What exactly would Google do?
Have you ever finished a book and said to yourself, I think what he wrote was probably 60 per cent absolutely right - but I'm just not sure which 60 per cent?
That is the verity dizziness I have been experiencing after reading Jeff Jarvis's What Would Google Do?
Jarvis — uber-blogger, director of the new-media interactive program at the City University of New York's graduate journalism school and an internet guru who swans about with the princes of world capitalism when they annually alight in Davos, Switzerland — has redefined the word "Google" for us.
No longer is it either a corporation made super-super-rich by its refined web searching algorithms or a way to describe internet searching in general. Rather, in this rampantly informational age, Jarvis argues we must recast almost all the world's business models to fit into what Google's success has taught us we can and should do with the internet.
He enunciates, by my count, 39 different principles that Google (the company) tells us should be applied in our collective Google (the economy) future. He then proceeds to show how these new business rules might transform areas as diverse as banking, book publishing, health care, university education, real estate, airlines, wine choices, car design, restaurant menus, power and light generation, and government as a whole.
New reality check
Jarvis talks about reconfiguring the world to fit a Googlized view where abundance, not scarcity, is the new reality. It is a place where the mass market has come to an end, where there is an inverse relationship between control and trust, and your worst enemy is your best friend because he tells you what you are doing wrong.
These foundations translate into generalized actions, such as getting rid of the middleman — think bookstores, ad agencies, real estate agents, food critics — so that ordinary buyers can tell sellers what they want directly.
For example, Jarvis describes how he blogged about what an intrinsically crappy computer his Dell was after going through warranty hell with the company. That blog elicited a welter of "we hate Dell too" responses that eventually, maybe, caused the company to rethink its entire relationship to customer service. Jarvis argues the voice of internet complaint likely forced Dell to arrive at the realization that responding to customers' frustrations took precedence over its old "Dell-knows-best" repair-warranty practices.
Further in this vein, one can almost feel the shudders on the Madison Avenues of the world when Jarvis cackles, "Marketers' ultimate goal should be to eliminate advertising by improving their products and relationships."
He also argues that in a Google economy everyone could and should link up with everyone else, and in so doing take advantage of the sense of empowerment the internet has bestowed on previously silenced customers.
Consider wine buying. Jarvis points out that if a mob of people like or hate a certain vintage, there is likely a good and not effete reason for their opinion. Even better, the wisdom of the internet's oenophile crowds will likely be quantifiable. You should be able to compare their tastes to your own because Googlized people are not interested in what some professional wine critic likes, but what people who generally like what they like, like.
I read very carefully Jarvis's interestingly contradictory analyses about how the internet is tearing apart old media, particularly newspapers. For example, he argues that reliance on what he calls "the cash cow in the coalmine" — that is, existing print advertising revenues — has crippled traditional newspapers' ability to adapt to new internet-driven advertising realities. The papers make too much money from printed ads to easily switch to a less well-paying internet-only format, even if they could see a future in which falling print ad revenues would eventually drive printed papers over the cliff of bankruptcy.
"Now newsmen are willing to change, but it may be too late for them," Jarvis writes. "They lost their destinies because they wanted to save their pasts. Protection is not a strategy for the future."
What can you get for free?
So why am I so confused about the virtues of a Googlized economy that Jarvis pitches?
The simplest answer: The limitations of the free.
What Jarvis believes Google assumes, and what most internet media applications assume, is that something for nothing is the epitome of a modern business reality. "Free is a business model. Free is impossible to compete against," Jarvis crows. "The most efficient marketplace is a free marketplace. Money gets in the way."
Picking up on this, Wired editor in chief Chris Anderson recently thundered in The Wall Street Journal: "Over the past decade, we have built a country-sized economy online where the default price is zero — nothing, nada, zip. Digital goods — from music and video to Wikipedia — can be produced and distributed at virtually no marginal cost, and so, by the laws of economics, price has gone the same way, to $0.00. For the Google Generation, the internet is the land of the free."
This is what Google itself thinks are the lessons to be learned from what it does:
The problem with this economic libertarianism is that I can't tell the difference between it and a global Ponzi scheme.
At its root, the internet's cult of freedom believes people will work for nothing. Without any recompense, people will write blogs for the Huffington Post, correct Wikipedia entries, upload their videos, music and books and send to CNN photos of Mumbai burning because "free" trumps everything on the net. What the internet entrepreneur — the Facebook, the Twitter, the Google, the Huffington Post — then do is take what people have produced freely and tease a profit from it.
The only companies that are getting rich are paying their suppliers nothing - or, in terms of what Google ads pay to most bloggers, next to nothing. One result of this, in my mind, is that the present economic slump might well in the future be called Depression-a-Google, because you could say that at its core was a belief that you really could get something for nothing. I mean, if it worked for the internet, didn't zero payment mean you didn't have to be able to afford your house mortgage? Didn't have to ever pay off your credit card debt? Didn't need to construct a financial future where the stock market went down, not up?
Ultimately, I can't tell how much of Jarvis's faith in the absolute worth of a literally free-for-all economy dooms his other arguments. I'm not alone. Media analyst Alan Mutter has recently typified the idea of free content as "the Original Sin." Anderson says: "Free may be the best price, but it can't be the only one." Then I realized I could give you a classic example of the economic perversity that the everything-for-nothing paradigm creates.
Jarvis admits both that he got a huge advance for his book and that his publisher will have to sell multi-volumes to earn it back. "I confess, I am a hypocrite," he writes. "If I had followed my own rules — if I had eaten my own dog food — you wouldn't be reading this book right now, at least not as a book. You would be reading it online, for free, having discovered it via links and search."
"But," he goes on, "I did make money from a publisher's advance. That's why you are reading this as a book. Sorry. Dog's gotta eat."
"But Jeff," I want to say, "we all gotta eat. We all gotta make some kind of living."
If a Google book economy operates on the principle that a free book is the best book, well, eventually all authors are going to starve to death — and the dead don't write much.
And then I had to laugh. I searched with Google and found out that in the end, Jarvis persuaded his publisher to put a copy of the book online. (You can read the whole thing for free online.)
And that is what I counsel you to do. You should converse with Jarvis by doing what he admits he really wants to do but is too cowardly to do for himself: doing your bit to kill the old, for-pay, publishing-for-profit book industry. The strongest argument Google users can make to Jarvis that he is wrong in believing free is the paramount 21st century business model is to make Harper Collins suffer so much financially for giving What Would Google Do? away for free on the net that they never publish anything by Jeff Jarvis again.
It should work and, in so doing, show that whatever happens elsewhere, there will always be a free market on the Internet for irony.