Quit Trying to Be the Next Google Dammit, Pt. 2: The Goal Should Be An Internet That Makes Us Better Humans
We have a houseguest, my husband and I. She is staying with us while she receives medical treatment, and will be here for a while.
I am on all my manners. I have almost stopped singing out loud to myself, and talking twee to the cat, and blurting out observations which make sense to me but no one else. I am cooking dinner and keeping the kitchen clean and checking twice a day to make sure there are plenty of clean towels in the linen closet. I do not feel much faith in my powers as a hostess — I am too big and rumpled and introverted and strange and I’m always convinced something will go wrong. I cooked pierogies and the house smelled like fried onions even hours later, and I went in the bathroom and cried because everything the house would smell like fried onions forever and I was the worst person in the world.
Through all this I go back to the Internet over and over again to try to be better. To find good recipes to cook. To do medical research. To figure out how to make our ancient bathroom sparkle. To get rid of the fried onion smell, dammit. To be a more productive person and a more effective hostess for this family member with her blue cane who is so, so patient with me and makes me feel ridiculous for crying over food.
I don’t say to myself that I am using Google because it indexes so many Web pages so quickly and thus and such. I don’t say to myself that I’m searching PubMed because it has so much information organized in such a way. I say to myself that I want to use THIS resource or THAT resource because it’s helping me in doing a job at which I feel completely rubbish. It’s making me better.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if instead of headline touting “the next Google” (a phrase which has 2,660,000 matches on Google itself, by the way), stories and Web pages encouraged aspiring companymakers to build the things that make us more capable and stronger? To encourage people to, instead of merely reflecting an existing quo, build tools that will expand horizons and give us new ways of being and lead us to becoming better humans?
… I suppose that now that I have admitted in front of God and everybody to crying over fried onion stink that I should also tell you my secret dream. My secret dream is to have a place to send every bit of information I look at. I read literally hundreds of RSS feeds. I am subscribed to dozens of Google Alerts. And my perfect day would be able to match every bit of information to someone who would be delighted to have it.
That’s my particular itch. To direct information to people who could use it. That’s why I spend so much time reading those feeds and alert services — because there are so many great resources out there, and more coming every day, and y’all don’t know them, and that drives me nuts.
If I were building an Internet company, that would be what I would build. A delivery system to tell you about all the beautiful stuff I find. A system that’s so simple and easy to use that I could spend 99% of my time finding and reporting the beautiful stuff and only 1% of the time doing bullshit, which is anything that’s not finding and reporting beautiful stuff.
Well meaning people would ask me, “Is it going to be like Google? Or Facebook?” And I would say “No no, if either of those worked for me I would be using them now.” And I would make something that worked perfectly for me, no matter how it ended up looking like. And then I would invite other people to play. And if they liked it, away we go! And if they didn’t — well, at least I had solved one of my own problems, yes?
Technology is for the purpose of us. We are not for the purpose of technology. When we aspire to merely imitate an existing structure we are doing ourselves a disservice. Even a better Google is still a Google. But to focus on solving a problem and letting people do better those things that make us so uniquely us — when that is your goal, you have moved outside history and technology becomes merely an element of construction and not a force that bends you.
Earlier this month I read an interesting article in ScienceNOW. It was about how people can recognize how they have changed in the past, but are less good at recognizing how they will change in the future. “Gilbert and colleagues call this effect ‘the end of history illusion,’ because it suggests that people believe, consciously or not, that the present marks the point at which they’ve finally stopped changing.”
I thought this was interesting because it’s a huge blind spot in one’s development as a person and may explain why it’s so hard for people to enact radical change on themselves (and it may also give some hints on how it could become easier to do so.) I also think it may explain how people see current companies and technology.
I thought of this study yesterday when I read an article on Mashable called Free Database of the Entire Web May Spawn the Next Google. It was an overview of a new non-profit that’s making a huge bucket of Web data that people can splash around in. This is great, but not new (ODP data was being used for the same purpose by sites like Oingo, and that was over a dozen years ago) and I found the idea that this might bring about “the next Google” to be as galling as it ever is. Only this time I’m going to write about it because I can’t stand it any longer.
Seventeen years ago this spring I wrote my first book on Internet and search engines. I have been reading and writing about search engines and finding things online ever since. And I would like to bring all this experience to bear and disclose something to you:
One day Google is going to suck.
This is not disrespect. It’s history. The more successful Google gets, the bigger it gets. The bigger it gets, the slower it moves. The slower it moves, the more difficulty it has in responding to rapid changes of technology. The more difficulty.. you get the idea. The very fact of a company’s existence and the requirements heaped on it from all sides — from the government, shareholders, customers, employees — eventually coats it in layers of bullshit that have nothing to do with mission and innovation and everything to do with placating someone or other. The more success, the more of that there is. Bureaucratic barnacles.
Because we are always in the present, we can’t imagine the Internet without our right-now-essential tools. But eventually they will not be essential. Eventually the Internet will change enough that they will take a more minor role, specialize to the point that they appeal to a much smaller audience, or deprecate entirely.
HotBot? AltaVista? The Open Directory Project? All once hailed as great innovations, hugely useful, where-would-we-be-without-them, tools of the Internet. And now they all pretty much suck. (Though some people involved, like Rich Skrenta (ODP) and his search engine blekko, have moved on to greater things.)
I’m not saying that tomorrow Google is going to start sucking, and I’m not saying it sucks now. It doesn’t. I’m saying that it can’t be what it is indefinitely no matter how unstoppable and monolithic it looks now. And I’m saying that if you start off trying to “be the next Google,” you are setting yourself up for failure.
There are so many problems of discovery and usage on the Internet that have nothing to do with what Google does right, right now. Searching for podcasts is a pointless nightmare. It’s still hard to find and use “deep Web” resources like those which are found within library catalogs and online exhibits. Natural language searching has gone from being difficult and odd (but somewhat useful) to, in my experience, misunderstanding what I actually want. Special character searching is still a niche for engines like SymbolHound. Translation tools, while better, are still pretty bad. The only Twitter viewing/monitoring tool I can find that doesn’t make me want to punch a wall in frustration is Undrip.
Here’s my point: now matter how pervasive Google is, no matter how unshakable it looks, there are still issues with the way the Internet and the Web work. There are still structures to be invented and innovations to be made. And that will be true forever.
For your success, scratch what makes you itch. Look at the Web/Internet/whatever, see what pisses you off, and address that. Take Common Crawl’s excellent offerings and makes your job easier. (Now I’m wondering what Wikia is doing with Grub.) What you do may overlap Google’s endeavors or it may not. But it seems to me you will be much more successful with that approach than by trying to replicate the success of what came before.
I feel like Twitter is playing this game of “TOS Jenga” — how many services and third party sources can it yank before it jumps the shark? The latest move is to stop supporting third-party image hosts in its official apps. “But Twitter’s a business!” Fine. Then make a business decision — like, oh, I don’t know, charging for the API — and work on keeping your ecosystem as open and accessible as possible.
There’s a new zero-day exploit in Internet Explorer. None of y’all use Internet Explorer, do you? I hope not. Personally I find Firefox with NoScript is lovely.
Blinkx has announced an update of its video search engine.
There’s a new Winston Churchill online archive available, but it’s a pay service.
Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD — already rooted. That was quick.
More Google news: it has purchased photo app Snapseed. “Snapseed won the 2012 Best Mobile Photo App award from the Technical Image Press Association and also Apple’s iPad App of the Year. While the app is more focused on photo editing than Instagram, Snapseed also lets users share images via social networks.” I’ve never heard of it, but I’ve just barely gotten into Instagram.
The NYT has taken a bunch of images and snippets from the Democrat and Republican conventions and turned them into a storybook. It’s a bit odd.
Because it’s important when thinking about intellectual property: What changes to patent rules mean. Good afternoon, Internet…
The co-founders of Twitter have launched a new publishing platform, but it’s in early private beta and not too much to talk about yet. (Read the comments for links to more coverage.) In the meantime, Twitter-founder-backed Branch is out of private beta.
More Twitter: wondering how many of your Twitter followers are fake? Here’s a new tool to give you an estimate.
Even more Twitter, this time an Olympics overview: 16 days, over 150 million tweets.
Google has seriously expanded its patent search tool with the introduction of European patents.
The State of Wyoming is getting a new natural resource mapping tool. It is described as a “… computer-based mapping tool for viewing the locations of a wide variety of wildlife habitats, big game migration corridors, federal/state/private land status, human structures such as towns, roads, oil or gas wells; and other features… “
PC World has a short article about a new Chrome plugin that allows you to add sticky notes to GMail.
Underway: a library of all theses written in India. “Jawaharlal Nehru University and Banaras Hindu University have just begun moving on to the online platform as have Mangalore University, Panjab University, Manipur University and Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham. In all, of the 64 universities that have signed up, 56 have already begun sharing their research work.”
Merriam-Webster has announced the latest words to be added to its dictionary. New words include earworm, mashup, and … f-bomb?
Mayer has banned the “What is Yahoo?” question. Reading this article I realized something: Yahoo is the Burger King of search. McDonald’s = cheap and fast. Wendy’s = Quality burgers for adults. Hardee’s = Quirkier advertising and quirkier food (in a good way; I love me a Hardee’s turkey burger.) Burger King = ?
A new tool for tracking greenhouse gas emissions on California: “The map shows the locations and greenhouse gas emissions of about 625 facilities — the largest industrial greenhouse gas emitters in the state. The graphical tool can filter by type of facility (cement plant, refinery, electricity generation), by county or air district.”
Google Spreadsheets finally have protected cells. #whew #abouttime
More Google: it will start penalizing sites based on how many copyright removal notices it has received. Sooooo… I won’t be seeing YouTube results anywhere near the top of my search results anymore, right? Right?
Even More Google: it can now translate from text in images? Nice.
More More More Google: the Google Finance blog has folded.
The FBI has a warning about some new drive-by malware. Good morning, Internet…
Interesting stats: judges using Facebook and Twitter.
I suppose better late than never, but HURRY UP. From GCN: “After a two-year delay and additional millions of dollars in costs, the General Services Administration finally has a new online database that will create a one-stop shop for the public to search for information about government contractors and grantees, according to Nextgov.”
A Yahoo user has sued the company over the recent password leak.
A quick roundup of changes Google is making.
Ancestry.com has completely indexed the US Census.
What a great idea for a Webinar! Instagram for genealogists.
More Instagram: very cool service, hat tip to Crave: ThisIsNow. Watch real-time streams of Instagram photos from one of five locations around the world. Watch London — great Olympics photos.
The Kennedy Space Center, now with Street View! Nifty.
Congratulations to Curiosity for a successful landing! Larry Ferlazzo has a list of the best sites for learning about this Mars rover. Good morning, Internet…
Wow: a database of every US Bomb dropped since WWI. “The project is called THOR: Theater History of Operations Reports and allows people to use their computers to literally point and click to nearly any location on the globe and receive a near-instantaneous assessment of when and where U.S. bombs were dropped over the past century.”
I could start an entire blog to track Twitter’s uses for research. Latest example: Teaching computers to find tweets about bullying. “Sufficiently trained, the computer went to work on samples of the 250 million publicly visible messages posted on Twitter on a daily basis. It wasn’t long before the machine learning approach was identifying more than 15,000 bullying-related tweets per day.”
Google Presentations has added over 450 new fonts.
Microsoft is previewing a successor to Hotmail. Apparently Hotmail isn’t a cool e-mail address to have. On the other hand, when I see Outlook.com, I think of Outlook Express, and all the security problems it used to have, and I get all twitchy….
Archive of interviews done by Robert Penn Warren now available: “… in 1964, Warren .. traveled the country with an old reel-to-reel tape recorder and spoke with dozens of men and women involved in the Civil Rights Movement…. Now, digitized versions of all of Warren’s recordings are available through Vanderbilt University’s website.”