Clearing the table

Centralized control is fabulous until it isn’t.

Centralized control gives us predictable, reliable, convenient results. Until it suffocates.

Google promises websites free attention at a time when attention is harder than ever to obtain.

It promises fast, convenient search at a time when people prize fast and convenient more than ever.

And it promises targeted clicks for a known price to anyone who is willing to pay for them at a time when marketers are figuring out how to measure in the digital domain.

But the three promises are undermined by the company’s need to keep growing in profitability.

Google controls what gets built in many corners of the web. If your project isn’t Google-friendly, it probably won’t get built. If it used to be Google-friendly but it isn’t anymore, it will disappear.

If there are twenty search engines delivering traffic to a wide variety of sites, diversity will come from that competition. But when there’s just one, then the human decisions about what gets traffic and what doesn’t (largely based on what makes Google a profit and what doesn’t) change the very nature of what we see and interact with.

This centralized control gives Google the power to absorb most of the profit of businesses that have no better option than to advertise on Google. The powerful model of their ad auction is simple: if it’s worth $100 to your organization to get a new customer, and it’s worth $100 to your competitor to get that same new customer, in an auction, you’ll eagerly bid up to $99 for that click.

Like a landlord who owns every building in town, Google can’t lose. A successful business in the online ecosystem is one that has a few dollars left over after giving the rest of it to Google or Facebook (or Apple).

In the short run, the convenience and reliability of centralized control lull users into a happy compliance. It’s a miracle. It works. What’s the problem?

But in the long run, where the long tail has fewer chances to thrive and where the powerful magic of choice disappears, we stagnate.

If a centralized government authority decided what news and content we saw, filtered our incoming mail and regularly bankrupted competitors it didn’t like, there’d probably be more of an outcry.

The alternative remains the power of peer-to-peer connection. Not the centralized authority of an unknown algorithm, but the roots-based cultural shift that happens when people find the others.

When we build something that works better when it’s shared, it’s more likely to be shared.

While it’s tempting to seek to be picked by authorities and found by strangers, the more reliable path is to organize and connect those that seek to be part of a tribe, to establish better cultural norms and then persist in making promises and keeping them.

“Follow me” on this journey is more difficult, but it’s also more effective than pleading “pick me.”