Let’s play Supreme Being for a moment. Assume you’re assembling a solar system. Obviously, you need a powerful gravitational vortex at its center. Yet, despite the organizational benefits of the approach, this gravity well has effects well beyond organizing the system. Its mere presence can dictate many things about how the inhabitants of the system around it function and evolve. It can introduce limitations that can be justifiably interpreted as absolutes instead of variables.
There seems to be a gravity well at the center of Web thinking these days, whether it manifest itself in attention economy for scholars, the pernicious effects of digital apologists, the vanishing middle-class of information workers, the belief that free content can be sustainable, and the sanctity of advertising. I think it’s also somewhat related to the Age of Systems, and is, in its totality, encapsulated as the bright, gaseous star we call Google.
About a year ago, I covered a piece Scott Karp wrote about how Google doesn’t want your content, just your links. And recently, our own David Crotty made a comment in which he said, “Google’s business is selling ads. They constantly try to drive the price of nearly everything else on earth down to zero in order to use those things as incentives to sell ads.”
In case you harbor any doubts that ads are what drives Google, this chart from the Silicon Alley Insider should put those doubts to rest:
So it began to dawn on me — Is the ubiquitous and powerful Google so mighty and pervasive that its mere presence actually has a gravitational effect on our thinking that hasn’t quite registered completely?
I’m not talking about the prosaic effects of its search engine, as covered recently in yet another Wired article about the search giant. I think Google represents much more than that in our lives now. And while it doesn’t want your content, just links, Google knows that certain conditions favor the creation of more links to harvest, and is happy to encourage these conditions.
In short, I’m pretty sure that Google’s business model and practices broadcast that open content is more linkable and valuable. This benefits Google since the more open the Web becomes, the bigger Google can become.
Open content leads to more sharing, more automated linking, more traversals to drive the awareness that results in linking, which all lead to more money for Google. The problem is, we can be fooled into thinking Google’s business model is our business model.
And it’s not just textual content that Google inherently wants to make free — given the chance to make maps, Google made them free; given the chance to put maps on the iPhone, Google made them free; and given the chance to turn its maps into a GPS program for the Android, Google made it free.
Who cares if Tom-Tom and Garmin are crippled because of it? Google’s ad dollars insulate the giant, and justify its every move.
Look at what happened to newspapers, the first explorers to make a close approach to the GoogleSun — prices dropped, commoditization accelerated, and the wings of many news operations began to melt in the heat.
While Google may only want links, the heat of its link-seeking creates disastrous side-effects. To make more links, Google wants content to be as linkable as possible. They don’t just want your links, they want as many links as they can get.
But let’s think through the implicit messages of Google’s approach and whether they really make sense:
- Could it really be that advertising is the most naturally viable online commercial model?
- Could it be that we should really make our content freely available in order to facilitate linking?
- Has Google really organized the Web? Can any a system be smart enough to do that?
- Are digital systems sufficient, even superior, compared to more intuitive human systems?
What if Google were somehow geared to make money off subscriptions — subscriptions to maps, subscriptions to newspaper content, subscriptions to music services, subscriptions to magazines, subscriptions to search solutions — and advertising was something they hadn’t tackled? What if Google had integrated into its business plan the recent news that a significant proportion of customers are willing to pay for content?
I’ll bet Google would have made the best subscription system the world has ever seen, be rich beyond imagining through micropayments, and all our content would be commercialized in a way that made content more lucrative than it will ever be in its current role — acting as a roadway for Google traffic and parking lots for its links.
Advertising is Google’s game. And, as in a solar system that sustains life, there’s a distance and angle relative to the GoogleSun that’s optimal. Get too close, you get burned. Move farther off, and you don’t have the radiant heat or light to sustain large-scale species diversification.
Unfortunately, many STM publishers are small, remote from the sun, and have to subsist off other sources of energy.
What does this have to do with the Age of Systems? Because Google’s reputation is that it has been able to organize the world’s information, it’s tempting to think there’s a system in the digital realm that can actually do this. But the fact is, Google is a pretty limited organizational system. For instance, I can’t drag all the files I find in a search onto my hard drive. I can’t be sure the search results a week from now will be the same as those I’ll get today. I can’t compare one page to another within the system.
Google isn’t really organized — it’s useful, repeatedly useful, but not organized. Google’s only organized as much as Google needs to be in order to be the best search portal . . . in order to sell ads.
Given its centrality and power, I think the gravitational effect of Google may have changed how we think about digital and cast the recent moves back to subscription models and closed content in an uncomfortable — dare I say, unnatural — light.
As long as Google is able to deliver more for (apparently) less, it’s gravity of assumptions and preconditions will continue to hold sway over the information solar system.