With an economy in turmoil and virtually every form of media facing disruptive new technology, many are looking for an alternative business model. Blogger and Internet evangelist Jeff Jarvis has a simple answer: Do what Google does. In his new book he explains why Google's philosophy has made the company so successful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Whenever we plunge into that ocean of data and chatter, commerce and communion that is cyberspace, we, most of us anyway, survive and thrive because of Google. Like it or not, on the Net, Google is the organizing principle, the unseen hand, the prime mover. You know where I'm going with this. If Google functioned in the real world as it does in the virtual one, it would look an awful lot like – God, which is probably why educator and Internet evangelist Jeff Jarvis, founder of the blog BuzzMachine, called his new book about how to prosper in the digital space, What Would Google Do? Jeff, welcome to the show.
JEFF JARVIS: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, obviously, the title’s a takeoff on the bumper sticker, “What would Jesus do?” which apparently you hit upon at a conference of anxious media execs, not surprisingly. The implication here is that the same way God is infallible, so is Google.
JEFF JARVIS: Well, it’s not perfect, Google; G-mail went down last week. But it is the most successful at figuring out this new world. The problem I had with those media executives was that they were trying to shoehorn their old models into a new world, and I, in exasperation, said, no, you should be doing new things. You should be doing what Google does. You should ask - what would Google do? And, ding, book title!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] You know, I really liked your book because it creates a manual for living digitally, and it centered on – I counted about three dozen basic principles, among them, “Do what you do best and link to the rest,” “Make mistakes well” and “Free is a business model.” That’s just some of them. They're all small pieces of a big idea, so give that up.
JEFF JARVIS: I think the idea is to try to figure out what Google’s world view is, and out of that world view comes their success, and out of that comes lessons for us. For example, I think we'll see that companies can no longer build, as they did in the past, by making huge acquisitions and controlling a whole bunch of stuff. Google did not become the fastest-growing company in the history of the world, according to The Times of London, that way. Google instead built platforms and networks upon which others succeed. Google also makes mistakes well. It puts out every product as a beta, which is its way of saying, this product is incomplete and unfinished and imperfect, so help us finish it. Tell us what it ought to be. And that’s a very transparent way, for a company that isn't always transparent, but Google in that way opens up its process as, I think, not only media but other industries should do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You do give some examples about how thinking Googly could be applied to ailing industries, even the car industry. Why don't you give us that one?
JEFF JARVIS: I think that if car companies could open up their design process, their sacred secrets, and let us in, they would make better cars we'd actually buy, rather than leaving them on the lot, which is where they are today. If years ago they'd had this open process, I would have been one among many who would have said, would you please put a 39-cent plug in the radio so I can plug in my iPod or, at the time, my Walkman? But they had no means to listen to us. So they thought that secrecy and control was their special sauce. Wrong. It made them deaf. Now, imagine – go to the next step - and imagine that if a car could be delivered to me unfinished. Now, I want it to be safe, but maybe it’s unpainted, and I could take it to my student last semester who was a graffiti artist, and he could paint that car and make it mine, make it like no other in the world. wouldn't that be great? And if I could pick my own seats and my own dash and my own everything, I would have my car, not their car. And a car company could be a platform for that. Now, go to the next step. I asked Fred Wilson, the venture capitalist in town, what a Googly car company looks like, and he said it actually already exists. It’s Zipcar.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For those who don't know what Zipcar is, will you explain it?
JEFF JARVIS: It’s more like a club where you can basically pick up a car all around town and just use it for a few hours and drop it off again. Now, the irony of this is Zipcar causes people to buy fewer cars. And you'd think that’s an insane strategy for Detroit, but that’s a question of asking what business you’re really in. And maybe Detroit shouldn't be in the business of manufacturing. Maybe they're in the business of transportation, getting us from place A to place B. Maybe they could use things differently. It all sounds a little bit insane, but this is the time when we've got to ask what we are, in different ways.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It is a little bit insane. Even if Zipcar were our principal mode of car transportation, it still would employ fewer people than those who are in Detroit. Thinking Googly can't save the car industry.
JEFF JARVIS: Yes, some portions of the car industry, and the newspaper industry, and retail will be smaller. Well, we're in a “small is a new big” network era when Google enables millions of new companies to start. Each one is smaller but in aggregate they're much bigger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So “small is the new big” is another one of the lessons for life online that you offer in What Would Google Do, and what you’re saying is, is maybe the net effect is just as many people employed in just many, many more smaller businesses?
JEFF JARVIS: Yes, I think that in news, for example, you’re not going to find anymore – you can't – one company that’s going to control all the news in town and own it all. It’s just not going to be. So what they have to do is look at it differently and say, maybe there is a core organization that helps organize the news and organize the people in a larger network. Some of them may be former journalists who are now starting their own blogs because they're unemployed, or it may be people who volunteer. The role of the news organization changes radically. It becomes aggregator and curator and educator and ad sales organization and promoter. But it doesn't own and control everything anymore. Now, I think when you have this kind of network, news could be much bigger than it ever was. Each individual component, each company will be much smaller, but in whole, I think that news can grow and expand.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you’re going to start talking about how to monetize [LAUGHS] the journalism business, let’s insert our new jingle.
CHORUS SINGING: Present and future business models for monetizing the newspaper industry.
JEFF JARVIS: I could sing bass, by the way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about what you said about the media industry in your book – make it free, focus on advertising. Those have been tried. So far they can't support the singularly expensive work of investigative reporting, local reporting. I understand, I do, that journalists can make good use of the labor and goodwill and the wisdom of the communities that they create to do research, to crowd-source, but that won't help the journalists cultivating sources in the intelligence community about government wiretapping or poring over classified documents about secret prisons. Or do you think it does?
JEFF JARVIS: I think the mistake is to think that news comes from a company. It’s going to come from an ecosystem, and in that ecosystem there'll be many kinds of players. So I imagine something like ProPublica, the foundation-supported journalistic organization, may exist nationally and in lots of cities. I imagine that The Washington Post will continue to investigate, and The New York Times will. But I also imagine there are individuals who can make a business of it on their own. And journalism will be supported in many ways. It will be supported by advertising, it will be supported by foundations and public donations – not very largely, but that will take a slice of a new pie. It'll be supported by volunteers who just believe in doing this and helping out. In the end, you have a new ecosystem of news that looks very different, but I believe really could be bigger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But ultimately this will all boil down to advertisers getting on board and paying a sufficient amount for the individual click-throughs that come to various links.
JEFF JARVIS: That is the big question. Will the advertising be there? Is there sufficient advertising there? Is it the present model of advertising or something wholly new? It’s not the only value. The other value you can get online is data, is knowledge. Amazon goes to the trouble of moving atoms around and selling us books. But it’s the company that knows more about what we buy than any other company on Earth, and that makes it more efficient in what it sells, so that for Amazon, sending books around is the price of becoming very smart. And the data is what’s valuable, the knowledge.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Google’s motto is “Don't be evil,” and that’s also the advice you give to the people who read your book. And aside from what we both agree is a lapse of judgment in acceding to censorship in China, mostly Google is not evil, but it could be, Jeff.
JEFF JARVIS: The dopey evil slogan could be the height of hubris, you know, we are the virtuous company. But instead, the founders have said that the reason that exists is to give license to employees to sit in a meeting and say, should we do that, is that Googly? Isn't that evil? Now imagine, Brooke, if “Don't be evil” had been etched in granite over the doors of Wall Street and insurance companies, if just a few more people have been empowered to say, should we really be selling toxic assets, isn't that evil? I know this is awfully optimistic to say, but I have to believe that a company that gives its employees the license to question its actions, based on its mission, is a good company.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeff, thank you very much.
JEFF JARVIS: Thank you so much, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeff Jarvis teaches at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, operates the blog BuzzMachine and is author of What Would Google Do?