Home » The Write Stuff » Googled by Ken Auletta

Googled by Ken Auletta

There is something to be said for reading a book like this well past its “sell-by” date.

Of course, some of its information about the founding of Google and its methodology and mission remain relevant and interesting though we now have the benefit of hindsight in evaluating Auletta’s analysis of Google as a force in the world of communication and our lives online. As powerful as he predicted Google to be (“ending” the world as we know it), we are living through a time now in which the Internet, and the tools we use to access it, has achieved even more unprecedented power —some might say frightening power— to shape our worldviews, and possibly, the world itself.

A friend, long ago, when I was an unabashed Google fan-girl would tell me “No! It is The Evil Empire!” – a name that had been associated with Microsoft in its heyday as keeper of the keys to the digital kingdom. He felt, with more than a little prescience, that Google would one day leverage all that information it was not just amassing and categorizing about things, events, places, and words, and do the same with all that information it was amassing about you.

He was right, of course, and more than simply aggregating information about people your age, sex, location and income level so that advertising can be sent your way with a remarkable degree of accuracy, with the advent of “social media” we have taken all this a step further: we, ourselves, have become both target and content.

Much of the book is devoted to how Google arose from the quirky and brilliant minds of Sergy Brin and Larry Page – two less likely Silicon Valley tycoons than central casting could possibly dream up. Retiring, intellectual, odd, and very driven by bits and bytes rather than meetings and quarterly earnings, Brin and Page took the notion of making search results relevant and making Google THE place young engineers most wanted to work and ultimately, they built a business unlike any other.

Sergy Brin

I recall when Google burst on the scene as an alternative search engine – in the days of HotBot, Yahoo!, Alta Vista, and Ask Jeeves. It quickly became the preferred choice for two major reasons: it didn’t try to be anything but a search engine (so far as we knew) and the results it returned were quite likely just what you were looking for. Un-decorated with ads, and relying on an algorithm of relevance rather than pay-to-place, Google watched which links people selected given a particular search string, and then ranked that result higher, relying on that “wisdom of the crowd” to tell it what people were most likely seeking when they typed in “fly catcher.”

I loved the fact that with little interference I could get a simple answer to a simple search and move on. And it just kept getting better and better.

Google, the company, offered its employees, beyond food and gatherings and massages and games, a real benefit – given the personality of an individual attracted to that type of work: 20% of their time could be devoted to individual projects of their own choosing. No explanations, just explore. Needless to say, all sorts of new ideas sprang forth, and Google flourished.

Some of the story, of course, is history and well known. But in 2009, as Auletta was wrapping up his book and preparing for publication, even he could not possibly have seen where the tale would eventually lead. His final chapters are devoted to the challenge Google and social media posed to newspapers —of more than a little interest even today given the turn of events with the recent Draconian measures taken by social media in silencing certain voices— and the ascendance of social media opinion-sharing over professional reporting when it comes to news and events.

Auletta could never have guessed as he was pondering Google’s and social media’s impact on news was that the question of the day would become: “do the Tweets of a President replace the official statements of the Office of the President?” If someone had suggested to, say, Eisenhower, that there would one day be a method by which he could communicate with millions of “followers,” across the world, his every passing thought, pique, or giggle, he would probably have assumed the person suggesting it was mad or making a bad joke. Yet here we are.

Larry Page

By 2009, Auletta was writing about the concern official news outlets were expressing with the ownership and control, not to mention income, of their work product. In those years, while advertising had always held a degree of sway over “the news,” newsrooms tried valiantly to isolate themselves from the commercial aspects of their delivery system, whether it was radio, TV, newspaper or magazine.

Google and by the time the book was written, Facebook,  and even Twitter, were, each in its own way, challenging the news outlets mostly in terms of diverting “eyeballs” from their traditional method of presenting the content, and thereby interrupting their revenue streams. Sadly, to a large degree, if there was indeed a battle for your attention —fragmented and limited though it may have been— the battle ended up being fought not so much by delivering a better product as by delivering a more entertaining product: news as opinion; stations and papers as outlets for selective messaging; readers/watchers/consumers as fan-boys rather than informed citizens. Name a “news” outlet and most of us can name its political affiliation and slant, though we tend to minimize the slant of our favorites and exaggerate that of those we dislike.

Even in 2009, Auletta understood the gathering storm of “who is editing this?” While never utterly pure, newsrooms did demand a certain level of “truth” and responsibility for what it printed. Since each newspaper or TV network or station owned its platform, it was liable for libel and slander. It was responsible for retracting errors, or even likely to be sued if it ran a story that was factually in wrong to the harm of the person or persons in that story. “Fact-checkers” weren’t websites intent upon proving a point with “Three Pinocchios,” but individuals tasked with examining the dates, numbers, statements and conclusions of particularly investigative stories. If a writer said “There is an increasing amount of vandalism in the XYZ neighborhood,” the fact-checker would want to see the numbers that made the writer reach that conclusion, and if it could not be shown, the line would be removed or rewritten. If the writer said “The increasing vandalism gives many reason not to move to the XYZ neighborhood,” an editor would probably say, “Get me a quote on that, or change it to ‘In this writer’s opinion, etc.’” Years ago, Auletta reported the concern of legitimate newsrooms for “who owns this content,” as well as “who is responsible for its accuracy.”

Now, our morning news is more likely to be a quick run through recent posts on Facebook, or checking Tweets and newsletters from partisan sources. Facebook hasn’t been in the business of fact-checking, and, until very recently, has also not been in the business of limiting content. After all, Facebook isn’t writing your anti-dog post, you are, and Facebook has provided a means for anyone offended to be protected: block the poster. Recently, and in part due to its being investigated for sharing individual data about its users, Facebook created more stringent rules about what was considered acceptable content, and users’ posts could be reported – and the post, and the user, could be banned from the platform, temporarily, or permanently.

Twitter and other social media platforms have similar systems, but the most onerous is “demonetization.”

Google Ads and YouTube ads (YouTube is owned by Google, or Alphabet, its parent company), became a great way for amateur commentators and content creators to make a few dollars on the side. That “few dollars” exploded when many of the YouTube channels and other outlets that agreed to advertise garnered hundreds of thousands, even millions of viewers, and better yet, subscribers.

Many people could even comfortably quit their day jobs and become “professional” online personalities. De-monetizing them meant they were cut off of the revenue generated by their content. For those individual operations (some people have created whole media “empires” with multiple personalities, merchandise, employees, studios, etc.) that relied on ad revenue to stay active, demonetization is “game over,” unless they can find people willing to subscribe via a service like Patreon that offers subscription content. De-platforming is equally devastating, particularly when done as a “Purge” as with the recent “de-platforming” of Alex Jones, a particularly intense commentator who angered the powers that be so that, in one fell swoop, he was tossed from Facebook, YouTube, and ITunes – three of the major suppliers of independently developed content.

Did Auletta see all this coming? Not entirely – but he certainly was witness to the gathering might of both Google and social media in becoming our source of content, and at least some of the problems attendant on the Fourth Estate losing ground to the growing “Fifth” Estate. Interestingly, it was way back in 1837 when concern over its growing power added that “Fourth” Estate (The Press) to the original three: The Clergy, The Nobility, and The Commoners.

Will there be a Sixth? 

Nancy Roberts
Writer, voice over artist, information achitect, very curious person.