Is Google's Supposed Weakness an Engineering Mindset? Or Just Bad Luck?

When I read about Google, I often encounter a claim that Google's emphasis on engineering and mathy stuff has hobbled its ability to keep up in the social media world, and is in danger from Twitter and Facebook--although maybe Google+ will change that. It's usually something like this from the NY Times (italics mine):

But Google has been criticized for failing to understand the importance of social information on the Web until competitors like Facebook and Twitter had already leapt ahead.

Larry Page, Google's co-founder, regrets Google's failure to lead in this market and has spent time working with the team since he became chief executive in April, people at the company say. He promoted Mr. Gundotra to senior vice president this year, placing him on an equal level with the heads of Google's core products like search and ads.

Part of the blame, analysts say, falls on Google's engineering-heavy culture, which values quantitative data and algorithms over more abstract pursuits like socializing.

Exhibit A is Buzz, a sharing tool for Gmail users. It automatically included users' e-mail contacts in their Buzz network, setting off widespread criticism that Google had invaded the privacy of users and failed to understand that people's e-mail contacts are not necessarily their friends.

I think this is an odd argument. Google has been unsuccessful; therefore, a defining characteristic of Google must be to blame. Consider Facebook and Twitter.

Working near the MIT campus (Kendall Square), most of the computer companies seem pretty quantitative--and at the risk of stereotyping, they're not full of social butterflies (I fit right in...). Does Mark Zuckerberg strike you as a particularly outgoing social guy? Most biographies suggest otherwise.

The Google argument also supposes that the social media companies haven't made similar mistakes. But Facebook in 2006 also had problems when it released private, personal information to all Facebook users. Somehow though, this wasn't a problem while Google's similar error was--probably because there wasn't really any place to go at the time other than My Space, so there was some room for error.

In addition, Twitter, while not screwing up the privacy issue, stumbled initially because its founders didn't like what the users were doing with it. Twitter originally conceived of itself as a way for a small group to communicate with each other--group texting combined with a bulletin board. But the users turned it into a hybrid of microblogging, an RSS feed, and an online forum. While some people do use it as the founders originally intended, they very reluctantly accepted what users were doing with it, and it took them a while to incorporate features that were relevant to the users' needs. Before you argue with this description, I'm certain when Twitter was launched, no one thought of Tahrir Square.

So while Google might not have been successful with its social media attempts to date, it's not clear to me that they were any more stupid than Facebook or Twitter.

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Interesting post. Also, how do you define success? I mean Google makes plenty of its money off of ad revenue, probably helped along by the algorithms that power its search engine. Google was a legitimate company making money early on. Facebook and Twitter spent years before they had enough of a base to turn a profit. They both rely on people being "members" in order to see the ads they sell and make money off of that. If there was a new system that suddenly became popular people would flock away. But you don't have to be a Google "member" to contribute to their bottom line.

Yes in some cases being hesitant to embrace social media can really hurt but I wouldn't put Google in that category. I think they've also spent a lot of time polishing their image so far as a company to work for and as a good member of the community. If something like the leak with Google Buzz had happened to Microsoft the backlash would have been enormous. People like to have their "hero" and "villain" companies and I'm not sure Facebook or Twitter fill either of those roles or has proved it has a long term business model.

There used to be a joke about the various universities working on artificial intelligence: CMU was the solid classic; it was where the Queen of England would go if she wanted to buy AI research. I think Google is the solid classic. They tend to put a lot into their software and the interface is rather bare bones. This means it can be a bit clunky, and it sure isn't stylish.

Scalzi's Whatever blog (…) had an explanation of why an author should have his or her own website, rather than relying on a social networking site pointing out how the hot site has moved from Geocities to AOL to Friendster to MySpace to Facebook and is likely to move on.

Oops, ...

Social networks are about style. Google is not. It isn't their engineering background either. Apple is chock full of engineers, but they are concerned more about style than the engineers at Google. It's just the corporate culture. In ten or twenty years, Google will still be there, unless sometone comes up with a really clever approach to search.

It'll be fun to Google up a whole series of social sites that had once ruled the world and find out what happened to them.

I think one of the best examples is Google Video vs Youtube. While other cultures may have a somewhat different format both for things like video sharing sites and for basic community tools like forums, the tendency for users to both share information about videos and establish their own identify on a site was vastly underestimated when planning out a service that was expected to become popular.

Anyway: a large part of it is the standards of achievement used to communicate success with other people. In Google, due to its objective culture, the goals of a project are presumably often framed in terms that avoid the wide diversity of goals and values in the user population. Projects that do not frame their social benefit in objective terms do not gain traction.

Considering that this blog occasionally touches on economic and political topics, this text might be of interest as an example of a way to promote a broader understanding of subjective factors in communicating progress and goals: