If you’re wondering what may have prompted the world’s once most beloved companies to fall out of grace with the general populace, a simple analogy might suffice: it’s that moment when your favorite, relatively unknown band, becomes featured on MTV and then goes mainstream. Your jaw drops and you throw your damn hands in the air screaming, “W. T. F. BRO…”
Look, the truth is, neither Google, Apple, nor Facebook offer anything less than what their products proposed all those years ago. In fact, if anything, user experience has undoubtably improved: information services are more efficient and well organized, computer and digital based media have become more accessible, and people are more connected globally than ever before. So, of course, this begs the question of: Why now, is everyone giving them shit for it? The real reason turns out to be a flashback from high school, predictable and boring: when something “cool” becomes mainstream, it becomes “uncool”.
The “unpopular, to popular, to hated” model is more of a standard trend than it is some strange psychological phenomenon. Especially concerning the macro-psychology of modern human societies, there has always been group biases that form when we feel our seemingly unique position is threatened. Our attitudes toward companies throughout their lives is no different.
But there’s another point of interest concerning the story of hatred for these big market players: there’s great appeal in the rebellion that cuts down giants, marching in a group of loyalists that rage against top market controllers. We march with them under banners of freedom or just plain boredom; sometimes we want more options and less restrictions, other times, we’re just bored and looking for something new to play with. All of this plays into a storyline where corporate giants get clobbered by members of side-street and underground markets; that gets people’s adrenaline pumping. The top spot can only satisfy the people for so long before they pine for revolution, because, as history has taught us, corporate supremacy that verges on monopoly leads to feelings of oppression—whether real or perceived. Choice is always the foundation for revolution and the people campaign with sweat and blood for it.
More simply, though, everyone loves to be a part of a good underdog story. And more importantly, Google, Apple, and Facebook have all done their time in the underground scene. But now? They are the top dogs, and therefore, don’t appeal to our rebel hearts any longer.
If you were born in the 1980’s like I was, you were around to watch the internet come to life. The beginning was painfully slow, boring, and expensive. The internet was a new technology that barely anyone knew about and even less people knew how to use. But later, as computer technology picked up and PC prices came down, people began to become both curious and confused about the internet. I mean, finally, here was something you could do besides type in word documents and spreadsheets, other than math blaster and MS Paint, and no one knew what the hell to do with it. So what happened? AOL happened. AOL organized the internet connection experience and created a social space for people to interact. This meant chatrooms, e-mail, and some news. Basically, if you didn’t know someone who was addicted to AOL chatrooms in the early 90’s, it was probably you who needed an intervention. You see, even though webpages existed back then, internet connections were ridiculously slow, and therefore, websites didn’t offer a lot of content. Most of what AOL did was add a communication value to the internet that made it easy for people to use; AOL was the equivalent of going to a smokey lounge where you could read magazines and chat with random people—it wasn’t much, but it created a valuable communications market for everyday people.
Now, fast forward to the late 1990’s. AOL was dying fast, and at this point, was trying to offer its services for free as high speed DSL and other broadband technologies completely raped and plundered the kingdom that was America Online. But there was another problem: now broken out of AOL’s borders, into the free open air of cyberspace, people were confused and lost again. People were baffled at how the internet was just “on”. You used to hear questions everyday like this: “Wait… I don’t need AOL?” That’s how powerful and limited AOL was; people believed that AOL WAS the internet. Coming into the world of broadband from AOL was a lot like releasing a domestic animal into the wild after having been caged up all its life. People were crippled. But after a few years, search engines started to make some progress with Yahoo! leading the way. The problem was that search engines like Yahoo! and MSN Search blew. They just sucked beyond belief, returning the most irrelevant search results one could ever hope to commit suicide over. I mean it was absolutely heartbreaking. You really couldn’t even call them search engines—they were more like search tricycles. It was hit or miss really. And still, many more websites weren’t even searchable; you had to write down or remember long URL addresses because links were scarce and no one knew what the hell they were doing.
Then came Google: a small company with a cute logo that produced relevant search results in a fast and simple format, without all the extras. Essentially Google saved the internet by creating a reliable and effective way to directly connect content providers with content consumers. By organizing the internet and giving people a starting point, Google helped to make sense of the non-linear chaos of broadband internet surfing. Yet, in recent years, having built so much wealth and power through information organization, people have become wary of Google as the internet based giant seems to have money and resources invested in just about every market and discipline conceivable. Numbers, money, and influence equal power, and power of that magnitude begins to scare people no matter how cute and colorful your logo is.
Everyone knows the story of Apple: two guys in a garage make history. We love that shit. We really do. Back then the computer market giant was IBM and Hewlett Packard, and not even they suspected that two guys working in a garage could build one of the most valuable companies in US history by making the computer a personal device.
But even as Apple grew in popularity through its continued innovation, it remained an underdog in the large shadow casted by IBM, who still couldn’t believe that people would want to buy a computer for personal use (and didn’t enter the PC market until 1981). And, even long after graphics user face eventually won the battle, when the iMac first hit the market in 1998 and gobbled up a nice piece of market share, Apple still maintained its underdog image as software giant Microsoft dominated the PC and apps markets with the Windows and Office platforms.
It wasn’t until the iPod and iTunes took over the music industry, and suddenly Apple design and lifestyle marketing began to take hold, that people began to sense the shadow of Apple as a company looming over them. By the time the cell phone market matured, Apple’s corporate shadow grew 10 fold when the iPhone was released. Coupled with the release of fashionable desktop and laptop combos, Apple was not only leading music and smart phone markets, but was scoring major points by doubling as a fashion and status symbol. You see, while the average person may not care much about personal computing, nearly everyone listens to music and uses a cell phone—and that’s how Apple went from being the underrated hopeful, to a market champ dancing on the hater-radar.
The late 90’s and early 2000’s were a time when internet connections were fast enough for more media consumption and accessible enough for most average people. After websites began beefing up their content to make use of faster broadband connections, chatrooms pretty much died a horrible death—left only to be occupied by horny middle-aged men looking for a cheap thrill. It was at this time that social networking platforms really started with the launch of ventures like Friendster and Hi5. They were both terrible. But, to be fair, no one had every really made an online social network before and so finding people and connecting with people was kind of a challenge. It didn’t make much sense to people. Also, Friendster didn’t really offer anything besides friending people; you just had a profile with pics and comments, basic info, friends, and a mailbox—that was it.
Myspace became huge as it was really easy to use, there was a search option by location and name, and the URL was short and easy to remember. Myspace soon became THE place to express yourself. Your myspace profile was the ultimate in self-advertising and soon became a popular source of hook ups and casual relationships. Where myspace went really wrong is when it offered a way for users to use HTML coding to customize their pages. Initially it was a brilliant move and people loved it. People loved being able to customize their own page and post a collage of pictures and soundbites that made their page unique. The problem came later when third party websites began offering HTML code generators so that EVERYONE could customize their page—no matter how computer illiterate they were. Basically this lead to an epidemic that pretty much destroyed the user experience as broadband connections and the myspace servers weren’t sophisticated enough to really handle all that customization. As a result, users became ridiculously frustrated waiting for some unknown amount of pictures, customized banners, and extra HTML code to load—just so they could post a comment or send one message. It was friggin annoying as hell.
This is where Facebook succeeded. Although only exclusive available to university students at its birth, even when Facebook opened up to the public, the standard format remained with no option to customize via HTML. This was the key: a semi controlled user experience that was seamless across all profiles and very easy to use. By the time Facebook had gone from “the college social network where you can stalk your hook-ups”, to nearly 800 million users worldwide, people had already begun to notice how personal the advertisements on their screen had gotten. In 8 short years Mark Zuckerburg went from rebel programmer to an ad man—changing user agreements that would make Facebook the owner of any personal information you fed to its network. Nice. And all of this for what? You guessed it: advertisers and money. The latest strike against Facebook as been its recent acquisition of the trendy social networking app that revolves around sharing pictures: Instagram. By dropping $1 billion dollars (half of Instagram’s calculated value) to buy up the 36-million-user-app, even Google let out a “Damnnn broooooo…..” under its breath. But more importantly, Instagram was an underdog app ran by 13 employees. When you buy an underdog app, you make it popular and destroy yet another outpost of the populist rebellion; this act alone will make you one of “them”.
YOU GET WHAT YOU ASK FOR
So why are people all pissed at Google, Apple, and Facebook? When it comes to these big three, people usually express one of two concerns: oppressive control over the user experience, or exploitation of privacy and personal data.
When people address concerns about a controlled user experience, they usually cite Apple’s infamous price tier and lack of compatibility. One of the biggest concerns is about pricing and how difficult it is to open a Mac and really tinker around with it yourself (as opposed to PCs).
Yet what baffles me is people’s lack of vision and ability to understand that Apple is providing a service that people have demanded from the computer market: computers and software made easy without all the hassle of having to deal with hardware incompatibility and variations in quality. Some people may want to deal with PC hardware and finding the right combinations, and enjoy the freedom of customization with the esoteric knowledge they posses. But the fact is: not everyone has the time, energy, or desire to learn enough about computers to do all of that. So, for a company that’s going to take care of everything for you, make computing easier through quality controlled hardware and software, and a user experience thats more simple, people are willing to pay more for it. And they SHOULD pay more for it.
The same logic applies to gripes about Apple’s domination of music distribution. Apple created exactly the kind of music distribution that people were demanding—only this time we were freed from the greedy claws of music labels. Do you remember how much CD’s used to cost? Like $17 man. And they skipped and got scratched and a portable CD player was ridiculously cumbersome—not to mention it consumed batteries like pregnant woman at a buffet. However, because it was the most popular format of the time, music companies could charge whatever they wanted and people would pay it. People were dying for better ways to consume music more easily and cheaply, and Apple gave them exactly what they asked for.
(There are other problems that people have about Apple becoming a fashion statement, but I don’t even understand that argument. Something about saying people paying for the look or fashionability of Apple products. But even if that’s true, so what? Don’t we always pay more for things that look better? How is that an injustice? (though really I think people are also paying for an easier experience and the reliable quality of integrated hardware and software).
Concerns over the distribution of our personal data usually lie with Google and Facebook, as both major internet gateways have changed their user agreements which absolve them from all guilt for using anything we send through their portals. But I think people get a little too crazy about this stuff too—especially when they don’t stop to consider the bigger picture: both Facebook and Google are FREE.
We use these AMAZING services FOR FREE and of our own free will, and we are concerned if some unknown company knows that we like to eat pizza and watch Disney movies? We don’t pay anything to Facebook or Google, therefore, they really don’t owe us anything. It’s the equivalent of having a private conversation in public, or walking out onto a public street where anyone can gather information about us just by looking.
Sometimes the argument isn’t so much about Google gathering the info as it is about the principal of using it: why do can’t they just keep it to themselves? Why must they exploit our personal data? Imagine that I had the power to heal all of those who were sick and dying in the world, but chose not to utilize that power? Everyone would hate me. Now I’m not suggesting that Google’s data collection is tantamount to healing the sick, however, accurate data about a large sample of people can potentially save lives and make the world a better place. Putting data to any use is better than doing nothing with it—especially empirical and unbiased data. Do you know how difficult and expensive it is to collect personal data by hand, not to mention accurately?
There’s a price to pay for getting what we want; it’s unavoidable. The result of a beloved startup company becoming the corporate evil empire is a natural result of equal exchange and perception.
We demanded that information be organized and that connecting to people and information over the internet be easier and cheap (or free), and to get that, we must surrender our personal data.
We demanded that computing and communication devices work together seamless to create a simple and less exclusive experience, and when we get that, we must pay more for it.
(Similarly, when we demand ultimate protection from government, we surrender some freedoms to that body to have security systems with cameras installed)
These are not stories of corporations out of control. These are stories of people demanding more from these companies, getting more, and paying more (either with money or by some other means).
The real funny this is this: when your favorite underground band was still unknown, you secretly wished everyone would understand their value and talent. You would scold people who never heard of them, and make friends with those who had. And then, the second everyone else finally acknowledges your favorite band’s talent and they skyrocket to the top, you begin to despise the band. But sometimes you hate the band for a good reason. Sometimes they DO change: the creative quality drops and the songs all begin to bleed together into some pop-congealed sound. That’s the only danger and legitimate reason I can see for disliking a rogue company gone mainstream: a lacking in quality. Things change when a company becomes king of the mountain. It’s a game changer. Once a particular brand or platform becomes flooded with money, attention, and millions of users, it’s not long before they adopt steady profit models and quality ultimately suffers. It’s principal common sense, though; there is no need to waste money on quality when your products are practically ubiquitous throughout a culture. As long as the users’ experience doesn’t fall below the level of quality that brought them to that market and platform in the first place, most big companies can just coast on minimal innovation and maintenance. That’s really when we should make a ruckus and grab our pitch forks and head for the mountain. But so far, I don’t really see what all the fuss is about.