/ 26 January 2012

Being a Commodity

Last year Don Norman, a design-critique hero of mine, changed the lens through which I viewed Google.  Speaking at dConstruct in Brighton, he laid it out like this:

They have lots of people; lots of servers, they have Android, they have Google Docs, they just bought Motorola. Most people would say ‘we’re the users, and the product is advertising.’ But in fact, the advertisers are the users and you are the product. They say their goal is to gather all the knowledge in the world in one place, but really their goal is to gather all of the people in the world and sell them.

Paranoid? Maybe a little. But since I had been so traditionally un-paranoid about Google, taking their “don’t be evil” pledge at face value happily for years, maybe I needed to encounter strong words like that to shake me up a little bit.  Norman did it.  He made sense and he irrevocably changed my relationship with Google’s services from that day on. 

(I don’t know that Norman was the first person to express this thought – and in fact, it strikes me as a version of the old “if you can’t spot the sucker at the table, you are the sucker” poker quote that we’ve all heard before – but something about Norman’s insistence and his cachet struck a chord this time.) 

Yesterday Google moved to consolidate their privacy policies, and with that opened the door to combine everything they know and can extrapolate about you into one big pool of identifiable information.  Sites you visit, terms you search for, YouTube videos you watch, people and places you interact with via Google+ or your Gmail address book – if you’re an Android user, throw cell phone behaviors in there – it all becomes grist for the algorithmic mill grinding your identity up into bite-sized chunks, which are then sold to advertisers. This is Google’s (quite successful) revenue model.  

Such activity has always been happening, of course, with a veneer of silo’ed anonymity, but now Google is allowing itself to build much more efficient and targeted models of individual behavior by breaking down the walls between their products.  Once they start associating so many different types of activities with individual profiles, they’ll be generating incredibly lucrative “anonymized” information.  They will be commodifying their users like they’ve never publicly done before.  

In this way, Google’s business model is no different than that of Facebook, or Twitter, or hundreds of other internet-based services.  They build compelling networks and platforms, invite users to partake for free, and hope to analyze what transpires, with the ultimate goal being to sell advertising against highly targeted, modeled behavior.  The good stuff that can and does happen on their platforms is crucial, but ultimately ancillary to these companies’ prime directives: to make money.  

The thing is, most of these concerns – Google, Facebook and Twitter, for sure – were all started to solve problems.  I doubt the founders were averse to making money, but the driving forces around their creation were fixing and improving and reforming and reinventing the way things get done (respectively: finding stuff, making friends, and, in the case of Twitter, shouting from the rooftops I guess).  And once they achieved success against their initial goals (by which time they had hired thousands of employees, taken on major investors, and even started to arrange for public stock offerings) they needed to transform into companies.  Companies solve problems and improve lives, but they do so only to make money; becoming a company redefines what your goals are very quickly and very simply.  You don’t necessarily need to solve problems; you just need to make money in perpetuity.  In order to make money in perpetuity, you need to sell a perpetual commodity.  The easiest commodity for Google, et al, to identify and sell (without pivoting too much from the problem it was initially solving) is personal information.  And so they do, and everything they do will be geared towards improving how they do it. 

People snicker about how bad Apple is at “social”.  I have no doubt that if the commodity Apple was selling was personal information, and the people they were selling to were advertisers, they’d be among the best in the industry at it – and that they’d have one of the best social networks going.  But Apple’s commodities are physical products, virtual services and experiences – computers, devices, apps, media, software and connected personal networks – and the people they are selling to are individuals.  

When you use “free” services from Google, or Facebook, or Twitter, you pay for them in a very strange, unquantifiable way – with bits and pieces of your personal information.  When you use services from Apple, you by and large pay for them with money.  If nothing else, that makes the relationship consumers have with Apple much more intuitive and understandable – and in that sense, customers are more comfortable interacting with Apple than Google.  They understand the playing field.  

For Apple to move forward, they are going to find new and creative and innovative ways to improve their products, so that consumers find them worth paying for – and we’re used to this as consumers, and will play that game with pleasure.  For Google, Facebook, Twitter and the like to move forward, they’re going to have to find new and creative ways to improve what they know about you – so they can continue to improve their product, which is bundled, commodified personal information, sold to advertisers – and so announcements like this week’s from Google should only become more common.  

(This post was free.)