the 90th minute

Until September 2007, when my oldest daughter was born, this blog covered daily life and politics in Israel, as well as Hebrew-English linguistic issues, from the perspective of an American-raised journalist and translator living in Israel. Now it mostly serves as the SmunchMonk&Bear news agency, a portal into the bizarre universe of the little people. Read more at: www.shoshanakordova.com.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Google bind

I was surprised to see a New York Times article the other day that quoted a law student named Dan Firger who seems to feel pretty much the way I do about what he aptly calls the “benign dictatorship” of Google.

I rarely get excited about products or corporate entities, but I readily admit that the heartfelt phrase “I love Google!” has escaped my lips more than once. And it’s not just that I shudder to think about the pre-Web journalism age (which I do) or that Google is the best-looking face of the good ole Information Superhighway (which it is).

There’s something so attractive about the visual cleanness of its design and the conceptual friendliness of the products it creates that Google gives me the sense that there are real people there who are working hard to make my life easier (and of course, to not be evil).

Maybe that’s why the company’s recent acquisition of YouTube started making me a little queasy. What I want to know is, is Google taking over the world? I mean, among the choices for world dictator, Google is not such a bad one, but I’m not so sure I really want it to be the master of all things virtual.

I already have Google as my homepage and can’t understand why the rest of the planet doesn’t do the same (according to the NYT article, only 41 percent of those who use the Internet are regular Google users!). I love the capacity to search my Gmail account and think that despite Yahoo’s blatant attempts at imitation, its email program will never be as user-friendly as Gmail. Google News is a great aggregator, despite the initial moans of editors who complained that they were being replaced by machines. And of course, this very blog is powered by Blogger, which is owned by Google.

I do have one complaint: In Israel, Google.co.il (the Israeli version of Google) generally comes up even when I very politely request 'www.google.com.' Then when I type in English it's all backwards. I hate that.

But overall, I welcome the innovations of Google itself. This whole YouTube acquisition thing, on the other hand, just seems like one step too far in the march toward Internet hegemony, and I find it a little disconcerting even though I highly doubt that I will ever personally post a video to the site. It’s all just a bit imperialistic, if you know what I mean.

Reporter Alex Williams described this duality in the NYT article, writing: “Many users seem committed to the company, even when they are skeptical of its reach. Firger, the law student, acknowledged feeling a ‘weird tension’ about his love of Google’s products and his fear about its omnipresence in his life.”

Now, I realize I’m being completely unfair. Yahoo can buy all the Flickrs it wants, and as long as it adheres to the right side of the monopoly line it doesn’t bother me much. That’s because I think of Yahoo as a distant corporate entity that I could never relate to on a personal level. I don’t think anyone at Yahoo wants to make my life better, so I don’t really care what the company does.

But Google, it seems, has gotten itself caught in something of a bind. It has succeeded in turning users, including generally apathetic ones like myself, into avid fans. Yet that very connectedness inspires those same consumers to raise the bar for Google and impose higher, if somewhat amorphous and even unfair, standards.

This was evident in the whole China censorship issue, in which Google was attacked for censoring its search engine in China even as Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco contributed at least as much to the problem. Unlike Yahoo, Google (which didn't set up email or blogs in China) did not give the Chinese government the personal information of one of its users; unlike Microsoft, Google did not delete what one of its users wrote; and unlike Cisco, Google did not let its products be used to build the firewall China is using to keep out the foreign sites it doesn't want people to see. But the reason I'm on Google's side for this one is because of what it did do: Although it censored its fast site within China in order to comply with local laws, it left open its slower, U.S.-based site - which it did not self-censor - thereby allowing users to choose and compare. Hey, isn't that a key component of democracy?

But aside from the higher standard that Google fans have come to expect, there’s also another aspect to the Google bind: The more the company grows, the more difficult it might find it to keep up that homey personal connection with its users. As long as Google mostly sticks to dominating search engines and email, I can keep pretending that it's my personal gateway to all the facts, myths and lies I could wish for in a creation of Al Gore’s. But as Google keeps gobbling, that pretense could become increasingly difficult to maintain.

For now, though, I still love Google.

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