The Build


Nobody Here But Us Chickens: Google and Lies We Tell Ourselves

31 December 2010

tl;dr: If you make a tradeoff, be honest about it. Don’t lie to yourself that you are making a positive architectural decision when you make a negative tradeoff.

In a flash of snarkiness, I posted this to my Twitter account, based on a colleague’s attempt to solve a YouTube password problem:

Google doesn’t want to hear from its users any more than Tyson wants to hear from its chickens.

The slightly-expanded message is: The users of Google’s free services are a product to be delivered to advertisers, not customers towards whom Google feels an obligation. I think this is more than just fair; I think it’s self-evident.

There was a certain amount of chatter form those who insist on viewing the world as a Manichean struggle between Apple and Google (which had nothing whatsoever to do with it), but it more productively resulting in a reply from no less that Matt Cutts (and I appreciate his taking the time to bounce this around with me):

@Xof that’s certainly not the case.

I replied:

@mattcutts Glad to hear it. What’s the tech support number for YouTube users?

Mr Cutts replied:

@Xof phone lines are 1:1, which means other users can’t benefit from answers/feedback. The forum for YouTube is

And here we get to the lies we tell ourselves.

You can’t do everything all the time. No person, product or company can hit every single mark, can fulfill every single desire or request. No one should ever be ashamed of that; everyone has to prioritize.

Google’s prioritization is, “For our free services, we can’t provide individualized support because it would simply be too expensive. Instead, we mobsource our support. That’s what you are getting when you use our free services. Did we mention that they’re free?” That’s not insane, and you can agree with it (and use Google’s services), or disagree with it (and not, or do so anyway and whine about the terrible support, your choice). But that’s what you get.

But attempting to portray that decision as, “Forums are so much cooler than an actual human being on the phone who can actually address your particular item” is absurd. Can you imagine, say, a bank with that position? “An unexplained debit to your account? No problem! Post a comment to our Forum, and maybe someone has had a similar problem and you can share your experience. Sometimes, an employee might see the post and comment. It’s rad!”

Tech support forums are great, and every company should sponsor one for their products, but they are not a substitute for a support system that does not rely on the kindness of strangers and does involve someone who can safely access details relevant to your individual situation and who can access internal expertise within the company. I would hope that’s self-evident, too.

(And, of course, a rep can share their redacted experience from a call on a forum.)

I’m reminded of the apologia for why qmail doesn’t send multiple messages on one SMTP connection, or the long diatribe in the Camel Book about why Perl 5 doesn’t have simple, reliable bytecode compilation. In both cases, a designer made a choice that feature was complex to implement and not a high priority; reasonable people can disagree with their choices, but they made them for what I assume are sound reasons. However, rather than just say, “Nope, not getting to that one right away,” what was a issue of priority was tarted up to look like a wise technical architecture decision, which neither one was. (Lots of MTAs can do just fine sending multiple messages on one connection, and if bytecode compilation for Perl was such a dumb idea, what’s up with Parrot?)

Every business (and person) needs to make choices. Nothing wrong with that. Just be honest with yourself about why you are doing it, so you can be honest with other people.

Tony Comstock at 14:03, 31 December 2010:

Funny this is coming up now.

Two nights ago on Twitter I saw YouTube Senior User Design Experience whatever tweeting her ire that her favorite movie got an R (for language) when she thought it should get an PG13.

I asked her why YouTube gave an 18+ (equiv to an MPAA NC17) to a passage from an award-winning documentary film showing two men, clothed, shot from the neck up, talking about sex.

And that was the end of that conversation.

The lesson, it seems to me, is to avoid putting one’s personal security (broadly construed) in a position where the outcome of mission critical situation will be decided by algorithms or mobs.