In Defense of “nothing”

Columnist Henry Porter is generally considered to be a wise observer of the human condition. Today, in an article in the UK Guardian owned Sunday, The Observer, he blew it ….. badly. As a newspaper man he ought to have been aware of his almost certain bias and perhaps counted to ten before pushing “send”. And, given that he didn’t,  his editor should have saved him from himself after the fact, perhaps by asking “are you sure?” But then I would have nothing to say… and neither would others.

Mr Porter’s key contention is one that is being heard more and more from the seriously wounded media industry:

“Google is in the final analysis a parasite that creates nothing, merely offering little aggregation, lists and the ordering of information generated by people who have invested their capital, skill and time. On the back of the labour of others it makes vast advertising revenues – in the final quarter of last year its revenues were $5.7bn, and it currently sits on a cash pile of $8.6bn. Its monopolistic tendencies took an extra twist this weekend with rumours that it may buy the micro-blogging site Twitter and its plans – contested by academics – to scan a vast library of books that are out of print but still in copyright.”

Let’s take this apart:

“Google is … a parasite” – Well, clearly Google has a dependency on the existence of content…. it is, after all, a search engine. So, no content, no Google. But is this parasitic, or is Google more like a librarian… an essential organizer, making discovery of content within a vast mass of it, possible. Do I need to answer?

” Google ….creates nothing” – Nothing? What is the vast index and the algorithms that make the index produce search results. Is it nothing? Again… no answer required.

” Google is … merely offering little aggregation, lists and the ordering of information generated by people who have invested their capital, skill and time.” – “little aggregation”; “lists”; “ordering of information”. Mr Porter has clearly never attempted to crawl, index, and scale a search interface for hundreds of millions of people. He thinks it is trivial. Sadly it is not. And Google does it better than anybody else. How many of Mr Potters readers come via Google’s lists and ordering? Please tell us…. (hint, it is a lot).

“…On the back of the labour of others it makes vast advertising revenues” – This takes the biscuit. What work did any Mr Porter do to make his content discoverable by a vast and growing army of readers? The labour is all Googles. It places ads on top of its own canvas, the Google search engine. It also offers advertising to 3rd parties and according to its earnings reports, shares more than 75% back with the sites who use its advertising engine. The vast sums of advertising money flooding to the Internet are coming because of Google – because Google gave a way for an advertiser to spend its money effectively and measurably. Google makes advertising revenues for the entire ecosystem.

So.. what is Mr Porter really saying. Is it a cry for help? I don’t think so. He is way past help. Bitter, angry and lost in a new media world he finds unfamiliar.

At the root of it is the fact that the role of a media company, and its ability to serve its 3 audiences – readers, creators and advertisers, now rests almost entirely on technology. Specific technology at that… the ability to find, organize and understand data (content). Distribution and monetization are all about technology. Mr Porter’s employers – the Observer – (perhaps parasites on his writing, simply adding paper and print to his efforts) are not a contender to provide these services.

Google represents a company typical of the future of media. It brings technology to scale and serves consumers, creators and advertisers. If you want to be in the game, you need to grasp that content can not stand alone. It needs help to be discovered, distributed and monetized. Googles only fault is that it is better than anybody else at these tasks. Can it be bettered, absolutely! But not by clinging to the past. My advice – read Jeff Jarvis and his book What Would Google Do Mr Porter, you will learn a thing ot two.

Update:

Here is the TechCrunch take on the story.
Here is the updated techmeme discussion