I fought the Google, and the Google won: the Genesis of PolEcon.net

Apologies to the Clash, the Bobby Fuller Four, and especially Sonny Curtis and The Crickets. • Since 2007, I’ve maintained a little blog, formerly known as PolEconAnalysis.org. It’s gone. You are at its successor, PolEcon.net. You’re reading this, so you’ve arrived here. Welcome. A little explanation is in order.

Blogging is almost free. In the case of this blog, it has been hosted from 2007 to the present, at no charge, at Blogger.com. To give it a recognizable handle, I decided to pay $10 a year for the domain name “PolEconAnalysis.org.” That’s it. Self-publishing has become really possible and really accessible.

However, that domain has to be renewed once a year and, well, I forgot. Life sometimes does interfere with commentary. The attempt to fix the error took me deep into the bowels of the Corporate Internet. It was an interesting trip.

First challenge – find a live person. You won’t (or at least I couldn’t). There is apparently no landline. Emails remain unanswered. Help sites are better labeled “unhelp” sites. One told me to contact the web-hoster GoDaddy, the company which manages domain names for Blogger. I got hopeful. GoDaddy has a landline. I reached a person. He was very sympathetic. But he couldn’t help.

“Sorry. You didn’t buy direct from us. You need to contact Blogger.”

“But Blogger said to contact you.”

“Sorry.”

Next mistake – wait a week. At the end of that fateful week, the issue was no longer GoDaddy. My old domain opened up into another person’s blog – a dummy blog with no content – but a blog nonetheless. I got worried. I went back to GoDaddy. At least they had a landline.

“Tell me what’s happening, please.” They took pity.

“I’ll check,” said the fine young man on the phone.

The results of his research? “It’s a live domain, sir. Someone else owns it.”

I got scared. I had been pirated. My old domain gathered into the arms of a domain name harvester. I went back to the old domain. It was even worse. The pirate who purchased it had stolen my blog summary, “analysis and commentary with a political economy slant.” This was a disaster. How much would it cost to buy it back? Probably more than $10. Maybe I could sue? Maybe I could get a loan? Maybe I could get one of those six-month zero-interest credit card deals? Maybe I could get a home equity line of credit?

Then I got angry. I had really stepped into it, and was mired in the unsavoury underbelly of the world of intellectual property, and about to become a victim of someone else’s attempt at scamming a bit of money. It’s just a name. Who cares? Start over. Ten dollars later, I was the owner of PolEcon.net, a little humbler, a little wiser, and with a little work to do to re-establish connection with folks who read these articles.

Then, I got curious. What are the contours of this vortex into which I had been drawn? What is this company with unhelpful help sites and no landlines? Probably a shoestring operation. Probably unable to afford landlines. Probably living hand to mouth.

That might have been the case a few years ago. Back in 1999, a San Francisco company called Pyra Labs, launched Blogger. Pyra was made up of “three friends … trying to make our own grand entrance onto the Internet landscape … we created Blogger, more or less on a whim.” These three friends carried on through the dot-com boom at the turn of the last century, and “then the bust happened, and we ran out of money” (Blogger). So bad was the bust, that the entire staff was laid off in late 2000. That would explain the absence of a landline.

Except a little cash came to the rescue. In 2003, for an undisclosed amount of money, Pyra Labs was purchased by Google, and Blogger became part of the growing Google empire (McIntosh 2003).

But then, at the time, using the word “empire” was a little bit of a stretch. Google itself only filed for incorporation in 1998 (Google). I heard about it first from my late father-in-law, who called me into his study: “Paul Kellogg. Have you heard about this thing called ‘Google’?” I hadn’t. I listened patiently, but concluded that it was little more than a novelty, or a party trick.

Many agreed. When Google purchased Blogger, there were quite a few sceptics. The only source of revenue for a search engine like Google, is from advertisements, and a common opinion voiced at the time was that “advertising doesn’t support many dot-com Web sites.” The author of that analysis, writing at the time of Google’s purchase of Blogger in 2003, worried that “Google may be stepping down that well-trodden portal path” and asked: “Five years from now, will googling be just an answer to a trivia question” (Morochove 2003)?

The unease did not go away quickly. In 2004, Google decided to “go public,” selling shares in itself through an Initial Public Offering (IPO). In the run-up to the IPO, there was lots of negativity. In August, 2004, one writer commented that “one big brokerage house has already pulled out of the highly anticipated public offering, and many more are grumbling about the large workload and low margins” (Martinez 2004).

Google did, in fact, stumble out of the gate. Originally hoping to sell 25.7 million shares, it had to drop that figure to 19.6 million. It had to cut the cost per share drastically, from a range of $108 to $135 a share, to a range of just $85 to $95. As a result, instead of the hoped for take of $3.6-billion (U.S.), the Google owners were going to have to settle for a mere $1.86-billion (McCarthy 2004).

But don’t shed a tear for poor little Google. The chart here tells the story. August 19, 2004, a share in Google was worth $102.37. That price rose to $280, August 19, 2005; $383.36, August 19, 2006; $500.04, August 19, 2007; and soaring to a high of $741.79, November 7, 2007. It was pulled down to earth during the recession of 2008-2009, share prices falling to $292.96 by November 3, 2008. But February 1, 2012, Google shares were back up to $604.64 (Yahoo! Finance 2012a), giving Google Inc. an enterprise value of $159.48 billion and a market capitalization of $196.6 billion. It had annual revenue of $37.9 billion, gross profit of $24.72 billion, net income of $9.74 billion with $43.33 billion of cash on hand (Capital IQ 2012).

It seems that Google (and Blogger) could actually afford a landline. Maybe they are hesitant about installing one because, once you start to hire people, some of that net revenue might just disappear. Or maybe the new economy is not just about the Internet. Maybe the new economy is also about replacing people with computers and machines (although to be fair, Google does employ 32,467 full-time employees) (Yahoo! Finance 2012b).

How do do they make all that money? That question is answered with just one word – advertising. In 2010 and 2011, advertising comprised fully 96% of Google’s revenues. In 2009, that figure was 97% (Google Inc. 2011, 10). And as is well known, this is “targeted advertising,” shaped to the individual user through the masses of data Google has gathered about us, and our Internet-browsing habits.

They keep urging all of us in the blogging community to get in on the action. “Monetize your blog” they say. They will sculpt ads according to the information they glean from the articles written here, and the people who read them.

Could become a clearing-house for books on ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas), or maybe Joel Bakan’s film “The Corporation.” Maybe get a cut from sales of Frantz Fanon and W.E.B. Dubois. I wonder if there are ads ready to go for C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya? How’s the market for chachkas from Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Palestine?

No, no – this is not about money, it’s about “analysis and commentary with a political economy slant.” We’ll pick up the thread from last year’s conversations, and carry on.

And corporate or not, – it’s still only $10. I’ll do a little blogging, tell a few stories, and see who’s interested. It won’t be a problem to reconnect with former readers. I’ve got lots of email addresses, and I’ll send out a bunch of messages.

From my Gmail account, owned by Google.

Suppress that thought – return to the story. Please look at the Youtube videos, which appeared at the beginning of this article. The title of this blog entry is a rip-off from the title of a great song. The Clash version from 1979 is the one I knew. The original was from 20 years before that. The third version here, a reprise done in 2003, is just priceless.

Oh yes – Youtube is owned by Google, purchased October, 2006 for $1.65 billion (U.S.) (Thaw 2006).

Not to worry. I’ll bypass both Gmail and Youtube. I’ll do an end-run around Google. I’ll contact my Facebook friends, and we’ll all soon be back in touch. Facebook isn’t owned by Google. It’s owned by that 20-something guy in the U.S. They did a film about him.

Oh yes – Facebook is about to go public – rumours are it will be a $100 billion affair, and will instantly create 1,000 millionaires (Bensinger 2012).

Welcome to the Corporate Web.

© 2012 Paul Kellogg

References

Bensinger, Ken. 2012. “IPO to Create 1,000 Millionaires; Facebook Tiny Stake Pays Off Big Time for Workers.” The Gazette, February 12.

Blogger. “The Story of Blogger.” Blogger.com.

Capital IQ. 2012. “Google Inc. (GOOG), Key Statistics.” Yahoo! Finance.

Google. “Google History.” Google Company.

Google Inc. 2011. Form 10-K. Annual Report Pursuant to Section 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. United States Securities and Exchange Commission.

Martinez, Michael. 2004. “Google IPO Irks Wall Street.” The Ottawa Citizen, June 29.

McCarthy, Shawn. 2004. “Less-hopeful Google Slashes IPO Price, Cuts Share Supply.” The Globe and Mail, August 19.

McIntosh, Neil. 2003. “Google Buys Blogger Web Service.” The Guardian, February 18, sec. Business.

Morochove, Richard. 2003. “Will Search for Revenues Destroy Google?” The Toronto Star, March 10.

Thaw, Jonathan. 2006. “Google Buys YouTube for $1.65B U.S.” The Gazette, October 10.

Yahoo! Finance. 2012a. “Google Inc. (GOOG), Historical Prices.” Yahoo! Finance.

———. 2012b. “Google Inc. (GOOG), Profile.” Yahoo! Finance.

The case for deep writing

Letter to the Editor submitted to The Atlantic July 2, 2008 • Nicholas Carr says that Google is making us stupid.[1] The ubiquity of the Internet, he argues, is leading to a change in the habits of information acquisition, a change in the norms of information processing, and an accompanying change in the very structure of our way of thinking. The very strong implication of the article is that this is a “bad thing,” leading to the demise of what he calls “deep reading”. But deep reading requires its complement, deep writing – deep writing requires facts, and the article has, well, none. The handful of anecdotes at the beginning of the article do not so qualify. Neither does the cute story about Nietzsche and the typewriter. They make good journalism, good copy, but they do not make good research. And without facts, deep writing is close to impossible.

There is one part of the article that does, I think, provide an interesting “open door” to such deep writing. “The Internet” Carr writes is “becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and our TV.”[2] Think about the latter for a minute. Carr throughout is presuming a causal relationship between an increase in Internet reading and a decline in “deep reading” (the focused immersion in long articles, books, etc.). Perhaps, however, this is a false, very false, equation. Perhaps the Internet is not a step down from “deep reading” but a step up from channel surfing? That might be a very good thing, as there are many studies about that older medium – television – warning about its baneful effects on literacy.[3]

I go to the Internet, stopwatch in hand (an homage to the reference to Taylor in the article). Two minutes gone. I have a 2002 study by Norman H. Nie and Lutz Erbring (both at the time at Stanford University). “Internet and Society: A Preliminary Report” is worth some deep reading. It indicates that Internet use is cutting into time spent with friends and family, a shift that worries them. But it also concludes that “time on the Internet is coming out of time spent viewing television.”[4] Seen from this standpoint, the spread of the Internet might be seen as a quite positive development – the evolution, if you will, from “Happy Days” and “Rockford Files” to Google, Facebook and Email.

This has me suddenly engaged in what Carr cites (negatively) as “a form of skimming activity”[5] – to whit, wondering about the relationship between email (the Internet’s close cousin) and writing ability. This time it takes longer – three minutes – but the extra minute is worth it. I find an authority, Al Filreis, director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania, who, according to a 2005 Associated Press story, “thinks frequent e-mail improves writing: ‘To become a better writer, you have to write.’”[6]

But the central issue has yet to be broached – the connection, if any, between Internet use and deep reading. Let’s try a hypothesis – that book purchases are a good proxy for deep reading, and that a decline in deep reading would be made evident in a decline in book purchases. You might know where I’m going with this. If my city is anything like your city, one of the most interesting phenomena of the end of the last century and the beginning of this century has been the explosion of big box bookstores. There is also, of course, the Amazon.com explosion. There was also the near hysteria about the release of the latest Harry Potter book, and the interesting sight of millions of young (and old) engaged in what looked quite a lot like “deep reading.”

Can this be quantified? This time the stopwatch records twenty minutes of research – the information is a little more hidden. But then I have it – the U.S. Census Bureau provides information from 1992 to 2007 on sales from bookstores in the United States.[7] The following chart is the result.


What does it tell us? First, bookstore sales in the U.S. have doubled from 1992 to 2007, from just over $8 billion to just over $16 billion. Second, that growth has now flattened in the period 2004 to 2007. What can we conclude from this? Not very much. First the growth rate while real, needs to be qualified by both population increases and inflation. Second, the “flattening” in recent years may be related to the spread of the Internet – or it may be related to the spread of the sub-prime mortgage crisis and resulting economic hardship – another matter that demands both serious deep reading and deep writing. Or perhaps the industry did expand, responding to demand, but did so too quickly – is now in a holding pattern, but will return to growth shortly. What the graph does not show, however, is a steep drop off in purchases of books in the United States. I guess we have to say, then, that the jury is still out.

Enough. This is simply a quick foray into an area opened up by Carr’s provocative article, emphasis on the word “quick.” While this response to Carr is an appeal for “deep writing,” it is certainly not an example of the art. That would require more focus, more time – and perhaps more, not less, use of the Internet.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Atlantic, July/August 2008, pp. 56-63
[2] Carr, p. 60
[3] See for example, Sonia Livingstone and Moira Bovill, Children and Their Changing Media Environment: A European Comparative Study (Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum: 2001)
[4] Norman H. Nie, Lutz Erbring, “Internet and Society: A Preliminary Report,” IT & Society, Volume 1, Issue 1, Summer 2002, p. 280
[5] Carr, p. 58
[6] Cited in “Is email ruining the way we write?” Associated Press, December 12, 2005
[7] U.S. Census Bureau, “Service Sector Statistics: Estimates of Monthly Retail and Food Services Sales by Kind of Business,” 1992-2007