In the Plex: the Google story as only Google could (or would) tell it

From Google’s early days as a Stanford research project and the creation of the search engine that put the company on the map to its present role as a leader in the field of cloud computing, Steven Levy’s In the Plex provides an in-depth chronicle of the company, its products, and the employees behind it all.

While the internet has threatened the existence of traditional institutions like the music industry and print newspapers, it has also helped to create new institutions.  Google is the internet institution par excellence. What was once a start-up with no model for generating revenue has become a $30 billion company that is the subject of anit-trust litigation and the victim of hacking at the hands of a foreign government.  Key to accomplishing this growth was the creation of Google’s ingenious advertising models, AdSense and AdWords.  By lowering the financial barriers to advertising and using a cost-per-click pricing system that connects dollars to actual website traffic, Google was able to capitalize on long-tail advertisers.  The company’s profitability has enabled it to transition beyond search to become the web-based operating system of the future.

The strength of Levy’s book lies in the unparalleled access that the author had to the individuals behind the company—and not just the founders, but the salespeople, PR, and Google’s most precious commodity, the engineers.  Based primarily on interviews with current and former Google employees, In the Plex is essentially the story of Google as told by Google.  As a result, the book succeeds in providing the reader with a sense of what it is like inside of the company, including how decisions are made, the distinctive corporate culture, and the dynamics between the founders and former CEO Eric Schmidt.

Yet, Levy’s access to the company is also a limitation.  The author seems to have succumbed to what one might refer to as Google group think, which at times appears to cloud the judgment of even Google’s brightest employees.  Central to this form of group think is the belief that what the world needs is more Google, and that brilliant engineers are capable of solving all sorts of entrenched political and social problems if only the rest of the world would just get out of the way.  It was precisely this sort of group think that led to the company’s ill-fated venture into China.  The company’s policy director, Andrew  McLaughlin, summed up the main question regarding the company’s decision whether or not to enter the Chinese market thusly, “Will Google accelerate positive change and freedom of expression in China by being there, or will we accelerate it by staying out?” (Levy 277).  There was a missing third option—that Google probably wouldn’t have had much impact on positive change in China one way or another—to which the company was oblivious.

For the most part, Levy has drunk the Google Kool-Aid and is along for the ride.  He resists criticizing the decision makers or the decision-making process even when the decisions lead to monumental failures as in the case of Google’s foray into China or the company’s inability to capitalize on the popularity of social media sites like Facebook (I think the jury is still out on Google+).

While an unfounded belief in Google’s power to improve the world is dangerous, Google does have a lot to offer, particularly in the public sector, where government agencies could better serve their constituents through innovation. It was disappointing that even in the Obama White House, which seemed to offer such promise for bringing the executive office into the digital age, the Googlers who joined the administration were stymied by institutional barriers.

However, in contrast to the White House, an increasing number of local governments are creating spaces in which innovation can occur.  For example, about two years ago Mayor Menino created the Office of New Urban Mechanics, which fosters innovation by engaging constituents in the design and delivery of services.  One of the Office’s earliest accomplishments was the creation of the award-winning smartphone application, Citizens Connect, which makes it easier for constituents to report issues like graffiti and broken streetlights to the City.

Google could play an important role in contributing to innovation at the local level by donating their most valuable resource: their talent.  The company could institute a program that would allow Google employees to take a year of paid leave to work with local government or non-profits.  The Google employees would not only provide technical assistance, they would also be expected to help the government agency or non-profit implement policies and programs that would continue to foster innovation, much like Mayor Menino’s Office of New Urban Mechanics.  Such a program might just make the world a little more Googley—in a good way.

 

Levy, Steven (2011).  In the Plex.  New York: Simon and Schuster.

Sharing, Collaboration, and Collective Action in the Digital Age

From politics to dating, entertainment to revolution, there is hardly an aspect of society that has not been radically altered by the internet. In his book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky examines how the internet has changed the way individuals share, collaborate, and organize and the effects those changes have wrought on our traditional institutions.

Shirky observes that institutions arise because complex tasks (like producing an encyclopedia) are more easily accomplished through coordinated efforts than through individual efforts.  Coordination has traditionally required the structured management that institutions provide.  In a sense, an institution like Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. faces two types of tasks: those related to producing and selling encyclopedias, and those related to maintaining the institutional framework necessary to produce and sell encyclopedias.  The type 2 tasks incur transaction costs.  In successful institutions, these transaction costs are outweighed by the efficiencies resulting from well-managed type 1 tasks.

However, the internet has altered the comparative advantage institutions have over less-structured groups.  By lowering the transaction costs associated with communication and coordination, the internet has made it easier for individuals to share, collaborate and act collectively.  In the case of encyclopedias, wikis allow individuals to collaboratively write and edit.  Contributors can participate as little or as much as they want without incurring additional costs to the community of contributors as a whole.  Whereas Encyclopedia Britannica will spend significant money managing its writers and editors, the costs to Wikipedia.org are relatively minimal because the community manages itself.

The “collapsed costs” of coordination have not only impacted the publishing industry.  Power that was historically concentrated in the music industry, governments, and mainstream news outlets is now available to the masses.  This challenges the dominance of these traditional institutions and raises a host of new issues related to commerce, ethics, and privacy – to name but a few.  (For a timely perspective on the question of “what is journalism in the digital age and does it matter?” see Jeff Jarvis’ September 3 post on the BuzzMachine entitled “But is it journalism? (Damnit).”)

However, rather than surveying these broad effects, I want to focus on the impact of the internet on collective action.  Shirky distinguishes long-term, creative collective action from collective action focusing on protest.  The former is less common, most likely because collective action in general requires a greater commitment to the group than collaboration or sharing, and this sort of commitment is harder to sustain over the long-term.  When collective action for creative purposes does occur, Shirky attributes it to what he calls “reciprocal altruism” – the principle at work in community barn raisings (Shirky, 312).  (Interesting that the example used here is most commonly associated with the Amish, who live without technology).

However, reciprocal altruism is not the only motivation that can contribute to creative collective action. There are other impulses that can be just as effective.  For example, while a barn raising might occur as a result of reciprocal altruism, a church raising must be the product of other motivations, such as shared self-interests, social pressures (and associated feelings of guilt, shame, duty), or in some cases, pure altruism.  Shirky must realize this, but he does not directly address it, which is unfortunate.  By limiting the discussion to reciprocal altruism, he appears to limit the potential environment in which creative collective action can occur.  As Shirky notes, reciprocal altruism typically requires social density and continuity, which mostly exist in small, tightly-knit communities (Shirky, 313).  But the environment in which creative collective action can occur is actually much greater than this, and understanding the motivations beyond reciprocal altruism that contribute to collective action is essential for any organization or group looking to use the internet to organize for constructive social change.

Still, Shirky is correct in predicting a revolution in collective action (Shirky, 313-316).  While the main driver might be new legal structures that allow for “internet-friendly incorporation,” traditional institutions will also have an important role to play.  The Pepsi Refresh project gives one indication of how this might occur.

Although it is a novel marketing idea, in principle the Pepsi Refresh project differs very little from normal corporate grant-making.  In place of private grant submissions, grant-seeking individuals and organizations post their projects online.  Instead of a board of trustees determining the projects to receive funding, the online community (comprised mostly of the grant-seeking organizations and their supporters) vote on the winners.  Projects are placed in different categories according to mission and ask amount.  Every month the project in each category with the most votes wins a grant.  The projects that aren’t awarded grants are carried over into the next month’s voting.

Two important features have led to some interesting results.  1) Every registered member has multiple votes (five votes every day), and 2) each project page on the Refresh site includes a comments section.  Instead of solely relying on their existing networks of supporters for votes, project organizers have started using the comments sections on project pages to form coalitions with project organizers in other categories – essentially, “We’ll vote for your projects if you vote for ours.”  The result is a Small World network of multiple small, dense clusters connected to one another to form a larger network (see Shirky, 215, for an explanation of Small World networks).  With a large number of projects carried over from month to month, these coalitions are reinforced, and the bridging capital connecting the small groups becomes more of a bonding capital (see Shirky, 222, for more on bridging and bonding capital).

Now, imagine if instead of merely a vote, Pepsi were to require “action commitments,” measured in volunteer hours or other in-kind transfers of resources between organizations.  The result would be an exchange network based upon reciprocal altruism between groups within the Small World network.  These action commitments would build the capacity of individual organizations.  Thus, the ultimate benefit of the process to organizations would be much greater than a one-time grant of $5,000 – $50,000.  Additionally, one could argue that the ability of a project to build community support and marshal resources is one significant indication of potential success.  The Pepsi Refresh project would then serve as an effective way to identify the most promising projects – a sort of survival of the fittest.

Of course, the Pepsi Refresh project has not required action commitments, and there is probably little for the corporation to gain from doing so.  However, a government entity like the Corporation for National and Community Service or a foundation – or any organization with a broad interest in social impact – might benefit from such a model.  Community members would have to monitor each other to ensure that action commitments are fulfilled, and the idea will likely require some modification through trial and error, but in general, it points to a potential way in which even established institutions can achieve greater social impact through the internet.

Shirky, Clay (2008).  Here Comes Everybody. New York: Penguin.

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