I spent yesterday marking the dangers around Sidewiki. Today, I’ll say what I think Google should do with it: close the toolbar app, open it up to the entire conversation, and turn it purely into an API. And probably buy Technorati.
I read a great deal of the discussion about Sidewiki yesterday: much of it in the comments on my blog post, much found through search in Technorati and Google News, much through trackbacks, much on Twitter, much through links on sites I read, and a tiny bit on Sidewiki itself (sorry, can’t find a URL to link to that).
Some of the comments said the conversation is already fractured and my trail would seem to prove the point. That was the common word – fractured. But I’d quibble with the choice and argue that the conversation isn’t broken; that it is occurring just where it should be: in the cloud, where it is controlled by no one.
I did complain about bifurcating the conversation on my own site and that’s because Google presents a second opportunity to comment from a site with comments and I do not see how that adds value there; it separates people. We should be doing the opposite.
I also complained about losing control of the comments and some folks, not surprisingly, thought they had me in a gotcha moment: “Hey, Jarvis, you tell newspapers to get over it and give up control but when it comes to you … heh, heh, heh.” OK. I, too, chose the wrong word. I should have complained instead that Sidewiki robs sites of the responsibility for comments. Many of the people who joined in my crusade yesterday said they work hard on the conversations on their sites to make sure they retain civility and quality – as good sites do – but now they can’t exercise that responsibility with Sidwiki comments that will appear essentially on their sites. Google promises an algorithm. Algorithms may be good at killing spam – albeit with syncopated delays – but they will not be good at policing the subtleties of trolls, prejudice, unfair competition, grudges, pettiness, and hate; those are human sins and it takes humans (and perhaps God) to see them.
The Guardian spends a great deal of resource on Comment is Free doing just that and when the conversation is about the Mideast, it knows from sour experience that it has to add extra precautions. There were no open comments on its Blogging the Koran. But now, with Sidewiki, there will be. Let’s say the Guardian gets too restrictive. Then there’s always the cloud. You can go to one of its competitors or create your own site and complain about what’s said on CiF and no one – except your hosts there – can stop you. That’s the essence of free speech on the internet.
It’s perhaps inconvenient that the conversation is distributed but wherever there’s such a problem, the wise see opportunities. Technorati saw that years ago and tried to bring the conversation together not by creating the ultimate conversation site but by adding organization and thus value to the conversation across the blogosphere. That was very Googley.
Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it accessible – not take it over and centralize it. That’s what so many fear about Google book search: that is it not just linking to books but serving and thus controlling them (I still believe the settlement can cope with that). That is what I fear about Sidewiki: that it is not adding value to the conversation by organizing it but instead trying to hijack it. I’m surprised how tonedead [a happy typo I'm holding onto] Google is in this case. David Sleight called Sidewiki “a failure of empathy.” Or as a father says to a little kid: “What were you thinking?” One more metaphor: Google thinks its Snuffleupagus – big but cuddly and good – and just doesn’t realize that some people see it as a potential bully and so it has to act accordingly. With size comes responsibility.
So I think Google saw a problem where there wasn’t one: The conversation is not broken and doesn’t need fixing. It saw an opportunity to enable people to comment on sites that do not have comments – and to gain more beloved metadata from us about those sites – but it bigfooted the entire conversation trying to solve that; it went for a fly but put its fist through the wall. It wasn’t Googley.
Now I suggest that Google stand back and have that don’t-be-evil conversation about its mission and how it can add value to the conversation and to our collected knowledge about sites and entities without trying to take it over. Start by following Dave Winer into the cloud.
Google could try to organize – but not hijack – the entire conversation; no one has really done that yet. It could analyze comments on sites and understand them better and perhaps even try to find quality in them and their authors. It could use Friend Connect and Facebook’s APIs, as it has started to do, to enable those authors to establish and collect – on their own, via APIs – and burnish their identities across the web. It could bring together conversation about sites, whether those are blogs or companies’, as Technorati has done with blogs (that’s why I think buying it and putting it out of its strategic and technology misery would be the neighborly thing to do). It could then release an API (as it has done for Sidewiki) that doesn’t draw the conversation into one place but enables anyone to put up the conversation. So rather than starting another conversation, Google organizes it.
So I could finally put the broader conversation about the ideas in Buzzmachine on Buzzmachine, adding functionality that let my readers follow links and authors. So I could create a consumer site tracking what people are saying, good and bad, about, say, computer makers. So I could use apps to track conversations about topics that mattered to me. So I could track authors and what they comment about across the web.
Google would add value to the conversation – as I firmly believe it adds value to news – without competing with its creators. That is what I argue to news creators: that Google doesn’t want to become one of them but instead wants to succeed by helping them succeed. It’s a great argument, so long as it stays true. Books bring the same opportunity and challenge for Google.
In a sense, Google thought too big, bigfooting the conversation everywhere. But the real problem, ironically, is that it thought way too small, creating a new conversation instead of trying to organize the conversation that is the internet itself. That would have been so much Googlier, don’t you think?
: LATER: I neglected to cover the question of the toolbar app itself. If Google doesn’t create a separate conversation, then there would be no means to add comments via the toolbar. I’d suggest that a toolbar app could display content about a site or its topics; there’s nothing to stop Google or any toolbar or browser plug-in maker from doing that. This still means that malicious content could be associated with a site but Google wouldn’t be in the position of enabling and hosting it, only displaying it. I would suggest, however, that anyone who thinks they can use this to display advertising associated with a site atop that site should look up the Gator link in my post below: danger and lawyers await.