I'm Feeling Lucky: the Confessions of Google Employee Number 59

What was it like to know Larry and Sergey in the company's early days?

I'm Feeling Lucky: the Confessions of Google Employee Number 59
Douglas Edwards
Allen Lane, 432pp, £20

Perhaps I've been seduced by The Social Network into thinking that the story of every tech start-up should be an epic struggle involving clashing egos and sullen geniuses. Office rivalries, marketing meetings and arguments about fonts are never going to have the same allure.

And so it was on page 28 of I'm Feeling Lucky that I realised Doug Edwards and I might have rather different opinions on what constitutes an exciting book about the early days of Google. Here is the paragraph that did it: "'As of last night, Google's result font has become sans-serif,' engineer Marissa Mayer announced to the company at large. 'We tested the change and Larry and I reviewed it with some other engineers who were here and offered opinions about it.'" A heated discussion ensues about the way in which the engineers -- Google's hyperkinetic worker bees -- have once again forged forwards, ignoring Doug's cooler head.

To be fair, I'm Feeling Lucky doesn't aspire to be a warts-and-all portrayal of life at Google. Edwards clearly feels loyal to the company that rescued him from being a marketing manager at a struggling local newspaper, introduced him to a whiplash-smart set of geeks and made him a very rich man.

The book covers the mid-section of Google's ascent: Edwards joined as its 59th employee in 1999 and left six years later when the company went public, which made many of its staff instant millionaires. If there is an arc to the narrative -- it sometimes feels more like a string of hard-fought battles, often against his bête noire, Marissa -- it is the account of how Google "grew up".

When Edwards went for his job interview, the company's co-founder Sergey Brin, then 26, turned up wearing gym gear and inline skates. Another early employee, he records, was interviewed on Hallowe'en as "Sergey, attired in a full-size cow suit, absent-mindedly stroked his rubber udder".

The office, or "Googleplex", was similarly free and easy. There were free meals in the cramped staff canteen, free massages from on-site therapists and a notable absence of job titles and hierarchy. But over time, as Google won ever bigger contracts to supply search for the likes of Yahoo and AOL, the playfulness got squeezed to the margins. In 2001, Brin and his "twin" Larry Page, who had written Google's original search algorithm together while still at Stanford University, took on a Wall Street-friendly heavy hitter, Eric Schmidt, to be their public face and to transmit their commands to the workforce. A painful reorganisation followed, which left many engineers nursing grievances (or redundancy notices).

As Edwards tells it, Google's rise to world dominance was never seriously in jeopardy but there were missteps along the way. Remember Froogle? Few people do and it has now been rebranded as Google Product Search. Then there was Orkut, a prototype social network developed by one of the firm's engineers in his “20 per cent" -- the fifth of the week that workers were allowed to devote to pet projects. Conceived around the same time as Mark Zuckerberg was annoying the Winklevoss twins with a little website called the Facebook, Orkut was launched without a full workover by the company and users soon began to find ways to spam each other. It was big in Brazil and India but flopped everywhere else. (A similar fate awaited the company's next stab at social media, Buzz, but that hasn't stopped it having another go with Google+, this time throwing its full technical weight behind the project.)

Although Edwards rarely says so explicitly, it is clear that his relationship with Page and Brin became more distant as the years went on, which can give the disconcerting impression that there's a better book happening somewhere just down the corridor. The co-founders are fascinating and elusive: you are left with the impression of two hugely talented workaholics, perpetually bemused that human behaviour isn't as simple and easy to predict as their beloved algorithms. This shows in the debates over privacy. Even though Edwards left before the company ran into a storm over Street View (which stored people's wifi network data), he weathered the outcry over targeted advertising and Gmail, which both involved using huge amounts of personal information in pursuit of revenue.

By the time the company was ready to go public, Edwards's role had been marginalised and reduced to almost nothing. He decided to leave, had an exit interview "with an HR staffer I had never met before" and found himself at the supermarket a week later, realising that his newfound wealth meant he no longer had to buy whichever ice cream was on sale (he's since set up a blog for "Xooglers" -- ex-Googlers).

As marketing manager, Edwards was always against Google publicising its "Don't be evil" motto, arguing that the words would be used as a stick with which to beat it every time it did something controversial. But at the end of the book, he insists that it isn't the frightening behemoth its critics would like us to think. Google obsessives and marketers will want to read I'm Feeling Lucky to learn how an unorthodox company communicated with the world in its early years but there is too much emphasis on meetings and minutiae to make it appealing to general readers. With a heavy irony, what this book about the world's best search engine needs is a better filtering system, to find the nuggets of interest amid the humdrum.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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