inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #0 of 52: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 1 Feb 12 12:42
It's our pleasure to welcome longtime WELL member Steven Levy to
Inkwell. He'll be discussing his book, _In the Plex: How Google
Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives_. Steven is a senior writer for
Wired, the former chief technology correspondent for Newsweek and the
author of six other books. Washington Post describes him as “American’s
premier technology journalist - a Silicon Valley insider who writes
for the rest of us on the outside.”

_In The Plex_ has been a New York Times bestseller and is considered
the definitive word on the search giant. It was chosen by
as the Best Business Book of 20112. A recipient of numerous awards,
Levy has written for many publications including the New York Times
Sunday Magazine, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, and Esquire. He wrote
The Technologist column for Newsweek, and the Iconoclast column for
Macworld.   He has been a Japan Society Fellow and a Fellow at the
Freedom Forum Media Studies Center. Before he covered technology, he
wrote about music, crime, sports and culture, and once made headlines
by finding Albert Einstein’s brain in a cardboard box in Wichita,

We're all going to find Steven Levy's brain, and a great discussion
about all things Google, here in Inkwell.vue over the next two weeks.
Jon Lebkowsky leads the discussion. Jon is an author, activist, and
technoculture maven who writes about the future of the Internet,
digital culture, media, and society. He’s been  ssociated with various
projects and organizations, including FringeWare, Whole Earth,
WorldChanging, Mondo 2000, bOING bOING, Factsheet Five, the WELL, the
Austin Chronicle, EFF-Austin, Society of Participatory Medicine,
Extreme Democracy, Digital Convergence Initiative, Plutopia
Productions, Polycot Consulting, Social Web Strategies, and Project
VRM. Jon also works as a an Internet strategist, consultant, and
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #1 of 52: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 1 Feb 12 12:45
Steven, welcome to Inkwell. Over the next two weeks, we hope to learn
everything there is to kmow about Google!

You obviously got pretty far inside the door at Google headquarters.
Can you say a bit about how you first connected with the Google
founders, and what your relationship has been over the years?
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #2 of 52: Steven Levy (steven) Wed 1 Feb 12 13:11
Thank, Jon, and it's great to be back at the Well -- I was there from
the beginning and then drifted to, where I am also known as
"steven."  I had great times at the Well and am delighted to
participate in this discussion here.

I first met Larry and Sergey in October 1999 (they were in Halloween
costumes) when I visited the HQ seeking to find out just who had
created this amazing search engine.  Over the next few years I covered
Google a lot for Newsweek, and got to know the people pretty well, and
I think the Google folk felt that I "got" what they were about. That's
why, I assume, that they gave me the extraordinary access that enabled
me to write In the Plex the way I hoped.  Basically I could talk to
anybody (in theory subject could refuse, but almost no one did), and I
was able to sit in on a lot of interesting meetings, including the
big-deal GPS (Google Product Strategy) sessions that were then the most
vaunted sessions for decision-making.  (My favorite was the Search
Quality Launch meeting, where changes to the flagship product were
trotted out for thumbs up or down.) I also could follow some product
development in progress for products like Chrome.

I don't think it would have happened it we hadn't developed a mutual
trust.  But of course Google's own interest was being more transparent
as it found itself more and more in the sites of critics and

My relationship with Google is still good, and in fact I'm working on
a couple of stories now with Google angles.  The really nice thing is
that new employees often stop me on campus and tell me that the info in
my book helped them get through the still-rigorous hiring process.
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #3 of 52: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 1 Feb 12 13:26
Larry Page and Sergey Brin strike me as an unconventional pair, as
businessmen and as tech collaobrators. What's their relationship like?
How did they find each other, and how do they fit together?
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #4 of 52: Steven Levy (steven) Thu 2 Feb 12 06:53
Larry and Sergey met as grad students, and thought their first meeting
was rocky, they eventually became good friends.  They shared a world
view where smart algorithms applied to huge masses of data--like the
Web-could change the world.  Both were from academic families.  Both
are very self-assured -- enough to believe that their approach to
business and technology is superior to business as usual.  That
self-assurance allows both to be comfortable being goofy sometimes. 

Larry is the more hard-driving of the two.  He's more inward and wary,
and a little more ruthless in decision making. He was always
predestined to be the CEO.  Sergey is OK with this, and since Larry
took over, he has felt free to pursue long-range projects and is
liberated by a much looser schedule. 

Their personal lives also track very weirdly as both got married and
had kids in the same timeframe. 
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #5 of 52: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 2 Feb 12 07:23
How did their friendship evolve into a founding partnership for
Google? What led them to search as their focus? Did they have a grander
vision, early on?
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #6 of 52: Steven Levy (steven) Thu 2 Feb 12 08:21
I get into this in detail in my book, but basically both were
floundering around for projects that could evolve in a dissertation and
both were working as researchers in an ongoing NSF-funded Digital
Library program at Stanford.  Larry got the idea of using web links to
annotate web pages and then realized the idea worked better for search.
 Sergey provided the math.  Soon after they realized they had a
terrific search engine, they began thinking of collecting organizing
all the world's information, a mission they announced when they got
funding for the company in 1998.
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #7 of 52: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 2 Feb 12 11:28
The real power of Google vs other search engines is in its ability to
assess relevance using the Page Rank algorithm, named for Larry Page,
who dreamed it up. You say in the book that this occurred to him, as an
academic, noting that the quality of academic papers is normally
assessed by the number of cites referencing a specific paper - a paper
with a lot of cites is presumed to be more authorative. Did they
realize right away how valuable this algorithm would be? Or did it take
time to sink in?
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #8 of 52: Steven Levy (steven) Thu 2 Feb 12 11:41
Early on it was clear that their approach was very powerful, and that
Google search (the engine was originally dubbed BackRub when it was
still a student project) was superior to the current offerings, so much
so that it was a phase shift that could change the web itself.  That's
what gave them the confidence to start a company -- after Larry and
Sergey first tried to sell the technology to companies like Yahoo and
Excite.  Those portals thought that good search would be a negative,
drawing people away from their site.  Larry and Sergey understood by
then that search could be the basis of a company, and they turned out
to be right. 
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #9 of 52: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 2 Feb 12 14:34
I chuckled to read in your book that Google's technology was rejected
by other companies because it was too good. You have quite a bit of
detailed history of Google's first wobbly steps leading to more stable,
confident growth of the phenomenon that we see today. The world has
been changing as Google has grown into a force approaching the original
vision of managing and making meaningful all the world's information.
Despite its "do no evil" pronouncement, many are suspicious of Google,
concerned that it is too powerful, with a power that could too easily
be misused. Within the last few days Google has published a revised
privacy policy. Do you think the new policy is a net positive or
negative for Google? Consider the following, from a Microsoft ad:

"Google is in the midst of making some unpopular changes to some of
their most popular products. Those changes, cloaked in language like
“transparency,” “simplicity,” and “consistency,” are really about one
thing: making it easier for Google to connect the dots between
everything you search, send, say or stream while using one of their

"But, the way they’re doing it is making it harder for you to maintain
control of your personal information. Why are they so interested in
doing this that they would risk this kind of backlash? One logical
point: Every data point they collect and connect to you increases how
valuable you are to an advertiser."
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #10 of 52: Steven Levy (steven) Thu 2 Feb 12 15:15
I think that Microsoft is perhaps not the more reliable critic of
Google.  Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land has deconstructed its
criticisms and concludes that pretty much everything Google claims for
itself, Microsoft reserves the right to do also. (Microsoft's privacy
policies are much less readable than Google's.)  As a user I would
prefer that Microsoft's energies go into improving its products and not
trying to get other companies regulated. 

That said, the new Google privacy policy is complicated.  On one hand
it is simpler -- squeezing together many policies instead of one for
each product.  Google also is being transparent in saying that the
reason is that it wants to make use of information from mulitiple
products to improve the overall experience and also to serve "better"

I really do believe it is the former that is the driving force. 
Google believes that its future lies in better, deeper, more
personalized search, and mining your data (not to share with others but
exploit in your Google activities like search) will enable it to do
so.    The problem is that there's a creepiness factor to it.  (Google,
btw, HATES it when people describe its practices with the c-word.) It
underlies how much stuff Google has on us, and it's powerful to see all
that in action.  

Google wants us reassured by knowing that when it uses information
from, say, Gmail or Docs to produce better search results, that only
our own searches will be affected  No outsiders get to see the
information.  But I think that Google has underestimated how nervous
people are about the company, especially after the recent Search Plus
Your World intro which we can discuss in a later post. 
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #11 of 52: Gary Greenberg (gberg) Thu 2 Feb 12 16:16
Well, as I understand it, which may not be much, at some point we have
to trust google to do (or not do) what they say they will do (or not
do) with the information they gather from us. I don't have to not trust
them or think they are evil to worry about this or to find it
unsettling, if not creepy. And I think it's possible that they don't
entirely understand why we are nervous, which just makes me more
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #12 of 52: Steven Levy (steven) Thu 2 Feb 12 16:27
That's the key point, Gary.  Time and again Google says that it is
dependent on winning our trust.  That's why aggressiveness in pushing
what Google considers improvements can be risky.   Some of those
changes push us out of our comfort zone.
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #13 of 52: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 2 Feb 12 20:12
How does Facebook fit into the equation. Is Google's attempt to create
a more unified user experience a response to perceived coherence of
the Facebook experience?
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #14 of 52: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 2 Feb 12 20:14
Some housekeeping:

The full link to this discussion is

Here's a shorter link:

If you're following this discussion and have a comment or question,
and you're not a member of the WELL, you can send an email to inkwell
at, and the Inkwell hosts will ost your comment or question
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #15 of 52: Virtual Sea Monkey (karish) Fri 3 Feb 12 09:12
Population growth of the Internet is much faster now on mobile devices
than it is on traditional computers.  How do you think Google's dominance
and Google's strategies will change in response to this?
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #16 of 52: J. Eric Townsend (jet) Fri 3 Feb 12 09:22
>at some point we have to trust google to do (or not do) what they s

Or ask the government to regulate them as needed.  Ask Robert Bork
about his video rental history before and after the VPPA.
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #17 of 52: Steven Levy (steven) Fri 3 Feb 12 10:26
Jon, the new Google initiative has a lot to do with Facebook.  After a
number of failed efforts in the social space, Google realized that it
was vital to build up that component of itself.  So it came up with a
plan to remake Google itself into a social space, beginning with what
we now know of as Google+.  Once Larry became CEO he typically applied
his approach of super-sizing the issue, and now is trumpeting "One
Google," an idea which combines the Google-as-social idea and expands
it to a concept where all of Google's services worth together.  

As you note, Facebook is itself a single service.  They already have
just one privacy policy, even though you can use Facebook as a photo
site, a communications site and a music site, etc.
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #18 of 52: Steven Levy (steven) Fri 3 Feb 12 10:30
Sea Monkey, clearly Google recognizes the importance of mobile.   You
can argue that the smartest move in its post-search history was the
purchase of Android, which at the time was seen as just another shot in
the dark for a disorganized enterprise plagued with corporate ADD.
Where would Google be now without such a prominent mobile platform?

Not much has been said about this, but Google+ had a well-produced
mobile component from the get-go.  We can see this as a sign that
Google will try to build mobile into its stuff from here on in.
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #19 of 52: Gary Greenberg (gberg) Fri 3 Feb 12 16:12
I don't see any need to help google in this. I mean, I appreciate its
help in searching and so on, but I would rather pay them in money to
leave me alone than pay them in personal information that they can then
sell. So a few questions:

1. Why don't they offer that service? Or am I the only idiot who would
pay for osmething that is available for free if it helps me maintain
my privacy and anonymity. 

2. I use google anonymously, at least to the extent that I don't sign
in or use gmail or igoogle or google+ or any of that. I gather that it
still tracks and aggregates and uses the info from my searches based on
my ip address. Is that right? If so, does that mean that different
computers will hve different profiles, based on whatever diferent uses
I'vge put them to.

3. Isn't there a way to keep changing ip addresses in ordre to prevent
all this amassing of data?
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #20 of 52: Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Fri 3 Feb 12 18:26
Yes, there are ways, but they're not especially convenient.

Charging money for anonymity doesn't make a whole lot of sense, given
that they then have your credit card information. But it's not
necessary because you can do it for free.

IP addresses aren't all that useful for tracking people unless the ISP
cooperates or you've given away other information about yourself
somehow (which is easy to do). If you're worried about it, probably the
easiest way to cover your tracks is to find a coffee shop and use
someone else's WiFi connection.

You could also use a proxy server or TOR if you're especially
paranoid, but that requires more setup.
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #21 of 52: Steven Levy (steven) Fri 3 Feb 12 20:55
If you have the energy to go through some paces, it's pretty easy to
use Google anonymously.  Don't log in, and wipe the cookies after you
use it.  Poof. 

The action in all these products is in the default settings.  A big
majority of users don't change defaults.  

Google really wants to know who you are because it now feels that's a
key to delivering you better results.   Also better ads, but the former
is more important to Google.  If you are happier in search, you will
use Google more.  That's good for Google.  And you will see more search
ads.   That's where Google still makes the bulk of its money.
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #22 of 52: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 3 Feb 12 21:43
Google seemed all over the map with acquisitions and initiatves for a
while, then Eric Schmidt left the role of CEO and and, now under Larry
Page's leadership, the company started focusing. Can we draw a
conclusion that Schmidt didn't know how to focus the company, and
that's why his role changed? Or is there a more complex story behind
the transition and the changes that have followed?
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #23 of 52: Steven Levy (steven) Mon 6 Feb 12 12:38
Probably more the latter.  Look, Eric took over when the company was
fairly tiny and grew it to the giant it is now.   I also don't know if
you can tie it directly to Eric that the company's efforts seemed so
diffuse in the last couple of years.  We do know that Eric was shackled
by a management structure of a troika -- the big decisions would be
determined by him and the two founders.  That means that when Eric
thought Google should go one way, and the founders thought otherwise,
he'd be overruled.  (This happened in determining what whether Google
should stop censoring in China.)    

Larry, as CEO, doesn't seem so constrained.  Google says it's still a
troika, but clearly he is operating with autonomy on big decisions that
Eric didn't have.  This is great when it comes to focus--but maybe not
so great when Google pushes so aggressively in things like Search Plus
Your World (the new search protocol that gets a lot of Google+ in
search results).
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #24 of 52: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 6 Feb 12 21:30
How do you see Google's business strategy now, in the Page era? How
has it changed?
inkwell.vue.433 : Steven Levy, In the (Google)Plex
permalink #25 of 52: Ari Davidow (ari) Tue 7 Feb 12 09:08
More than any other SaaS vendor, Google exemplifies "we're not supporting 
this; if you're not bright enough, use something else." I don't think I 
have used products or services from any other vendor where I have more 
frequently found myself with a problem preventing use of the service, no one 
to contact, no FAQ or help file that covers my particular problem, and no 
where to go.

I'm not sure if this is a reflection of an overall culture change 
(support staff don't seem to exist in a growing number of companies), or 
that culture change coupled with an inability to make things that work 
for people who think differently from the programmers, or something else. 

I am wondering if this manifested itself in any way in your own 
encounters with the company.


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