Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 1 Feb 12 12:42
It's our pleasure to welcome longtime WELL member Steven Levy to Inkwell. He'll be discussing his book, _In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives_. Steven is a senior writer for Wired, the former chief technology correspondent for Newsweek and the author of six other books. Washington Post describes him as Americans premier technology journalist - a Silicon Valley insider who writes for the rest of us on the outside. _In The Plex_ has been a New York Times bestseller and is considered the definitive word on the search giant. It was chosen by Amazon.com as the Best Business Book of 20112. A recipient of numerous awards, Levy has written for many publications including the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, and Esquire. He wrote The Technologist column for Newsweek, and the Iconoclast column for Macworld. He has been a Japan Society Fellow and a Fellow at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center. Before he covered technology, he wrote about music, crime, sports and culture, and once made headlines by finding Albert Einsteins brain in a cardboard box in Wichita, Kansas. We're all going to find Steven Levy's brain, and a great discussion about all things Google, here in Inkwell.vue over the next two weeks. Jon Lebkowsky leads the discussion. Jon is an author, activist, and technoculture maven who writes about the future of the Internet, digital culture, media, and society. Hes been ssociated with various projects and organizations, including FringeWare, Whole Earth, WorldChanging, Mondo 2000, bOING bOING, Factsheet Five, the WELL, the Austin Chronicle, EFF-Austin, Society of Participatory Medicine, Extreme Democracy, Digital Convergence Initiative, Plutopia Productions, Polycot Consulting, Social Web Strategies, and Project VRM. Jon also works as a an Internet strategist, consultant, and developer.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 1 Feb 12 12:45
Steven, welcome to Inkwell. Over the next two weeks, we hope to learn everything there is to kmow about Google! You obviously got pretty far inside the door at Google headquarters. Can you say a bit about how you first connected with the Google founders, and what your relationship has been over the years?
Steven Levy (steven) Wed 1 Feb 12 13:11
Thank, Jon, and it's great to be back at the Well -- I was there from the beginning and then drifted to echonyc.com, where I am also known as "steven." I had great times at the Well and am delighted to participate in this discussion here. I first met Larry and Sergey in October 1999 (they were in Halloween costumes) when I visited the HQ seeking to find out just who had created this amazing search engine. Over the next few years I covered Google a lot for Newsweek, and got to know the people pretty well, and I think the Google folk felt that I "got" what they were about. That's why, I assume, that they gave me the extraordinary access that enabled me to write In the Plex the way I hoped. Basically I could talk to anybody (in theory subject could refuse, but almost no one did), and I was able to sit in on a lot of interesting meetings, including the big-deal GPS (Google Product Strategy) sessions that were then the most vaunted sessions for decision-making. (My favorite was the Search Quality Launch meeting, where changes to the flagship product were trotted out for thumbs up or down.) I also could follow some product development in progress for products like Chrome. I don't think it would have happened it we hadn't developed a mutual trust. But of course Google's own interest was being more transparent as it found itself more and more in the sites of critics and regulators. My relationship with Google is still good, and in fact I'm working on a couple of stories now with Google angles. The really nice thing is that new employees often stop me on campus and tell me that the info in my book helped them get through the still-rigorous hiring process.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 1 Feb 12 13:26
Larry Page and Sergey Brin strike me as an unconventional pair, as businessmen and as tech collaobrators. What's their relationship like? How did they find each other, and how do they fit together?
Steven Levy (steven) Thu 2 Feb 12 06:53
Larry and Sergey met as grad students, and thought their first meeting was rocky, they eventually became good friends. They shared a world view where smart algorithms applied to huge masses of data--like the Web-could change the world. Both were from academic families. Both are very self-assured -- enough to believe that their approach to business and technology is superior to business as usual. That self-assurance allows both to be comfortable being goofy sometimes. Larry is the more hard-driving of the two. He's more inward and wary, and a little more ruthless in decision making. He was always predestined to be the CEO. Sergey is OK with this, and since Larry took over, he has felt free to pursue long-range projects and is liberated by a much looser schedule. Their personal lives also track very weirdly as both got married and had kids in the same timeframe.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 2 Feb 12 07:23
How did their friendship evolve into a founding partnership for Google? What led them to search as their focus? Did they have a grander vision, early on?
Steven Levy (steven) Thu 2 Feb 12 08:21
I get into this in detail in my book, but basically both were floundering around for projects that could evolve in a dissertation and both were working as researchers in an ongoing NSF-funded Digital Library program at Stanford. Larry got the idea of using web links to annotate web pages and then realized the idea worked better for search. Sergey provided the math. Soon after they realized they had a terrific search engine, they began thinking of collecting organizing all the world's information, a mission they announced when they got funding for the company in 1998.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 2 Feb 12 11:28
The real power of Google vs other search engines is in its ability to assess relevance using the Page Rank algorithm, named for Larry Page, who dreamed it up. You say in the book that this occurred to him, as an academic, noting that the quality of academic papers is normally assessed by the number of cites referencing a specific paper - a paper with a lot of cites is presumed to be more authorative. Did they realize right away how valuable this algorithm would be? Or did it take time to sink in?
Steven Levy (steven) Thu 2 Feb 12 11:41
Early on it was clear that their approach was very powerful, and that Google search (the engine was originally dubbed BackRub when it was still a student project) was superior to the current offerings, so much so that it was a phase shift that could change the web itself. That's what gave them the confidence to start a company -- after Larry and Sergey first tried to sell the technology to companies like Yahoo and Excite. Those portals thought that good search would be a negative, drawing people away from their site. Larry and Sergey understood by then that search could be the basis of a company, and they turned out to be right.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 2 Feb 12 14:34
Steven Levy (steven) Thu 2 Feb 12 15:15
Gary Greenberg (gberg) Thu 2 Feb 12 16:16
Well, as I understand it, which may not be much, at some point we have to trust google to do (or not do) what they say they will do (or not do) with the information they gather from us. I don't have to not trust them or think they are evil to worry about this or to find it unsettling, if not creepy. And I think it's possible that they don't entirely understand why we are nervous, which just makes me more nervous.
Steven Levy (steven) Thu 2 Feb 12 16:27
That's the key point, Gary. Time and again Google says that it is dependent on winning our trust. That's why aggressiveness in pushing what Google considers improvements can be risky. Some of those changes push us out of our comfort zone.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 2 Feb 12 20:12
How does Facebook fit into the equation. Is Google's attempt to create a more unified user experience a response to perceived coherence of the Facebook experience?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 2 Feb 12 20:14
Some housekeeping: The full link to this discussion is http://www.well.com/conf/inkwell.vue/topics/433/Steven-Levy-In-the-Google-Plex -page01.html Here's a shorter link: http://bit.ly/wXSL0u If you're following this discussion and have a comment or question, and you're not a member of the WELL, you can send an email to inkwell at well.com, and the Inkwell hosts will ost your comment or question here.
Virtual Sea Monkey (karish) Fri 3 Feb 12 09:12
Population growth of the Internet is much faster now on mobile devices than it is on traditional computers. How do you think Google's dominance and Google's strategies will change in response to this?
J. Eric Townsend (jet) Fri 3 Feb 12 09:22
>at some point we have to trust google to do (or not do) what they s Or ask the government to regulate them as needed. Ask Robert Bork about his video rental history before and after the VPPA.
Steven Levy (steven) Fri 3 Feb 12 10:26
Steven Levy (steven) Fri 3 Feb 12 10:30
Sea Monkey, clearly Google recognizes the importance of mobile. You can argue that the smartest move in its post-search history was the purchase of Android, which at the time was seen as just another shot in the dark for a disorganized enterprise plagued with corporate ADD. Where would Google be now without such a prominent mobile platform? Not much has been said about this, but Google+ had a well-produced mobile component from the get-go. We can see this as a sign that Google will try to build mobile into its stuff from here on in.
Gary Greenberg (gberg) Fri 3 Feb 12 16:12
I don't see any need to help google in this. I mean, I appreciate its help in searching and so on, but I would rather pay them in money to leave me alone than pay them in personal information that they can then sell. So a few questions: 1. Why don't they offer that service? Or am I the only idiot who would pay for osmething that is available for free if it helps me maintain my privacy and anonymity. 2. I use google anonymously, at least to the extent that I don't sign in or use gmail or igoogle or google+ or any of that. I gather that it still tracks and aggregates and uses the info from my searches based on my ip address. Is that right? If so, does that mean that different computers will hve different profiles, based on whatever diferent uses I'vge put them to. 3. Isn't there a way to keep changing ip addresses in ordre to prevent all this amassing of data?
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Fri 3 Feb 12 18:26
Yes, there are ways, but they're not especially convenient. Charging money for anonymity doesn't make a whole lot of sense, given that they then have your credit card information. But it's not necessary because you can do it for free. IP addresses aren't all that useful for tracking people unless the ISP cooperates or you've given away other information about yourself somehow (which is easy to do). If you're worried about it, probably the easiest way to cover your tracks is to find a coffee shop and use someone else's WiFi connection. You could also use a proxy server or TOR if you're especially paranoid, but that requires more setup.
Steven Levy (steven) Fri 3 Feb 12 20:55
If you have the energy to go through some paces, it's pretty easy to use Google anonymously. Don't log in, and wipe the cookies after you use it. Poof. The action in all these products is in the default settings. A big majority of users don't change defaults. Google really wants to know who you are because it now feels that's a key to delivering you better results. Also better ads, but the former is more important to Google. If you are happier in search, you will use Google more. That's good for Google. And you will see more search ads. That's where Google still makes the bulk of its money.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 3 Feb 12 21:43
Google seemed all over the map with acquisitions and initiatves for a while, then Eric Schmidt left the role of CEO and and, now under Larry Page's leadership, the company started focusing. Can we draw a conclusion that Schmidt didn't know how to focus the company, and that's why his role changed? Or is there a more complex story behind the transition and the changes that have followed?
Steven Levy (steven) Mon 6 Feb 12 12:38
Probably more the latter. Look, Eric took over when the company was fairly tiny and grew it to the giant it is now. I also don't know if you can tie it directly to Eric that the company's efforts seemed so diffuse in the last couple of years. We do know that Eric was shackled by a management structure of a troika -- the big decisions would be determined by him and the two founders. That means that when Eric thought Google should go one way, and the founders thought otherwise, he'd be overruled. (This happened in determining what whether Google should stop censoring in China.) Larry, as CEO, doesn't seem so constrained. Google says it's still a troika, but clearly he is operating with autonomy on big decisions that Eric didn't have. This is great when it comes to focus--but maybe not so great when Google pushes so aggressively in things like Search Plus Your World (the new search protocol that gets a lot of Google+ in search results).
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 6 Feb 12 21:30
How do you see Google's business strategy now, in the Page era? How has it changed?
Ari Davidow (ari) Tue 7 Feb 12 09:08
More than any other SaaS vendor, Google exemplifies "we're not supporting this; if you're not bright enough, use something else." I don't think I have used products or services from any other vendor where I have more frequently found myself with a problem preventing use of the service, no one to contact, no FAQ or help file that covers my particular problem, and no where to go. I'm not sure if this is a reflection of an overall culture change (support staff don't seem to exist in a growing number of companies), or that culture change coupled with an inability to make things that work for people who think differently from the programmers, or something else. I am wondering if this manifested itself in any way in your own encounters with the company.
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