I’ve been in journalism a long, long time. Twenty four years, to be exact. I have a pretty clear sense of how the game works, how it’s changing, and how it’s played. So when I read the (very) recent dustup around Eric Schmidt’s quote regarding Twitter, well, I decided to take a step back and think about it a spell. Especially given my own experience on both sides of the ledger (but more on that later).
Some background: Eric was quoted widely today saying that Twitter, a service I and many others have speculated might be a fit for Google, was “a poor man’s email.”
That’s pretty incendiary, and it fits a sometimes eagerly applied characterization of Eric, who has at times be criticized as dismissive (I reported as much in The Search back in 2005). But the more I think about it, the more I think Eric was actually speaking “as a computer scientist”, which, in fact, is the preface he used before issuing the aforementioned poor man’s quote.
It seems that Eric has not studied Twitter deeply, or, quite possibly, he has, and this statement was the equivalent of a studious head fake. Either way, I’m not going to jump on the band wagon and declare this incident proof of Google’s arrogance. Eric went on to praise Twitter for its growth and community, and then take the view that Twitter is an interesting development worthy of notice.
Sounds like the right point of view for Google to have at this juncture. Keep paying attention…and pounce in one way or another when the time is right.
Somewhat related (insofar as quotes can be read in many different ways), I was quoted in a story about Google’s Marissa Mayer in the New York Times this past Sunday. My quotes, which are spare, come late in the story, but they don’t lack punch:
“She clearly has what it takes to be a great manager at Google, but I don’t know if that translates into being a great manager at Hasbro.”
“You get comfortable being wealthy, getting attention, living in the bubble,” Mr. Battelle said. “It will be interesting to watch at which point they declare ‘who am I?’ by their definition, not Google’s.”
Well, through a couple backchannels, I’ve been told those quotes are not sitting well over at Google. And I can understand why. After all, I spoke to the reporter, who I like, for nearly 45 minutes, and the conversation was boiled down to those two quotes, neither of which are particularly gushy.
That said, I think each has a point, albeit not elaborated upon in the piece. On the Hasbro quote, well, it’s pretty self explanatory. I’m not sure Marissa would ever want to manage a team at Hasbro, a point that probably did not translate – tone of voice is usually not reflected within quotations. I picked Hasbro because Meg Whitman worked there, but my point was more broad: Marissa (and many others) have worked at just one place their entire career, a place that, to be blunt, is very unlike nearly any other company on earth.
Which leads me to the second quote, in which I was talking about a class of folks at Google, and not Marissa in particular. (I was in the back of a car driving to an appointment when the reporter called, and I’m not sure exactly when I said this). My point was not that executives who have been at Google a long time are out of touch (they certainly are wealthy), but rather, that at some point they will look up from their work and ask the question: Who am I outside of Google? I’ve watched this happen with a number of executives who were early leaders at Google, and I think it will happen with Marissa, if it’s not already happening.
When you work inside a bubble, and working at Google is certainly that, an essential skill becomes being able to see outside of your own work. I worked at two fast-growing companies that lived inside bubbles, and I lost that vision – briefly – twice in my career – first at Wired, and second at the Industry Standard. When I realized I was living in something of a reality distortion field, I quickly moved outside of it, and on to the next thing. Perhaps that’s not the case with Marissa, and perhaps I’m wrong about the same kinds of forces being at play at Google as have been at play at companies like Wired, Netscape, AOL, Microsoft, or even today’s darlings like Twitter or Zappos.
But for the record, I don’t think so.