The announcement from Google, that it is going to allow journalists to become more visible in its Google News service, as long as they have a profile on the Google+ social platform has sparked some comment and reaction. My own initial reaction was instinctively negative, whilst others, such as the journalist Alex Howard, whose views I respect a great deal, were largely positive. In fact Alex has summed up those initial reactions rather well here . Whilst I really don’t want to come over all Evgeny Morozov about it, and naysaying a great leap forward for journalistic transparency, I still feel that we should be questioning the ‘inevitable’ more closely, as it marks not progress but a regression.
I have never been an out and out Google fan, but I have defended some of their innovations such as Google News. This was an innovation which delivered a better more comprehensive service to users who were already migrating to the web. It did not, to my mind, represent the parasitical relationship some significant media owners suggested, rather it added utility and drove traffic to our stories.Recently, Google has been on the retreat from its purely algorithmic approach to products and battling the rising tide of Facebook and Twitter usage by incorporating more human activity into its robotics. So bonuses and promotions have become tied to the success of social. Google+ is the result of this desire to be market dominant.
Whilst many have salivated over the frankly humdrum interface and deeply mundane social experience of Google+, for some of us, it is not an enhancement on existing platforms at all. Twitter remains the place that allows more control over all aspects of your use, does not demand a ‘real name’ and is not intimately connected to your email account, which makes it a more preferable place for journalists. It is a better broadcast platform. But the subjective assessments of the merits of these social networks is irrelevant. By telling journalists that their visibility will only increase (a good thing) by using a particular social platform which demands specific protocols, it is a form of coercion. Profiles on publishers own platforms will not be featured. Neither will profiles on Facebook or Twitter.
It is a simple case of something many technology companies have been guilty of at one time or another; using strength in one area (news search) to leverage weakness in another (social). This is how Microsoft squished browser competition in the 1990s, it is how companies used the capture of content to drive worse technologies (VHS over Betamax, Sky dishes over Squarials). It is also what happens when companies simply have too much power in any market. Google has built dominance in search by being better than everyone else, but it is now an unregulated utility. Ditto Facebook, with its equally horrible implementation of ‘profiles’, which has caused something of a backlash among those who question the company’s use of data.
There are many great journalists who are not on Google+ and don’t want to be. The reason the move to promote journalists who use the service rather than those who don’t is wrong, from Google’s perspective as well as the consumers, is that it does not help filter ‘better news’ it confuses the picture .It promotes one type of journalistic activity which has pretty much nothing to do with the quality of reporting. It also potentially creates a false dichotomy between those who do good journalism, or acts of journalism, and those who are professionally employed as journalists.
It hasn’t stopped me from creating a Google+ profile, and it will become something which many journalists feel compelled to do. But it is not beneficial for journalism in the way that Google and its supporters would have you believe. It is only beneficial for Google.