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Binary Balance

Life on the digital knife edge

Why do I like Google more than Facebook?

For what amounts to a long time in the short history of the Internet, Google has been a synonym for large scale. I vaguely remember a quote from a Google employee who – when talking about their work and just how early they need to start thinking about scaling a system up – said something like ‘One day you get something kind of working and the next day you have 5000 users’1. There’s not many places where a developer is forced to deal with scaling issues basically from the very beginning of a project. Google developers must scoff at warnings about premature optimisation.

The amount of data that Google stores for people and about people is impressive, mindboggling, constantly growing and more than a little scary. The launch of Google+ adds a new dimension that depending on your perspective, could exponentially add to the scariness factor of the information Google is keeping on us.

Every now and again a horror story will come along which deftly highlights the fact that ‘customer service’ and ‘Google’ appear to be mutually exclusive concepts, at least as far as the general public is concerned. Accounts disabled, important data or one’s entire online identity lost, with no recourse. Certainly #FirstWorldProblems if ever I’ve heard one, but none the less I don’t think calling them horror stories is an exaggeration.

I use a number of Google’s services/products:

  • Gmail
  • Google Chrome
  • Google’s search engine
  • Google Reader
  • Google Apps
  • Google+ (I’m on there but I haven’t actually used it much)

This doesn’t include services or products I might use very rarely or in passing, such as Google Code.

Gmail is probably the service I use from Google that would contain the most personal information. I have years worth of emails stored in Gmail right now (including old imported emails back from before I started using Gmail), all being indexed by Google, to determine which adverts the Gmail browser based interface should be showing me depending on what I’m talking about in a particular email conversation. I’m well aware of the privacy implications of using Gmail (or any cloud based utility for that matter), but it’s also by far the best way I’ve found to synchronise and have access to my email from multiple devices and from multiple geographic locations. Not to mention that my email is constantly backed up and that I also appreciate that Google allows IMAP access to Gmail which I make heavy use of2. So the faustian deal I have made with Gmail is an acceptable one to me.

I was going to talk a little about how one can best protect and inform themselves while using such hosted services as Gmail, but this feels like old news to me and there’s plenty of discussion about this sort of thing available already.

What I find more interesting to talk about is in the title of this post: why do I like Google more than Facebook? Seriously, I’ve asked myself this question a number of times in the past and don’t think I’ve ever come to a fully satisfactory answer.

Why do I regularly use about a half-dozen services/products from Google but my only regular interaction (if you can call it this) with Facebook involves deleting the emails they periodically send me telling me that I haven’t been to Facebook recently and here, look what I’m missing! There’s been X updates from friends and Y photos posted and Z events publicised during my inexcusable absence. Would I ever import all my emails into Facebook? No I wouldn’t.

On the face of it (no pun intended), Google and Facebook are pretty much in the same business: selling their users as a commodity.

I’ve mentioned a Google horror story above and there’s similar stories out there about Facebook so ostensibly not a lot of difference between them on the customer service front.

Google is a publicly traded company while Facebook currently is not. Speaking in generalisations, this should tip the scales in favour of Facebook for me3, but it doesn’t.

Do I like Google more than Facebook because the story of Larry and Sergey appeals more to me than the story of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s creation myth (adapted for the silver screen, no less)? Or have I just fallen prey to clever PR? Do I like Google more than Facebook because even as a publicly traded company, they apparently still have the self awareness to adopt the unofficial motto Don’t be evil or is this just more clever PR? I’m sure there’s some spin at work here, but as communication continues to evolve – currently gravitating to the more personal, direct, person-to-person style that we lost for a while there – it’s harder for the more brazen PR spin to be applied as it once was. At the least, larger kernels of truth are needed to build spin on top of now, because lies are becoming easier to uncover.

Do I like Google more than Facebook because as bad as Google’s typical developer driven user interfaces can sometimes be, I still like them more than the eye-gougingly annoying user interface that is Facebook4.

Do I like Google more because they’ve just been around longer than Facebook and I’m more used to the blue, red, yellow and green? I’m pretty sure I thought that multi-coloured logo was rather stupid looking, circa 1999. But it has grown on me over the years.

Do I like Google more because it’s in their interest (i.e. it’s inline with the underlying profit motive) that the web be encouraged to move forward, and in an open, interoperable way[^5]? Where as the same cannot always be said for companies like Facebook and Adobe, Microsoft and Apple. Ah ha! I think I’ve struck something. The more people who use and love the web, the more people will click on Google’s ads. The more open and interoperable everything is, the more content Google has to index and slap advertisements around when people search for it.

As evidenced by both their successes and failures I can’t really fault them on their commitment to advancing the web and encouraging open standards while doing so. In their case, it’s a by-product of the one thing you can always count on a corporation to do: single-mindedly follow the money.

Hopefully without sounding too dramatic, I believe that encouraging the web to evolve in an open and interoperable way will continue to pay off into the future for humanity as a whole in ways we can’t even imagine now. I assume that this synchronicity we find within Google between their main cash cow and encouraging the open evolution of the web was a fortunate accident, but I wonder what other of these types of synchronicities might be found or already have been found. Thereby finding more ways to enlist the nature of the corporation into the service of humanity, rather than humanity into the service of the corporation.

  1. If anyone can remember who it is I’m paraphrasing and where I can find the quote in context, I’d love to know, because it’s driving me crazy and I’m 90% sure I’m not just imagining things. 

  2. I appreciate this because I know – as does Google – that allowing me to use a local client (Thunderbird) to connect to my Gmail account lets me effectively cheat Google out of showing me their Gmail adverts most of the time. I suspect the Gmail guys at Google had enough presence of mind to know that people who use IMAP to pull down a local copy of their email are probably not the kind of user that would be madly clicking on ads anyway. Plus I suppose there’s something to be said for heading off antitrust issues and what not. 

  3. If I need to expand on this point, let me know. I have a feeling this could be a blog post in its self. But not necessarily a very interesting one. 

  4. Messaging a friend via Facebook some time ago, I was struck by how I needed to change a default setting so that Facebook would allow the Enter key to do what it is supposed to when you’re typing into a text field. I quite like being able to create paragraphs when I write, but apparently I must be in the minority that hold this view on Facebok. 

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