Google Labs’ Foreseeable(?) Demise: Rationalization and the Tech Industry

Source: www.archive.org
Source: http://www.archive.org

Do you remember Google Labs?  Even if you may not, chances are that the products developed there have impacted you in some way.  The project was self-described as follows:

Source: www.archive.org
Source: http://www.archive.org

It sounds like a great idea, and it was.  A number of Google’s current, well-regarded features were hatched in Google Labs, including (but certainly not limited to): Google Alerts, Google Scholar, Google Suggest, Google Video, Google Trends, Google Docs, and Google Maps.  Google famously allows its employees 20% of their work time to do projects that are not specified within their job description, which allows for creative endeavors that still work towards the benefit of the company.  To this same end, Google built their Labs page in the middle of the last decade as a way to promote, develop, and obtain feedback on new features that were being workshopped.  Users were able to sign up for beta-level features and take them for a test run (and provide input on the functionality of said items).  This process broke down some of the barriers that can ordinarily exist between a company’s product development team and the end user.

Then in July of 2011, something unexpected happened.  Google announced the end of their Google Labs page, and while they would be retaining some features, others would no longer be supported.  CEO Larry Page spoke at the time about the importance of putting “more wood behind fewer arrows” and emphasized a more concentrated focus of the company.  He also emphasized to shareholders that the company would serve as diligent stewards of their money and promised that return on investment was a priority.  Part of that renewed focus, many believed, centered around Google throwing its weight behind the development of Google+.

In the days after Google Labs, the company’s leadership insisted that many features in development would merely be folded into other Google products (such as test features in Gmail).  However, the shift away from Labs represented something larger than just the closing of a single page; it marked the movement toward an increasingly rationalized Google.

Rationalism, as identified within the field of sociology, is the notion that systems (in some arguments, inevitably) become rationally defined over time.  In other words, just as water poured into a glass eventually settles at the bottom, calculated actions defined by reason eventually dominate organizational decision-making.  Within this understanding of an organization, a company like Google is rational when it identifies unnecessary processes and areas of functionality that do not meet the end goal of efficient profitability.  Put simply, Google Labs was likely seen as a fun but nonessential function of Google, so it was cut.

What does this mean for other social media and tech companies?  Perhaps more importantly, what does it mean for the consumer?  I would speculate that rationalization is the norm for large corporations, and we, as consumers, would be wise to set our expectations as such.  It never was a reasonable expectation for users to expect Facebook and Twitter to remain ad-free, for instance.  In the end, after these companies settle into a comfortable user base, it naturally follows that they must then begin to find ways to become and remain profitable.  After all, it is an investor base that allows most of these companies to get off the ground, and shareholders have an expectation that companies will pay close attention to the bottom line after going public.  It’s at these junctures that social media and other tech companies, as is the case with other peer organizations, must begin to cut some of the quirky aspects of their respective business operations in order to keep showing financial improvements to stakeholders.

Although I use Google to illustrate my larger point in this post, I do think that I should add that Google does seem to go out of its way to incorporate some creative, fun aspects to its public profile.  I would actually argue that it does so better than most other large corporations out there, if not all.  Their continued development of things like Google Doodles shows that even if the company is moving towards greater rationalization, it is hardly fully converted.  That said, I wanted to pass along one of my favorite Doodles of all time, a tribute to Robert Moog and his synthesizer: http://www.google.com/doodles/robert-moogs-78th-birthday

There are countless aspects to this discussion, but I’m curious what the rest of the #mi621-ers think about all of this.  Are there similar trends you’ve seen within other companies?  By cutting out some of these programs that celebrate innovation and creativity, are companies taking a short-sighted approach and harming themselves in the long run?  Please let me know your thoughts in the comments – I’d love to hear them.

Advertisements

Jimmy Fallon and an Olive Garden Review: Sincerity in a Cynical Age

What is the personality of the Internet?  This is a question that has crossed my mind many times, and it is not answered simply.

198565200-14100228
Marilyn Hagerty, National Hero (Image Source: http://goo.gl/6PUmL4

When there are quite literally millions of voices competing for attention on the web, is it even possible to begin to identify a singular, representative personality trait?  By “listening” to the conversation, I believe that you can.

For years, the Internet wasn’t a place where it was “cool” to like, compliment, or otherwise support people, causes, performances, or much of anything else.  I believe that there are signs, however, that this may not be a permanent condition.  In fact, I think that the more “social” aspects of the web are a driving factor in this maturation of the Internet’s personality.  A cynic might argue that you can take a look at a political news story’s comment section or even a YouTube video (almost any, at random), and be sickened by the discourse contained within.  However, to use one of my favorite analogies, this isn’t a speedboat that we’re trying to turn around, it’s a cruise ship; it takes time.

Take a moment and think about what truly goes viral these days – and by viral (in this case), I do not mean a meme that takes off on your college’s campus.  I mean something that your parents hear about and that you hear mentioned on The Daily Show: nearly full cultural saturation.  Suggestions to the contrary are welcome, but most of the examples that I can come up with in recent memory are rather positive.  One of my favorite examples of this type of organic, viral growth was Marilyn Hagerty’s review of a brand new Olive Garden in Grand Forks, North Dakota.  The review is so earnest and devoid of irony or sarcasm that it is almost jarring to read at first.  If you’ve become accustomed to reading articles on The Onion, in which every sharply biting story is delivered with a straight face, Hagerty’s review almost reads as parody (If you need proof of this fact, see this actual article from The Onion from 2001: http://www.theonion.com/articles/olive-garden-voted-best-italian-restaurant-in-annu,3256/).  The people of the Internet began sharing the sincerely-written review and it quickly went viral, resulting in the 85-year old garnering attention from major media outlets.  This sharing likely would not have happened if the content creators on the web didn’t find the piece a little bit funny in how straightforward it was, but the viewing audience rallied around Hagerty.  In total, the original article has been shared over 80,000 times on Facebook and Twitter alone to date.  It’s almost hard to imagine, a stunningly simple act of a local newspaper writeup of an Olive Garden capturing the attention of the masses, but that’s what happened.  The commenters and sharers of the piece were largely positive in the end, according to news sources and Hagerty herself, and it may be evidence that the void of sincerity on the Internet may yet be filled.

This brings me to one of the folks out there that I believe symbolizes the web’s newly found desire for cynicism-free zones, Jimmy Fallon.  Since he took over as host of Late Night, Fallon has been unabashedly positive not only on his show but also in his social media presence.  Evidence A: A faithful, non-winking version of Carly Rae Jepson’s 100% pop hit “Call Me Maybe,” with the singer herself and The Roots, all played on children’s classroom instruments:

Note the lack of any sort of irony.  Just a pure, happy tribute to a pop song that made lots of people happy.  That video was viewed over 13 million times on YouTube and has a 30:1 ratio of “thumbs up” to “thumbs down” on that site, which is almost unfathomable considering the reputation of viewer feedback on there.Screen Shot 2013-02-03 at 11.29.22 PM

Evidence B: Late Night content that is prime Internet Fodder, “Puppies Predict the Super Bowl.”  Nothing sarcastic, mean-spirited, or angry about it, it’s just puppies eating food and predicting the Super Bowl winner.

How does content like this survive the environment that is often seen as nasty and unwelcoming to anyone who tries to have fun and be true to their own sensibilities?  I propose that it’s part of a new era for the Internet, one in which the snark survives, but the sincere becomes a balancing force.  It may even mark (I almost don’t want to jinx us by saying it)…a growing maturity within the web.

As noted earlier, the personality of the web is a slow moving but constantly changing construct.  Mass access to the Internet is a relatively new development, and social media may just be the yearbook that is now capturing the web’s awkward transition years.  My hope is that as we move forward, our web content reflects a steady maturation.  After all, I’ve read enough cynical Yelp restaurant reviews to know that it wouldn’t be so bad to have a few more Marilyn Hagerty’s out there .