[personal profile] omnifarious

Eben Moglen is one of the principle lawyers behind the GPL. He's also a tireless free software advocate, and significantly more photogenic and diplomatic than Richard Stallman.

He recently gave this interesting tech talk at Google about the perception of Google by entities outside it. It was really well done, and struck a strong chord with me.

I've noticed that people frequently are incapable of believing that some things Google does are for the reasons Google says they're doing them. For example (and I don't really have the time to find references just now) many people seem to think that Google Doodles, those fun, timely modifications to their main search page, are a marketing tool, when in fact they are largely done purely out of whimsy.

I suppose, in one sense there is marketing purpose. Google is projecting their image of themselves out into the world. It's brand building. But, on the other hand, there isn't. I doubt that Google Doodles started as an idea for brand building in some marketing department. I'm betting some random small group of people decided one day that it would be fun to do, and the idea sort of caught on and now it's a tradition.

But people seem to want to analyze doodles for the marketing message they contain, despite the fact there generally isn't one. The more enigmatic the doodle is, the more determined people seem to be to find the marketing message in it.

This means there is a disparity in perception between people outside Google and people inside Google. One that might serve Google very poorly in the future. It's very important that Google understand this and respond appropriately. Perception is reality and people and organizations live up to expectations. Google risks becoming what people perceive them to be unless they act to correct that perception.

Google also frequently doesn't realize how the fact that they are so large and powerful affects people's perceptions of them. Witness the brouhaha over Buzz. Google did do some somewhat wrongheaded things in introducing it, but Buzz was not anywhere near the privacy destroying aggregator that people thought it was. And the fact that people perceived Buzz in this way seemed to mystify people inside Google, even though it was predictable given Google's size and people's perceptions.

Again, this points to a need by Google to better manage people's perceptions of them, and to manage their product releases better in terms of how people perceive them.

Eben Moglen suggests, quite wisely, that one thing Google could do is to change their policy on contributing internal changes back to Open Source projects. I think this is a good idea, but I doubt it will really be enough.

I am a little worried that if Google takes this advice to heart that they will grow a PR arm that does what every other PR arm in the world does, which is to try to make sure that perception stays far more positive than reality instead of simply trying to make perception match reality. But Google should do something, since I think people think far more ill of them than they generally deserve.

Google is, in fact, the only company I know of that has a revenue stream greater than 1 billion dollars a year that I actually have a positive opinion of.

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November 2012

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