know that you shouldn’t be evil. We don’t need to praise it anymore. What we should be discussing is how to practice it.

Hypebot, for example, is a very forward thinking blog about the music industry. It knows exactly what Google would do and points people in that direction all the time. And yet, the writer just can’t stop doing posts of nothing but links to himself, treating his Twitter account like a constant pledge drive and phishing for diggs. Institutionally there is some conflict between knowing what’s right and the pressure to do the opposite.

The book itself falls into the gap between knowing and doing. Jeff misses a very teachable lesson at the juncture where he is mature enough to admit that it’s sort of contradictory to take the most old school way of publishing his idea – advance from a major publishing house, syndicate part of the book in a magazine right at the release date, etc. His words: Sorry. Dogs got to eat.

Right. Welcome to reality. Where we all live. Where some entertainment companies would probably do innovative things but are tied to crazy artists. Or, companies controlled by petty bosses or signed leases or long term contracts or institutional inertia. The problem isn’t that they haven’t asked the right rhetorical question. If doing what Google does was easy, they’d have already done it. Since it’s hard, they haven’t.

This book and books like it lack concreteness. What would Google do is a great question. It’s a wonderful title for a book. But it’s not well served by 250 pages of proof that it’s the right one to ask. We know this. Our collective wisdom knows this.

So what specifically makes Google able to ignore the barriers that trip other people up? How do they keep the instinct to be surly, meddling, dishonest and jealous from taking over? How can people put the brakes on a direction they know is conflict with their long term goals? In other words, we’re trying to solve organizational problem with psychological treatments and it’s never going to work. WWGD? has all sort of great examples of good – as in not evil – decisions that Google and other companies have made. What is doesn’t have is much introspection as to how they fought the resistance towards making it.

I’d really like to read a book that doesn’t think the solution lies in more talking. If you were to suggest one of the ideas in the book where you work nobody would tell you it was stupid – they’d just say “it’s not realistic.” THAT is where we need pages. Not to say Jeff’s book isn’t good (it is), it’s just not what it could be. It’s lame to treat all this as some revelation because it’s not. It should be a starting off point.

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