Why Does Jaron Lanier Hate Google? - InformationWeek

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Alexander Wolfe
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Why Does Jaron Lanier Hate Google?

Spurred into opining by the television writers strike, virtual-reality guru Jaron Lanier has reversed his long-standing "piracy is good" position. Writing on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, he's lamenting the fact that content creators aren't reaping their fair share of the Web's riches, and that this comes at the expense

Spurred into opining by the television writers strike, virtual-reality guru Jaron Lanier has reversed his long-standing "piracy is good" position. Writing on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, he's lamenting the fact that content creators aren't reaping their fair share of the Web's riches, and that this comes at the expense of big aggregators like Google.Lanier acknowledges that the online culture of free content, where writers are essentially ripped off by aggregators, is inequitable, at least insofar as the writers go. (For business people and venture capitalists, it's clearly less so.) Here's how he puts it in his piece, which is entitled "Pay Me For My Content":

Like so many in Silicon Valley in the 1990s, I thought the Web would increase business opportunities for writers and artists. Instead, they have decreased. Most of the big names in the industry -- Google, Facebook, MySpace, and increasingly even Apple and Microsoft -- are now in the business of assembling content from unpaid Internet users to sell advertising to other Internet users.

Unfortunately, Lanier's current analysis of the situation is as lacking in nuance as was his 1999 manifesto, "Piracy Is Your Friend", in which he told the record labels to "get over it." (That was the era of MP3.com, and he was writing about the music business.)

Lanier is wrong because Google is more a writer's friend than it is his or her enemy. Google -- both natural search and Google News -- gives most writers far more readers than they'd have without the search engine pointing people in their direction.

True, Google makes most of its money off this searching, which wouldn't exist except for the external content to which it points. However, very few Web writers get directly remunerated for the traffic their content generates. If they're employed by large media companies, they're paid salaries. If they're freelancers, they get fees (in some cases, with overrides for exceeding traffic goals.) The employer has to go to the trouble of selling the ads, and justifiably reaps the revenue from same.

Plus, Google AdSense provides an unbelievably easy way for any Web site to make money via its own traffic. (Whenever a reader on your site clicks on one of these ads, which are tagged to keywords, you get paid.)

Still, Lanier does have something of a point. Historically, writers have always gotten screwed, and it's not much different now that online text and streaming video are making print and television obsolete. The television writers have a point -- and the movie studios have an indefensible position -- when the writers say they should get eight cents per DVD instead of four cents and the studios say no.

As Lanier correctly notes, the Web has resulted in increased opportunities for all writers, but it hasn't resulted in increased business opportunities for all of them.

The big question -- the elephant in the room for big content-creation operations -- isn't whether writers should get paid. They are getting paid. Rather, it's how do you support a large content-generating operation, analogous to the old-style print model where you had hundreds of reporters cranking out stories?

Because online ad revenue is still much smaller than were the print ad sales it replaced, content-creation budgets are being squeezed. That's the online world's ongoing challenge, not whether big bad Google is aggregating the heck out of the Web.

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User Rank: Strategist
5/1/2015 | 11:29:45 AM
Kernel of Truth
Jaron's opinion of Google has little changed since 2007, though he is focused on larger issues these days.  I'm sure he can't be complaining about the ease with which we find his articles and book reviews, talks and so forth through a quick Google search of his name.  Yet, with all things Lanier, his argument always contain a kernel of truth.  

I'm old enough to remember typed submissions, manilla envelopes with the address of a magazine editor, and rejection slips returned via snail mail.  These days and those prior held a certain distinction for writers, with a highly competative market, and also bigger paychecks for some.  However, while I sympathize with Jaron's early criticism of Google and similar monstrosities, we must move forward and these days, when you submit writing for consideration, the first thing most editors do before even reading your piece is Google your name to see how well you're known, what else you've done and whether your online audience is a valid asset.

Now, I don't chase publication anymore since I turned to focus entirely on tech, but I do believe that the model of my nostalgic years and the new model of the online text mills have valid and important components.  After all these years, not much has changed since this article was written, but I feel more optimism for the platform than ever as technologies like WordPress, Drupal and the move to electronic formats as Linux Magazine has done in recent years are helping writers take control more than ever, and allowing them to get their work more quickly reviewed/rejected/accepted than ever.

And, imagine that, Google has actually helped writers get their words out there to a wider audience; maybe it's not all about money, after all.  Maybe we should look at the words themselves and whether we care more about the message as writers, or the paycheck.  For me, it's the message.  I'll keep my day job. 
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