Years ago I worked for Jann Wenner, the legendary founder of Rolling Stone. On one of my first days on the job, Jann came by, and while he was talking to me about a project, he reached for a box of chocolates he spotted on my desk (a kind former colleague had sent the box to congratulate me on my new gig). Jann riffled through the chocolates and popped one in his mouth. A minute later, another. And then a little later, another.
He did this without interrupting the flow of our conversation or bothering with a nicety along the lines of, "Those look good! Can I have one?" My chocolates were his chocolates, apparently, by default. It was a surreal but amusing moment, and I confess to being strangely impressed by his audacity, his unashamed voraciousness. Later, when I told a coworker about what had happened, he said, basically, "Oh yeah, Jann is known for grazing. Wenner Media is his kingdom -- everything in it is his. Just don't leave any food out on your desk if you think Jann might be coming by."
Fast forward to 2010. I don't know a lot of print-media types anymore who have Jann's breathtaking sense of entitlement (though I'm sure Jann still has his). The quasi-monopoly power, the lock on their markets, that certain magazines and especially newspapers long enjoyed is gone, of course. That's true across most forms of media in the age of content disintermediation; even network broadcasters and bombastic Hollywood types have been hobbled -- and somewhat humbled.
But the launch of Google Buzz this month had me thinking of Jann and my chocolates. For years, Google had us convinced that it would behave ethically ("Don't be evil") as it aimed to fulfill its corporate mission: "To organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." It was a search company, it insisted, and though it might dabble in other areas, it would remain primarily dedicated to search. Search was its kingdom -- everything in it was Google's -- and we were fine with that.
After all, Google deserved it; it earned the keys to the kingdom by reinventing search.
But read between the lines of Google's corporate mission, and suddenly all of the company's recent actions -- including its decision to become a social-media player, to take on Facebook with Google Buzz -- make perfect sense. Basically, in the Information Economy, Google pretty much feels entitled to eat just about anyone's lunch. (And/or chocolates.) If you're in a line of business that's at all connected to information, Google wants in on your action.
In January, I wrote about the fact that Google was effectively declaring its intent to officially become a media company in making a bid for local-listings site Yelp. (In doing so, Google, which has historically tried to position itself as nothing more than a benevolent partner to newspaper publishers via Google News, set it sights all the more on newspapers' bedrock revenue source: the local advertising market.) Google also directly entered the consumer-electronics business with its Nexus One phone; no longer is it content to merely offer information-organizing software in the form of its mobile OS Android -- now it wants to "kill the iPhone" (as Steve Jobs reportedly put it at a company town hall that Wired infiltrated ). Google's also said to be set to enter the tablet market, with what's already being dubbed an "iPad killer." (That should be a nice platform for, among other things, the e-books it plans to sell, not to mention the 1.5-plus million public-domain books it already offers through Google Books.) Selling its own hardware direct, by the way, means that Google has simultaneously entered a whole new realm: It's now an e-tailer. Meanwhile, with its suite of Google Apps and its cloud-computing infrastructure, Google already has its "Office killer." Add up the demonstrable ambitions in this paragraph alone -- just the tip of the iceberg -- and Google wants to be your newspaper company, Apple, Amazon, Best Buy and Microsoft.
Now, don't get me wrong: For the most part, I still love Google. I'm a fan of a good number of its products, and I like the way that it responded rapidly to privacy concerns within days of launching Google Buzz; it listened to users, owned up to making mistakes, and tweaked the product. Despite loud gripes here and there, most of us, I'd venture to say, still generally admire Google and its products. But in setting its sights on more and more businesses we never imagined it would enter, Google is testing the limits of our collective affection.
Especially since, in acting on its vast ambitions, it's increasingly clear that it has a killer app of a weapon at its disposal: It now seems fine with using its lock on our collective mindshare, thanks to its monopoly on search, to give its own products preferred placement in cyberspace. The company, for instance, has advertised both its Nexus phone and its Chrome browser on its previously sacrosanct home page. It launched Buzz not as a product you might or might not want to check out, but as a fait accompli: Suddenly it was right there in your Gmail, impossible to ignore.
For now, most of us are pretty much like, "Um, sure, Google, as long as you keep giving me great stuff in return, you can eat the chocolates off my desk. Just not the whole box!" (Though clearly Google wants the whole box.) We still trust in Google today, but what about tomorrow? What about when Larry and Sergey are gone? What about when its stock price drops and growth becomes more important than the "Don't be evil" mantra?
Imagine a Google no longer content with grazing far and wide across its kingdom and starting to really throw its weight around. I'm not talking about Jann Wenner with a bit of chocolate on his chin. I'm picturing Daniel Day-Lewis's Daniel Plainview character in "There Will Be Blood" bellowing, "I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!"
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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.