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My Secret Romance

I have a confession to make. I am in love with a monopolistic corporation. Devoted to it. Way beyond brand loyalty.

This does not fit my image of myself. As a general rule, I like the little guy, the local business, the family farm. I try to avoid wearing corporate logos (except for that one Peeps® baseball cap, but that’s an inside joke having to do with civil disobedience outside the World Bank, so it doesn’t count). I think the problem with an unregulated free- market system is that there’s not enough competition. (Note to both Bush and the Democrats screaming at him about gas prices: OPEC is what happens in an unregulated free market.)

But here’s the dirty truth: If the Google logo were as pervasive as the Nike “swoosh,” I probably wouldn’t bat an eye. My closet would be among the most guilty.

Google doesn’t feel like a company to me, in roughly the same way the characters on Friends don’t seem like actors to the true fan. Google is more a like public utility, roughly akin to the municipal water system.

I turn to Google for nearly everything: tracking down old friends, checking breaking news, background research. When I was Webmastering, I optimized the sites I managed only for Google’s algorithm. If I’ve only got lima beans and barley and it’s an hour until dinner, I guarantee you in five minutes my laptop will be perched on the microwave with a new recipe up (search on “barley lima beans recipe”) and my cookbooks not having been touched at all.

As with any romance, I can easily sing the praises of my beloved. Compared with Alta Vista in 1998 (the last time I have ever used a different search engine for anything), Google’s results are 50 million times more relevant, speedy, and well-ranked. The page has no infuriating blinking, hopping, screaming ads, or irrelevant clutter. I can tell the actual results from the ad results, which are even useful occasionally.

But there comes a point in most relationships where your blind devotion is challenged by outside information that implies that you’ve had a few delusions going on. Like any good lover, my reaction has been swift and unequivocal:

To the rash of articles critiquing Google and its growing ubiquity, including the one from Mediabistro that chastised journalists for relying on it too much: Y’all are just full of sour grapes. Don’t blame Google for the fact that some lazy-ass journalists think that the number of hits returned for a celebrity’s name is a meaningful number. So there are “Googleholes”: So a search for “apple” returns a bunch of stuff about superior virus-resistant computers, and not much about fruit. Didn’t anyone ever teach you to search creatively? Duh . . . “apple trees” “apple varieties” . . . It’s not so hard. They’re doing the best they can. I’ll bet you couldn’t write a search algorithm to find your own toes.

To Microsoft’s brief flirtation with buying Google, which said it would rather do an IPO: (After my heart rate returned to normal from its brief panic from misreading the headline and thinking Microsoft had bought Google). Ha ha. Gates, you sleazy lech. What made you think Google would be interested in you? Google’s way too cool for that. The nerve of you to even ask! (Right, honey? Why did you even talk with them anyway?)

To the new Yahoo! search engine: Whatever. Yahoo! can’t compete. Laughable. Who would want to go there? Eeewwww. Distracting, ugly, lame. Get over it. I’m never leaving my search engine for a blockhead like you, no matter how popular you are.

To Google-bombing, the process where people start a campaign to link to a certain page with certain link text, so as to make that page come up on top of a Google search for that text: How can you complain about a search for “miserable failure” turning up the White House biography of W., or about sex columnist Dan Savage’s redefinition of “santorum” being locked in a death struggle with the senator’s official site for top place? OK, OK. I know that the fact that people I agree with can Google-bomb means that Google is flawed, vulnerable, and subject to such attacks by others with whom I disagree (indeed, Jimmy Carter comes in second now under “miserable failure,” and Michael Moore is third). Yeah, yeah, it should make me suspicious of Google results in general. Chill. Work with me here. Google-bombing just goes to show that far from being just a company, Google is an extension of the public square (cue violins), where the battle for the country’s heart and soul continues.

Do you think I protest too much? Probably. There’s always, eventually, the painful realization that relying on one person/search engine (no, I’m not personifying too much, leave me alone) for all your needs is generally a bad idea, even if you decide to pick a favorite. (Yes this means you, newlyweds.) It’s time for me to let go of the defensiveness. The following is entirely in the service of my own relationship therapy. Any of you out there in the same boat are welcome to repeat after me:

Google will change. It will not do so with my wishes in mind. As the recent redesign and addition of the questionably useful “Froogle” (it’s not like you didn’t get shopping options on regular Google) has firmly taught me, I cannot rely forever on having kinetic memory of exactly where the Google News link is.

Google is not perfect. Much as it deeply chagrins me to credit the New York Post for anything, its recent column about a scam artist whose firing for dishonesty from one of his jobs could be found with a search on his name on other search engines, but not on Google (which turned up nothing suspicious for him), is a pretty solid blow to my vision of Google supremacy.

Google is a corporation. Google is a corporation. Google is a corporation. Just this week it has proposed to scan the content of messages in its new Gmail service to target advertising. This portends dramatically greater creepiness and corporateness, despite the founders’ assertion that they’re “not going over to the dark side.” No matter how geeky they are, the goal is really to make money; once it goes public, it will have no choice. Maximizing shareholder value becomes the law. Sigh.

I’m not breaking up with Google just yet. But I think it may be time to open the relationship. As long as I don’t have to turn to Yahoo!.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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