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Until a call came from Sky News, I had failed to notice that today is Google's 15th birthday. Sky wanted someone to take a negative view, since they already had a positive one. (Yes, this is how television works...) I see no reason not to oblige.

But first, a bit of history. It is hard to convey to people now what a wonderful discovery Google was in 1998. As a friend said a couple of years ago, "We thought we'd love it forever." The competitors of the day - of which the best was Altavista - had bought into the peculiarly 1997 belief that you had to be a portal. So they were competent search engines but their home pages were filled with clutter - weather reports, news headlines, banner ads - that buzzed in your head and made it hard to think what you wanted to ask them. And then, suddenly there was Google: slick, fast, more accurate, and above all, clean. That white page with nothing but a search box, that loaded in a couple of seconds (we were still on dial-up modems back then, you know, and paying by the minute for phone access). It practically had a halo around its URL.

What no one could tell at that stage and for some years afterwards was how Google might make money. Now we know: it's an ad agency. The more we remember to think of it that way instead of as a search engine, a navigational tool, or an email service, the better. Ad agencies seek to manipulate us into buying things; these days that means piling up and crunching through tons of personal data. They are also, Mad Men notwithstanding, unglamorous.

Getting from the halo around the URL to the taken-for-granted demon of 2013 took many steps. Perhaps the first hint of the data-driven future came in 2001, when Google acquired and compiled a nearly complete Usenet archive. In 2004, when it went public; financial analysts saw it as a risky investment because, they thought, rivals would find it easy to poach Google's customers by providing better search results (ha!). Even then, Google's biggest challenge seemed likely to be retaining trust, but in 2006, when privacy advocates were beginning to attack the company in earnest, their alarm seemed premature - though much less so by 2008, when Chrome was launched. By then Google's growing piles of user data were becoming a much clearer concern.

In retrospect, Google's tenth birthday probably came at the peak of public affection for the company and its services. To mark the occasion the BBC asked this: would Google ever be hated the way Microsoft is? Remember what 2008 was like: the iPhone was a year old, there were no tablets; Facebook had 100 million users; and millions of people cursed Microsoft every time their system crashed. It was the latter that made me think Google was safe from that kind of hatred. Where you only notice Microsoft when something fails, Google grabs your attention by giving you things you want: search results, images, video clips, a successful arrival at journey's end. Microsoft did traditional marketing through TV, PR, and product reviews. Google marketed itself by creating cool, new services that everyone wanted to write about and use. Who cares that it's an ad agency; it's given us Google Earth!

It was 2009 when the really controversial stuff began. Though there were cries of unhappiness over the Usenet archive's transformation of supposedly ephemeral postings into universally accessible personal history, Usenet was a minority interest. The new arriving services hit the mainstream: Street View (defining question: "Am I in it?") and the anti-trust case over Google Books. Four years later, that case is still percolating through the courts. (Side note on double standards: Aaron Swartz copies a couple of million articles from JStor for no commercial purpose that anyone's aware of and gets threatened with a dozen or two years in jail; Google copies 20 million books and puts them online and gets politely sued. Just saying.)

And so the answer to the BBC's question of 2008, at least in my case, turned out to be: yes, in 2010. Literally, yelling hatred at the computer. I wish I could say it was the privacy and dominance issues. The proximate cause was Google Instant, which, like Altavista 1997, is like having a very loud, obnoxious drunk in a pub shouting attempts to finish my sentences while I'm trying to explain something urgent and complicated. Everything since has just made the decision to transfer elsewhere seem lucky: streamlined privacy policies, the Federal Trade Commission's $22.5 million fine for overriding the Do Not Track setting in Apple's Safari browser, and this summer's many revelations about the prying habits of the NSA and GCHQ and consequent risks of giant data stores (pause to praise Google's transparency report).

A quick one-time visit to Google's home page shows a noisy cartoon congratulating itself. That's fine. It can go on without me. I deal with it by talking about it.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted throughout the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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