Which side of the table?

[Pardon the long silence – life called.]

Shelley:

I think Google Base is a fun experiment, and I’m willing to play a little. It will be interesting to see the directory, especially if the company provides web services that aren’t limited to so many queries a day. But I never forget that Google is in the business to make a profit. If we give it the power, it will become the Wal-Mart of the waves–by default if not by design. Is that what you all want? If it is, just continue getting all misty eyed, because you’ll need blurred vision not to see what should be right in front of you.

I think this is precisely right. I find a lot of the comment on Google Base strange and slightly depressing, in the same way I find a lot of Web 2.0 talk strange and depressing. In the context of social software, when I use a word like ‘enclose’ – or a word like ‘monetise‘ – it means something quite specific and entirely negative: it’s a red-flag word. So it’s weird, to say the least, to see the same words used positively. It’s only a little less strange to see these concerns acknowledged, then batted away as trivial or meaningless (Tom: “Making data available for everyone to use is keeping it in the public sphere.” (I’m Phil #2 in those comments, by the way)).

It seems to me that there’s a fundamental tension between the demands of commerce and the nature of social software, as defined by Tom some time ago:

We believe that for a piece of Social Software to be useful:

  • Every individual should derive value from their contributions
  • Every contribution should provide value to their peers as well
  • The site or organisation that hosts the service should be able to derive value from the aggregate of the data and should be able to expose that value back to individuals

You add content, which has value for you and to other users; the host derives further value from the aggregate of content; the host exposes that added value to all users. Beautiful.

What this suggests is that social software – unlike, say, the e-business of the late 1990s – is all about the content. Specifically, it’s all about freely and collectively contributed content, either held in common or held in trust for the commons. So monetising social software is qualitatively different from making money out of a new piece of stand-alone software, because it’s the contributed content which has the original value – and makes the added value possible. Tangentially, I’m not sure whether Doc Searls gets this or not, and not only because his article’s had a well-deserved slashdotting. On a first reading I got the impression he was saying that both the Net and the Web are valuable common resources which should not be fenced off for the sake of making money, but that part of what makes them valuable is that they’re great environments for fencing things off and making money. (Oh, and we should stop saying ‘common’ because if you put ‘ist’ on the end it sounds kind of like ‘communist’, and when Eric Raymond hears the word ‘Communist’ he reaches for well, you know.) It’s a great article, though, and I look forward to taking a more considered look at it when the tide subsides.

One of Doc’s points is that the Web is, figuratively, all about publishing – a profession which, like many bloggers, I’ve seen close up. Just under ten years ago, I went from Unix sysadmin to magazine editor, and rapidly discovered that commercial publishing looks very different from the inside. Perhaps the biggest single shock was the realisation that content doesn’t matter. Obviously I tried to make it the best magazine I could (and it got better still under my successor), but at a fundamental level editorial content wasn’t what it was about. If the advertising department sold enough space, we made a profit; if they didn’t, we didn’t. (Show me a magazine that relies on the cover price and I’ll show you a magazine with money worries. Show me a publication that gets by on the cover price and I’ll show you an academic journal.) The purpose of the magazine was to put advertisements in front of readers – and the purpose of the editorial was to make readers turn all the pages.

So there’s nothing very new about Google’s business model: Google Base is to the Web what a commercial magazine is to a fanzine – or rather, a whole mass of different fanzines. The only novelty is that we, the fanzine writers, are providing the content: the content whose sole function, from the point of view of Google as a commercial entity, is to attract an audience which will look at ads.

But that’s quite a big novelty.

Bill Burnham:

In my next post I will talk about Google Base’s impact on the “walled garden” listings sites. I’ll give you a hint: it won’t be pretty.

Unless, of course, you like really big gardens with really high walls.

Update: I wrote, I find a lot of the comment on Google Base strange and slightly depressing, in the same way I find a lot of Web 2.0 talk strange and depressing. Cue Cringely:

Google has the reach and the resources … And you know whose strategy this is? Wal-Mart’s. And unless Google comes up with an ecosystem to allow their survival, that means all the other web services companies will be marginalized. … the final result is that Web 2.0 IS Google. Microsoft can’t compete. Yahoo probably can’t compete. Sun and IBM are like remora, along for the ride. And what does it all cost, maybe $1 billion? That’s less than Microsoft spends on legal settlements each year. Game over.

As an aside, I love the idea of International Business Machines as a parasite on the behemoth that is Google; I don’t think we’re quite there yet. But the accuracy or not of Cringely’s prediction concerns me less than his tone, which I think can reasonably be called lip-smacking: “Google’s going to 0wn the Web! Wow!” (Quick test: try reading that sentence out loud with a straight face. Now try substituting ‘Microsoft’ – or, for older readers, ‘IBM’.) This enthusiasm for big business – as long as it’s a cool big business – strikes me as both dangerous and weird, not to mention being the antithesis of what’s made the Net fun to work with all these years. But it is a logical development of one branch of the ‘Web 2.0’ hype – an increasingly dominant branch, unfortunately.

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3 Comments

  1. Tom
    Posted 18 November 2005 at 01:58 | Permalink | Reply

    Hm. I think you’re slightly misconstruing or misrepresenting my comments to be honest, and after two years of working for public sector broadcasters and three years working in academia, before working in journalism, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a way to represent me as exactly money-grabbing. I think that was a bit unfair.

    In fact I’m generally a bit confused. I cannot understand how you’ve got from me suggesting submitting content to Google Base through to my love of money! It makes no sense to me at all.

    If we face facts, the BBC is not the place that most people in the world go to search. Nor is it brilliant at getting people to its content. I’ve said many times that I think the BBC has to engage with those companies that exist purely for the purpose of making content discoverable, distributable and navigable. The BBC has lots of programmes and it wants people in the world to be able to find them. It seems therefore obvious to me that the more open they can be with their data, then the more likely it is that people will be able to find the programmes they’re after.

    The idea of submitting the content to Google Base isn’t about excluding other people from using the data. I’m a bit confused about what sense of the word public you’re using here – if the BBC keeps the data to itself, then that’s owned nominally by the public, but doesn’t do anyone any good. It could open up the data just for non-commercial use, but then again you have to ask yourself why you’d do that when the vast majority of people are finding their content directly every day through Google and Yahoo. You could make it available just for commercial purposes, but that’s not meeting the public need and no one proposed that. I proposed submitting the data that they’re opening up with an API to another service to help people find stuff.

    Submitting it to Google Base wouldn’t mean that the public lost access to the raw data or that the public couldn’t make other things around it. Sure Google would be able to sell adverts around their search results. But do you really have a problem with that? They do that already pretty much everywhere.

    It seems to me, if there are a few dozen places where most of the discovery on the internet happens, and by opening up the data more liberally then those places are more likely to be able to help people find the programmes, then it’s a positive thing for the public and for the organisation to be spiderable in those places. LIterally the only problem would be if you didn’t make it available for the general public too and for non-commercial sites and services too. And absolutely no one suggested that.

    Has that answered any of your questions?

  2. Phil
    Posted 18 November 2005 at 13:24 | Permalink | Reply

    Tom – apologies. Literally, as in two separate apologies. I never intended to imply that you personally were motivated by love of money – that would be offensive even if I thought it was true. I can see how what I wrote could read like that, for which I apologise. What I was doing was speculating that you were one of those commentators who see megabuck new-economy IPOs and buyouts as, broadly, a good thing in themselves – a way of redistributing wealth to the good guys. On reflection I realise I’ve got no real grounds for doing that, either, so apology #2 is in order – sorry. I’ll re-edit the post accordingly.

    On the main argument, you make some good points. My working definition of ‘public’ does include availability – so no, the BBC’s filing cabinets wouldn’t qualify – and it doesn’t exclude anyone at any stage from making a few bob. The question is how big a role a commercial organisation can have in providing public goods before they cease to be public – or, to put it another way, before our only guarantee of their remaining public is the good faith of the commercial organisation.

    Trusting commercial organisations doesn’t come naturally to me – timeo Danaos et dona ferentes. I feel a lot happier if trust isn’t the only option. Google isn’t the only search engine in the world; to mangle a phrase, if Google did evil we could interpret it as damage and route around. Google Base looks harder to route around.

  3. Phil
    Posted 18 November 2005 at 13:53 | Permalink | Reply

    Edited to destruction – I’ve taken out the whole section about not liking IPO fanboys. It reads better for it, I think.

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