What Would Google Do?

"Google is an avalanche and it has only just begun to tumble down the mountain," Jeff Jarvis writes in a new book called "What Would Google Do?" that advises pretty much everyone—you, your company, entire industries, and the U.S. government—to study and ape the online juggernaut, or risk getting buried. Jarvis writes like he changes jobs, which is to say rapidly. He has been a TV critic, magazine founder, blogger, investor and professor, and if "WWGD" occasionally goes into sound-bite overdrive (the phrase "small is the new big" is used more than a dozen times, among other abuses), the habit can be excused as the tic of a guy who's got a lot to say about the future of technology. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Nick Summers from Munich, where he is attending a conference in advance of the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Besides Google, it seems like you have crushes on Facebook and Amazon, too. Did you ever think about writing on WWFD or WWAD, or might you in the future?
Jeff Jarvis: [Laughs] I think that's already in this book. Because the point isn't so much to worship Google, it is to face the confusing, counterintuitive, fundamental change going on in our world now and ask, "Who is succeeding in it, and why?" So, just as I try to look admiringly from a distance at Google, I include anecdotes and examples from Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook and Craig Newmark at craigslist and Jeff Bezos at Amazon. There is a club of people who've figured out the Internet and succeeded at it. You can pick your own. I just think Google is the most appropriate lens, because it's gigantic; indeed the Times of London said that it's the fastest growing company in the history of the world, so who better to use as a lens to this new worldview?

So, what are the ways in which you've used Google in the last 24 hours?
Oh, can I count them all? My mail is on Google, so every time I've pinged it, I'm on Google. I've searched for news of various sorts; I used Google Maps to find restaurants in Munich, I used Google Maps to get directions; I used Google search to find movie listings, and then I used it to find reviews. I watched a mess of Google videos.

That's a lot!
I'm probably not even done. On my blog, I have Google ads there, so I made some pennies. Tonight I'm going to take a Flip video of this great event last night [a beatbox-violin duet] and put that on YouTube. I'm trying to think of all the tentacles that Google reaches out—I've probably used it in ways I don't even know.

Printed books are about the least Google-y medium around. How did you apply the "What Would Google Do?" concept to this title?
First, I'll confess, I'm a hypocrite. I didn't put this book up as a purely digital, searchable, linkable entity—I didn't eat my own dog food—because I got an advance from the publisher, and other services. Dog's gotta eat. I couldn't pass it up. In terms of the process of the book, though, I hope it was Googlier [than most] in that I thought this book through on my blog. And the great thing about the blog is the people who help me there—readers who with amazing generosity will act as peer review and challenge my ideas, and push them and fill in gaps in my knowledge.

Are there any areas in which Google itself doesn't act very "Google-y?" Not disclosing its advertising revenue splits, for example.
Right. There are areas where Google doesn't act very Google-y, which are mainly about transparency. It can't be transparent about its algorithms and how they operate, because then they will get gamed more. And those are special sauce. I wish Google were more open about its advertising arrangements and splits, so we had a better sense of the value of the market; I wish it were more open about the sources that it puts into Google News.

I wish it understood the power that it could have to support free speech against regimes in countries like China and Iran. The argument that is made by Google and its defenders on that point is that it is better for the Chinese to have a hampered Internet than no Internet at all. I think that underestimates Google's own power and strength. If suddenly the Chinese had the opportunity to lose Google tomorrow, I think they might well rise up, and that'd be "the Google Revolution." I say that with some hyperbole! I wish that Google would recognize its power and use it for good when it comes to free speech, because it lives by free speech.

You write about the end of scarcity, managing abundance … Is there anything in the book you'd update now that the financial crisis has hit so hard, and is probably getting worse?
I managed to get an insert into the book at the very last minute: the idea that we're going through more than a financial crisis, we're going through a fundamental change in the structure of the economy. Google is not the cause of that, but it is part and parcel of that. And one big outcome of this is that it'll be a long time before companies grow to scale by borrowing capital to make big acquisitions, because they can't borrow the capital, obviously.

But they'll still need to grow to scale and critical mass, and the way that they can do that, watching Google's example, is by building platforms and networks. So I think that the Google economic model may well be copied even more now than it would have been without a financial crisis. And the need to rethink your worldview, and reinvent your business, is only greater now, so the need to follow examples from successful, smart companies like Google is only greater now, as well.

You only mention Chrome, the Google-developed browser, twice. How come? It seems like a pretty big deal to me.
Because I have a Macintosh, and they haven't made it for the Mac! It's that simple. I'm jealous and I want to play with it, but you might have read in the beginning of book that I don't have a Dell anymore.

Apple is successful despite being pretty un-Google-y. Today, because of Steve Jobs's health, the company may be at a crossroads. Do you think they should take this moment and become Googlier in any way?
Good one. In the book, Rishad Tobaccowala argued that Apple already is Google-y, because of what its brand stands for: it makes us godlike. The Jobs story … I'm fascinated by questions of public-ness and transparency and the end of privacy. And part of what I define as being Google-y, or really more Internet-smart, is being transparent and open, so that you can be found on Google. There's an ethic behind this transparency that I've learned in the blog world. Should Apple have been more transparent about Steve Jobs's health? Yes, probably. But, health is an issue of privacy. So I don't know where I come down in the end.

Fred Wilson, on his blog, won't buy Apple stock right now because he's mad at Apple for the way it handled this. I understand that from an investment perspective. And in my book, I talk about revealing my own health history and the benefit I've gotten out of that, but I'm not the CEO of Apple, and I'm not the god of Apple.

Otherwise, I hope that Apple doesn't change, because I love Apple products. I have my iPhone, I have my Mac, my whole family is on Apple. What they shouldn't change is their worldview; they do damn good work.

You write that "Your customers are your ad agency," and that companies should embrace their online critics before bad word of mouth spreads. So, you have two five-star reviews on Amazon. You also have a two-star review from a guy named Jeff Lippincott . He said your book is "poorly organized and poorly written." How are you going to be Google-y in your response to Mr. Lippincott?
I can learn lessons from Mr. Lippincott and write my next book better. I can't re-copy-edit the book now; it's more about an argument with the ideas. The greatest benefit that I think I could get from people's reviews on both Amazon and on my blog, where people are often critical of me or disagree with me, is a substantial discussion of the ideas. The chapter on insurance in the book came out of my readers telling me I was wrong when I said that insurance couldn't be Google-y.

What we have online is kind of a peer review, and a means of collaboration. Nick Carr said in The Atlantic that Google makes us stupid because deep reading yields deep thinking. I'm not going to disagree with him about that. But deep conversation, ongoing conversation, a continuing review of ideas also yields, I think, deep thinking. That's what I would hope for, and at the end of the book I invite the discussion to continue. I want it to continue, I know people will disagree with me, and that has great value for the readers of that in turn.