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Is Google Eating Us?

May 29, 2009

2578779839_17bab41fc1_oI’m currently working with some Ukrainians to set up some trainings in June to teach New Media skills to NGOs and journalists in Ukraine. This is giving me a chance to take a stroll through New Media on a macro level, as I think through which tools make the most sense to teach, and what sorts of big picture things we should say about them.

I was talking to Rebekah Heacock the other day about Google-well, no, I should say I was having a conversation via Gmail about Google-when I began to wonder just how deeply enmeshed we should allow ourselves to become in this Google beast that is consuming the cyberworld. The conversation started with me saying that I’d finally, at long last, and after much ribbing and coercion from Rebekah, made the leap over to Gmail, giving Hotmail the boot. It would have happened sooner, except that I was in grad school at Columbia, where there is no time for midstream mass behavioral change like switching your entire email life over to a new platform. Now that I have finally made the switch, I feel like Mohinder being handed the keys to his very own multimillion dollar research facility (for the record, I don’t feel like Mohinder in any other way, because I am not a bad character on a not-very well-planned TV show). I had to tell someone about it.

Rebekah said something to the effect of her whole life being on Google, that everything she does is on some Google platform. Not really, of course, but very close.

This got me to thinking:  is it really such a good idea to use all these Google tools? Can we get too enmeshed in Google? I think so.Sure, Google’s got a lot to offer. I now use Gmail, Calendar, Docs, Translator, and some others I am not thinking of off the top of my head. Within Gmail, I’ve got Calendar and chat right there at my finger tips. I’ve also dipped into the Lab and pulled out the Forgotten Attachment Detector, among other things. That I can click on an attachment and turn it easily into a Doc blows my mind. I’m also a big fan of Google Maps. And I love that I can embed a lot of these things into other platforms (as you’d expect in Web 2.0). Hotmail’s minor league compared to Gmail. 

But I’m worried about getting a little too Googled. I feel like, in particular, it would cause harm to my work in media development. As great as being an expert in Google would be, and showing the world how to use Google’s limitless tools, Google doesn’t always make sense in all cases.

First, a lot of tools are performing certain functions better. Twitter’s much better at quick, real-time messaging. The Follow function opens doors that Google just isn’t opening right now. But most importantly, it is easy to update using a cell phone. This is important in the developing world, where cell phones are penetrating faster than Internet connections. Mumbai presents the perfect case for just how significant Twitter is for communication in developing countries.

For organizations wishing to create a communication network and mobilize action, Facebook is much better suited than any individual tool Google has going. The ability to create groups and pages, send mass messages, post video, display your membership numbers, and expand your membership into already existing social-networks are all examples of how Facebook makes it easy to raise awareness and get people moving. 

Second, Google can be a real drain on bandwidth. Especially when you get a bunch of tools going at once, like Gmail and Docs, which constantly communicate with the Internet. Sure, Twitter and Facebook do this too. But, you have to have a lot more windows open to get Google tools to do what you can get out of a window for Twitter and one for Facebook. People in developing countries often face low bandwidth environments, which means they have to do whatever they can to economize on how much bandwidth their tools are eating. Google has quite the appetite.

Stepping back for a second, if I come into a developing country, and all I know are Google tools, I’m only going to be able to inject Google in a place where other tools might make more sense. This hurts my ability to effectively develop media. It severely limits me. In developing countries, you need to know a range of tools in almost any circumstance, media or otherwise. Developing countries face much tighter constraints. It’s not like there’s a Best Buy or a Home Depot on every corner. The more variety you can bring to the table, the more likely you can find a fit.

So, if you see me using NetVibes instead of iGoogle, or WordPress instead of Blogger, or Firefox instead of Chrome, you’ll know why. It’s not that I’m trying to starve Google. I just think there’s benefit to feeding the many other amazing New Media tools out there.

Right now, NetVibes is the one getting pretty fat on my computer.

Photo:  Courtesy of Anderson Mancini through Creative Commons.

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