Google's Biggest Problem: It's Too Rational

This morning I read an interview with former Googler Douglas Edwards on the Wall Street Journal site about his new book, "I'm Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59." Edwards said something about his former employer that hit the bull's-eye about what's wrong with Google (and many other companies).

Google's problem? It's too damned rational.

[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Bill Snyder on why the feds should investigate Google. | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter and follow Cringely on Twitter. ]

In a response to a question about whether the G-twins Sergey Brin and Larry Page really take privacy seriously or just pay lip service to it, Edwards's reply really struck me:

Google doesn't have enough irrational people working there, and the rest of the world doesn't have enough rational people occupying it. So, Google needs more irrational people, I think, so that they'll better understand how people react to things like targeting ads in Gmail.

In the minds of Sergey and Larry, there was no privacy issue with Gmail because all the messages were scanned by machines, not humans -- case closed, end of story, let's move on to even geekier topics. Only it wasn't:

I talk in the book about this moment I had with Sergey, where I was handling customer service and I said, "We need to talk about the privacy issue around Gmail," and he just stood right in front of me and he looked at me and he said, "There is no privacy issue." Because in his mind, there was no privacy issue. The facts were that Google was not reading email, Google was not targeting email. So the facts said there was no privacy issue. He didn't understand that people's perception was reality. Reality was reality.

This short passage speaks volumes about what always seems to go wrong at big companies like Google (Apple, Amazon.com, Microsoft, Facebook -- take your pick), which I've mentioned a few times before in this space. They live inside their own realities, separate from the rest of ours. They lose all perspective. They become like cults with their own language, culture, and moral precepts; sometimes they even have their own food.

Last week I wrote about Google's painful attempts to explain to mere mortals the complex machinations of how Google+ works. You can tell Google is really trying to make it simple enough for us single-celled irrational non-Googlers to grok. But the Googlers can't do it; they don't know how. Even Google Translate can't make the leap between Googlespeak and human.

Facebook is no better, as anyone who's ever tried to parse its endless online FAQs can verify. If I hear one more Facebooker talk about "the social graph," I may commit seppuku. Do you know anyone who isn't a) a Facebook employee or b) trying to be a social media guru who uses phrases like "the social graph"? Normal humans don't talk like that. But Facebookers do, and that's a problem.

The Googlers couldn't imagine a world where people might want to keep the identities of their most frequently contacted friends private. They don't do that at Googleplex, so why would anyone else want to? Thus, we had the Buzz privacy debacle. Zuckerberg and company think sharing is "the new social norm" because most of the people who work there are in their 20s and have no private lives; why should anyone else want one? Dozens of privacy kerfuffles later, Facebook seems to finally be learning that lesson. (Maybe.)

As for Microsoft, it must put something in the water supply in Redmond that makes everyone believe Windows is the One True and Righteous Way. That's the only rational explanation I can come up with.

What do these companies have in common? They were all founded and run by engineers. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- without engineers we'd all still be living in trees and eating bugs. But in my experience, engineers tend to divide the world into two camps: other engineers and everyone else. And the second camp doesn't matter because they refuse to read instruction manuals.

That's the attitude Google, Facebook, and so on bring to the table. They know that the world is mostly made up of non-engineers, and they have to accommodate them -- but they don't like it very much, and they often don't do a good job of it. That's where these companies fall down.

Steve Jobs, by contrast, is not an engineer. That's a key reason why Apple products are so much more accessible to the irrational bug-eating masses.

One more thing about Googler Edwards, just because it's funny. He also did an interview with Fast Company about his book, where he explains why Google's first (failed) attempt at social networks, Orkut, was wildly popular in Finland when it first launched:

Orkut [the Google engineer who built Orkut] is Turkish, so we had no idea when we launched it that in Finland evidently that same word means "multiple sexual climaxes." When people saw a product called Orkut, they thought it was a dating service or sex site, and it took off quickly. As soon as they saw what it actually was, interest cooled somewhat.

I'm now going to create a social network called MultipleSexualClimaxes.com. If the blog suddenly disappears one day, you'll know it's because I've become insanely rich.

Will engineers and the irrational bug-eating masses ever get along? Share your thoughts (Add a comment) or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "Google's biggest problem: It's too rational," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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