The Money Quotes

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…


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.

14 thoughts on “The Money Quotes”

  1. I really think it is time for reasonnable journalists to try to call out, formally, once and for good, that vast majority of “angle”-myopic typists whose prejudice can’t prevent them from taking out of context quotes from people who generally would be savvy if they were worried, but simply enjoy too much their work to try to do less then really detail and explain the issues at stake. Newspapers a litteraly dying of quotes taken out of context, uncorrected bad report, copy-pasting and utter lack of fact-checking.

  2. Schmidt is a master negotiator. I just don’t buy the idea that this wasn’t part of a longer term play on his part. Google has to recognize the opportunity that something like Twitter presents to them. They’ve already tried to build social networking on their own and were not able to achieve critical mass. They let Facebook go to Microsoft, and so I can’t imagine that they want to let Twitter pass by too. With recent capital, Twitter doesn’t need Google, at least not right now. But I’m just not buying the fact that Google is going to turn a blind eye to the commercial possibilities of Twitter.

  3. I already have commented online about what I found to be a very strange NYTimes article about Marrisa Mayer. I knew very little about her before reading it and was left puzzled by the profile. It definitely left me with a feeling that the reporter had an agenda, but I couldn’t really put my finger on what that agenda was.

    A lot of the quotes from numerous sources seemed underhanded and not surrounded by the full context in which they were implied. I can’t imagine that after reading the article that Ms. Mayer can be too thrilled with her own quotes that made it into the story. After reading it, I had no real idea of what she actually did at Google. I was puzzled enough to search for more info and found this article:

    Several of the same sources from the NYTimes article were quoted, including you. But the article filled in a lot of the blanks that the NYTimes didn’t. It covered a lot of the same areas, but was a completely different profile.

    I won’t forget the profile that you guys (The Industry Standard) did of our old company, Giant Step. Your art director created a pull qoute from my statement,”Our advantage is that people around here are truly interested in getting to work on client’ back end.” Nice.

  4. Good piece, Mr. Battelle. This is a peripheral comment… I’m not familiar enough with the players to comment specifically there, but among other things I was intrigued by your reference to company-as-bubble.

    For almost 20 years I worked freelance in corporate film/video production, often working on jobs for companies like Intel, Apple, HP, Sun, and others, in roles that didn’t make anyone nervous when I was in their inner sanctums, a wardrobe stylist and set decorator. Spending time in those walls afforded outsiders like me some candid and revealing glimpes of their various cultures.

    Where I always felt like I was on another planet was Apple. They seemed to go beyond the expected belief in themselves and into a kind of self-deification. Great fun, curious times.

    Anyway, your book looks fascinating.

  5. I am sure that Eric was being sincere when he looked at Twitter as being a poor man’s email. Was he being nasty or just uninformed – either way it is not good for Google. He misses the point of Twitter entirely. When could you search the email of 5M (and growing) people to see what they thought about a brand, product, or any topic or federate this thought thread as content to be consumed by millions more. “To Tweet” is breaking into the mainstream vernacular like “to Google” did in June of 2000. Amazing what 7 years will do to a company – even the best ones.

  6. Google’s mantra is to “put the user first, and all else will follow,” and its search engine is built upon the collective wisdom of all of its users around the world. I wonder who is wiser? All of Google’s users or Twitter’s? What people generally care most about is where can they get the information most relevant to them easily. Twitter is not a substitute for email even though Eric chose to make that comparison. I think he would prefer Twitter be compared to email rather than to search, where it has the potential to be disruptive to Google.

  7. Putting my aluminum foil computer scientist hat on, I’m not sure calling something “a poor man’s X” is necessarily an insult as such. I think it’s more in the vein of calling a very very very hard problem “non-trivial”. Putting aside that it was Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google who said this, computer geeks are notorious for calling things like there are, without giving much thought to how their comments might be perceived (in social terms).

  8. First, I fully agree that context can be a very important consideration in accurately communicated the intended meaning of a quote. Reputable journalists will work in the context, if one exists. “Your check’s in the mail” he joked.

    What Eric Schmidt said may have been more in the category of a Freudian slip. It was both sexist, for he did not say poor “person’s”, and it implied that Twitter was somehow inferior to email systems available to the wealthy who were in the audience. Thus, his words spoke volumes of being, at best, insensitive to our current economic hard times.

    Now Schmidt, obviously, is a very smart fellow. Why would he be uttering anything with overtones of sexist and/or implying linkage to the rapidly broadening socio-economic division – even to a “good ole boy network?”

    I suggest that Schmidt’s downplaying Twitter’s significance by risking his computer science/engineering cred, must be more of a tactical slight, than a reasoned, engineering-based opinion.

    Therefore, I can only conclude: For Google, the negotiations for Twitter have begun.

    In a recent post here I opined that what’s good for Google is good for America. Upon further thought, including 2 Google-related events I learned of today, I’m now of the opinion that what’s good for America – and the world, is an independent, free Twitter.

  9. If the “poor man’s email” utterance was straightforward and at face value it betrays an astounding cluelessness. If he had some other agenda and was positioning for a clever move the depth of it escapes me… But I’m not claiming to be as smart as Mr Schmidt.

    Ev Williams OTOH is certainly a match, and his dealings with Google give him the perspective to find more shades of meaning in Eric’s words than any of us.

  10. I think the “poor man’s e-mail” line was thrown out as bait. He’s not talking about the users, but the Twitter service – indeed he goes on to suggest ways that companies like Twitter would “evolve”, essentially hinting that if Twitter is going to basically have to incorporate a bigger featureset if it plans to make money (and, if it doesn’t evolve, then it’ll go extinct).

    Looks like something of a troll to try to drag out some details of the “top-secret business model”. Your own analogy John about Twitter being like YouTube – a search asset that Google can’t afford to be without – seems to apply.

  11. Very good post.

    Schmidt has a long history of choosing his words very carefully, sometimes deceptively, so his comments about Twitter should not be seen necessarily as a measure of what he thinks.

    Marissa (we don’t refer to other Google execs by their first names as often as we do her) has always seemed more interested in her public persona than is the case for other senior Googlers, such as Schmidt, Rosenberg, Brin, Page, etc.

  12. I find it interesting that he would choose to equate Twitter with email. Seems to me that these are two very different communications modules. Well, may not I guess it could be the poor mans SPAM? But SPAM is already a poor man’s food.

    Are there not occasions where sending a true email would be appropriate? I can’t imagine a “downsizing” tweet. Laid off in 140 characters? What a drag, dude.

  13. When you talk about ‘bubbles’ I’m reminded that Google itself is a ‘bubble’. When the company is purchased/overwhelmed into another, the personality of it disappears. I would once have loved to work for Rolm, but after IBM bought it, no.
    I appreciated the information about the NYTimes article, I’d read it, but to me it came across really oddly. Your notes explain some of that.

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