MediaFile

How ‘don’t be evil’ became ‘let’s all be evil’

By Kevin Kelleher
February 6, 2012

It’s been nearly a decade since the tagline “don’t be evil” was attached to Google in a Wired magazine profile. Google, a little more than four years old, adopted the phrase as a code of conduct as it navigated through a growing list of hard questions, and as it increasingly shaped the Web itself. Since then, the term has been hurled back at its founders again and again — every time a saucy blogger or disgruntled user had a bone to pick with the company.

Google’s executives have long since stopped saying “don’t be evil” in public, and the company has been more willing to make bold moves that court controversy (as long as they lead to changes that will promote further growth). Case in point: Last month, Google altered its search results to favor pages from its Google+ social service over other social sites.

Facebook responded by designing a browser extension called “don’t be evil” that played up results from non-Google+ social sites, like Facebook and Twitter. It was an amusing potshot at Google — but for the wrong reasons. Facebook’s track record at focusing on its users’ needs and preferences is even worse than Google’s. Beyond the privacy snafus that flare up regularly, Facebook has designed its site not to make it easier for us to share content with our friends, but to weave corporate brands and ad campaigns into those friendships.

But Facebook’s exercise in highhanded hypocrisy was revealing for another reason. At some point, tech companies bled “don’t be evil” dry of any true meaning. It’s a dead motto, and its sole remaining function is as a ruler to slap the Google brand. In 2012, evil must be a part of your stock and trade. How else will you make billions in profits in the Web industry? Google and Facebook can snipe at each other all they want. But they both follow the same credo now: Let’s all be evil.

But what exactly do we mean by evil? The word can be traced back to the Bronze Age as a disparagement, but evil as we talk about it today can mean anything from an annoyance to extreme moral wickedness. And most of the evil things tech companies do don’t quite rise to the level of evil — it’s just bad. Tweaking your search results to promote your social networks is bad. So is confusing your members when they try to protect their privacy. You take a step toward moral wickedness when you let countries decide how they want to censor tweets. And you’re pretty much on your way there when you poison your workers with neurotoxins in the name of manufacturing efficiency.

In the still-nascent world of social networks, though, things could be worse. The problem is we’re already on our way down. The most powerful companies are designing their sites not to improve the user experience, but to try and get the better of each other.

Facebook and Twitter have declined to let Google incorporate their data feeds into its search engine (those companies say the data is available on the Web; Google says their terms of service don’t allow this). So Google responds by favoring Google+ in its search engine, and downplaying Facebook and Twitter. Very well, point made. But how does this help the rest of us?

In tossing aside its stated mission as a neutral search engine, Google is bowing to some strong outside pressures. Advertisers are shifting more ad dollars to Facebook, which is doing all it can to keep its members inside its walled gardens. So Google changes its search engine to lure more people into its own social site. But it risks lowering its standards to Facebook’s level, becoming a site more devoted to ad dollars than people. And slowly, what was once the Web’s public commons is turning into a collection of gated communities.

The better approach is simple, and one that has worked before. All posts and updates created by the users of all sites — provided that they willingly choose them to be public — should be available to be aggregated by any other site. From there, let the best aggregator win. That was how the Web once worked, when companies designed their sites to improve the experience for the people who use them.

It’s not that way anymore – Web companies are more interested in beating each other, even if it means a race to the bottom. Instead of enticing us with useful, intuitive design, Web sites are focused on corralling us inside through manipulation. It’s not clear whether Facebook or Google will win this game. What’s more clear is that the rest of us are losing.

Comments
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Google used to Google Real-Time Search which allowed of coure, real-time results from Twitter and Facebook to appear. However Twitter decided not to extend the deal for whatever there reason and now they are crying foul because Google has put Twitter results lower.

On a side (personal) note, Facebook has hardly been known as a treasure trove of great information and personally I have never seen a Facebook page appear ever on the results page except when searching for names and most of the time I’d have better luck searching through Facebook itself, just like you’d have better luck searching through things on Twitter itself. Which leads to the question, is it really that bad what Google are doing, or are we so lazy that we can’t take the minute or so to go onto either Facebook and Twitter to find what we want.

As for other sites, it’s a great move to get more businesses and other websites to join Google+.

Posted by cjmckellar | Report as abusive
 

“All posts and updates created by the users of all sites — provided that they willingly choose them to be public — should be available to be aggregated by any other site. From there, let the best aggregator win.”

Kevin, we’re going to give you a wink and endorse your ostensibly neutral, sensible idea because it means Google wins and we think Google has, over the years, contributed a lot more to the well- being of society than Facebook.

We think Facebook, in fact, will be remembered largely for seducing so many millions into handing Zuckerberg their 21st century rabbits feet and apple cores so he’d let them whitewash his fence. People have jettisoned their privacy straight into Facebook’s bank account and they will never get it back.

Google, like Microsoft before, gave us productivity. Facebook taketh productivity away, a loss we can ill afford right now. That plus the story of Facebook’s unethical birth make the idea that Zuckerberg would become one of the world’s richest people repugnant to us. Given the disclosures about his legal dominance of the company, forever, and the singular power that gives him over so much of society, we are loathe to see that company continue on an upward path.

Posted by WeWereWallSt | Report as abusive
 

I suspect we would all be better off without Facebook. Google, however, has saved my butt innumerable times. If, however, Google starts to dumb down the data to make it more ‘likable’, that will be the end of the web as we know and love it. I guess I better start looking for another search engine. Too bad.

Posted by lhathaway | Report as abusive
 

“All posts and updates created by the users of all sites — provided that they willingly choose them to be public — should be available to be aggregated by any other site. From there, let the best aggregator win.”

Kevin, we’re going to give you a wink and endorse your ostensibly neutral, sensible idea because it means Google wins and we think Google has, over the years, contributed a lot more to the well- being of society than Facebook.

We think Facebook, in fact, will be remembered largely for seducing so many millions into handing Zuckerberg their 21st century rabbits feet and apple cores so he’d let them whitewash his fence. People have jettisoned their privacy straight into Facebook’s bank account and they will never get it back.

Google, like Microsoft before, gave us productivity. Facebook taketh productivity away, a loss we can ill afford right now. That plus the story of Facebook’s unethical birth make the idea that Zuckerberg would become one of the world’s richest people repugnant to us. Given the disclosures about his legal dominance of the company, forever, and the singular power that gives him over so much of society, we are loathe to see that company continue on an upward path.

Posted by WeWereWallSt | Report as abusive
 

What does evil mean? How about the fraud at the heart of Google being a pay to play engine rather than a search engine? The fraud of representing your “search algorithm’s” “technology” being something other than a fraud. Google’s algorithm was always a front for the fraud. I’d call that evil.

Posted by JP007 | Report as abusive
 

“Don’t be evil (wink)” was always intended sarcastically and is code for “don’t get caught”.

Posted by eephoto | Report as abusive
 

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