This is How Google will Collapse


Reporting from the very near, post-Google future

Google made almost all its money from ads. It was a booming business — until it wasn’t. Here’s how things looked right before the most spectacular crash the technology industry had ever seen.

The crumbling of Google’s cornerstone

Search was Google’s only unambiguous win, as well as its primary source of revenue, so when Amazon rapidly surpassed Google as the top product search destination, Google’s foundations began to falter. As many noted at the time, the online advertising industry experienced a major shift from search to discovery in the mid-2010s.

While Google protected its monopoly on the dying search advertising market, Facebook — Google’s biggest competitor in the online advertising space — got on the right side of the trend and dominated online advertising with its in-feed native display advertising.

The people who turned to Amazon over Google? The 18–29 crowd led the way.

In late 2015, Apple — Google’s main competitor in the mobile space — added a feature to their phones and tablets that allowed users to block ads.

Devices running iOS were responsible for an estimated 75% of Google’s revenue from mobile search ads, so by making this move, Apple was simultaneously weighing in decisively on the great ad blocking debate of the 2010s and dealing a substantial blow to the future of online advertising.

The rising number of users blocking ads on mobile showed no signs of slowing down

A year later, as the internet went mobile, so too did ad blocking. The number of people blocking ads on a mobile device grew 102% from 2015 to 2016; by the end of 2016, an estimated 16% of smartphone users globally were blocking ads when browsing the internet on a mobile device. The number was as high as 25% for desktop and laptop users in the United States, a country that accounted for 47% of Google’s revenue.

The people most likely to block ads were also the most valuable demographic: millennials and high earners.

Young users are a good indicator for the future of technology, and they were heavy users of ad blocking software

Internet users had spoken, and they hated ads.

In early 2017, Google announced its plans to build an ad blocker into its popular Google Chrome browser. Google’s ad blocker would only block ads that were deemed unacceptable by the Coalition For Better Ads, effectively allowing the company to use its dominant web browser to strengthen its already dominant advertising business.

Even after making this desperate and legally questionable move, it would quickly become clear to Google that even though ads were getting better, ad blocking numbers would continue to rise. Google had given even more people a small taste of what an ad-free internet experience could look like.

The company discovered that it wasn’t just annoying ads that people didn’t like; it was ads in general.

The advertising industry trying to figure out why people hated ads so much

A key platform where Google served ads was YouTube, which it bought in 2006 and quickly turned into one of its biggest entities. But even with a sixth of the world visiting this video-sharing behemoth every month, YouTube never became profitable. In an attempt to combat the effect of ad blockers, YouTube launched an ad-free subscription model in late 2015, but the subscription numbers were underwhelming.

YouTube’s already insurmountable problems multiplied in early 2017 as advertisers began to pull out amid ad placement controversies, and huge revenue generators began to leave the site.

Even those who weren’t blocking ads had trained themselves to ignore them entirely. Researchers dubbed this phenomenon “banner blindness”. The average banner ad was clicked on by a dismal 0.06% of viewers, and of those clicks, roughly 50% were accidental.

Research showed that 54% of users reported a lack of trust as their reason for not clicking banner ads and 33% found them completely intolerable. These figures painted a pretty grim picture for the sustainability of online advertising, but especially for Google’s position within the industry.

Google’s mighty engine had started to sputter.

A chance to pivot, and how Google missed it

If losing a major portion of their audience and annoying the rest wasn’t bad enough, Google also failed to get ahead of one of the biggest shifts in technology’s history. They recognized the importance of artificial intelligence but their approach missed the mark. Since Google’s search pillar had become unstable, a lot was riding on the company’s strategy for artificial intelligence.

“We will move from mobile first to an AI first world.”

Google’s then-CEO Sundar Pichai famously predicted in 2016 that “the next big step will be for the very concept of the ‘device’ to fade away” and that “over time, the computer itself — whatever its form factor — will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day. We will move from mobile first to an AI first world.”

Google’s ability to acknowledge the coming trend and still fail to land in front of it reminded many observers of its catastrophic failures in the booming industries of social media and instant messaging.

Sundar Pichai wondering how to monetize a virtual assistant

Google vs. Amazon

Meanwhile, in 2014, Amazon released a product called Amazon Echo, a small speaker that could sit in your home and answer questions, perform tasks, and buy things online for you. The Echo was a smash success. Google released its copycat product, Google Home, two years later, but it was already too late to catch up, and had no clear revenue strategy.

Alexa — the assistant that lived inside the Echo — on the other hand, was quickly integrated into several products and services, and its monetization model was clear, viable, and most importantly future-friendly. The Echo made it easy to order products through Amazon, and every time someone used an Echo to purchase something, Amazon made money.

Google extended the reach of their virtual assistant by building it into Android, but doing so still didn’t provide an answer for how the technology would generate enough revenue to sustain Google’s expanding repertoire of expensive innovations.

Google’s ads relied on screens, yet voice interaction subverted screens entirely. Google briefly tried playing audio ads with the Google Home, but consumers were far from receptive. Investors started to voice their concerns in 2017, but Sundar Pichai told them not to worry, leaving them to assume that Google would use their age-old strategy and analyze users’ voice searches so that users could be shown more suitable ads on devices with screens.

Alexa celebrating its victory over Google

Headlines in early 2017 proclaimed that “Alexa Just Conquered CES. The World is Next.” Amazon then made their technology available to third party manufacturers, putting even more distance between the two companies. Amazon had already beaten Google once before, holding 54% of the cloud computing market (compared to Google’s 3%) in 2016, and they were just getting started.

By early 2017, Amazon had begun closing in on the entire retail industry.

Ads weren’t forever

At its peak, Google had a massive and loyal user-base across a staggering number of products, but advertising revenue was the glue that held everything together. As the numbers waned, Google’s core began to buckle under the weight of its vast empire.

Google was a driving force in the technology industry ever since its disruptive entry in 1998. But in a world where people despised ads, Google’s business model was not innovation-friendly, and they missed several opportunities to pivot, ultimately rendering their numerous grand and ambitious projects unsustainable. Innovation costs money, and Google’s main stream of revenue had started to dry up.

In a few short years, Google had gone from a fun, commonplace verb to a reminder of how quickly a giant can fall.

How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind — from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist


“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they’ve been fooled.” — Unknown.

I’m an expert on how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities. That’s why I spent the last three years as a Design Ethicist at Google caring about how to design things in a way that defends a billion people’s minds from getting hijacked.

When using technology, we often focus optimistically on all the things it does for us. But I want to show you where it might do the opposite.

Where does technology exploit our minds’ weaknesses?

I learned to think this way when I was a magician. Magicians start by looking for blind spots, edges, vulnerabilities and limits of people’s perception, so they can influence what people do without them even realizing it. Once you know how to push people’s buttons, you can play them like a piano.

That’s me performing sleight of hand magic at my mother’s birthday party

And this is exactly what product designers do to your mind. They play your psychological vulnerabilities (consciously and unconsciously) against you in the race to grab your attention.

I want to show you how they do it.

Hijack #1: If You Control the Menu, You Control the Choices

Western Culture is built around ideals of individual choice and freedom. Millions of us fiercely defend our right to make “free” choices, while we ignore how those choices are manipulated upstream by menus we didn’t choose in the first place.

This is exactly what magicians do. They give people the illusion of free choice while architecting the menu so that they win, no matter what you choose. I can’t emphasize enough how deep this insight is.

When people are given a menu of choices, they rarely ask:

  • “what’s not on the menu?”
  • “why am I being given these options and not others?”
  • “do I know the menu provider’s goals?”
  • “is this menu empowering for my original need, or are the choices actually a distraction?” (e.g. an overwhelmingly array of toothpastes)
How empowering is this menu of choices for the need, “I ran out of toothpaste”?

For example, imagine you’re out with friends on a Tuesday night and want to keep the conversation going. You open Yelp to find nearby recommendations and see a list of bars. The group turns into a huddle of faces staring down at their phones comparing bars. They scrutinize the photos of each, comparing cocktail drinks. Is this menu still relevant to the original desire of the group?

It’s not that bars aren’t a good choice, it’s that Yelp substituted the group’s original question (“where can we go to keep talking?”) with a different question (“what’s a bar with good photos of cocktails?”) all by shaping the menu.

Moreover, the group falls for the illusion that Yelp’s menu represents a complete set of choices for where to go. While looking down at their phones, they don’t see the park across the street with a band playing live music. They miss the pop-up gallery on the other side of the street serving crepes and coffee. Neither of those show up on Yelp’s menu.

Yelp subtly reframes the group’s need “where can we go to keep talking?” in terms of photos of cocktails served.

The more choices technology gives us in nearly every domain of our lives (information, events, places to go, friends, dating, jobs) — the more we assume that our phone is always the most empowering and useful menu to pick from. Is it?

The “most empowering” menu is different than the menu that has the most choices. But when we blindly surrender to the menus we’re given, it’s easy to lose track of the difference:

  • “Who’s free tonight to hang out?” becomes a menu of most recent people who texted us (who we could ping).
  • “What’s happening in the world?” becomes a menu of news feed stories.
  • “Who’s single to go on a date?” becomes a menu of faces to swipe on Tinder (instead of local events with friends, or urban adventures nearby).
  • “I have to respond to this email.” becomes a menu of keys to type a response (instead of empowering ways to communicate with a person).
All user interfaces are menus. What if your email client gave you empowering choices of ways to respond, instead of “what message do you want to type back?” (Design by Tristan Harris)

When we wake up in the morning and turn our phone over to see a list of notifications — it frames the experience of “waking up in the morning” around a menu of “all the things I’ve missed since yesterday.” (for more examples, see Joe Edelman’s Empowering Design talk)

A list of notifications when we wake up in the morning — how empowering is this menu of choices when we wake up? Does it reflect what we care about? (from Joe Edelman’s Empowering Design Talk)

By shaping the menus we pick from, technology hijacks the way we perceive our choices and replaces them with new ones. But the closer we pay attention to the options we’re given, the more we’ll notice when they don’t actually align with our true needs.

Hijack #2: Put a Slot Machine In a Billion Pockets

If you’re an app, how do you keep people hooked? Turn yourself into a slot machine.

The average person checks their phone 150 times a day. Why do we do this? Are we making 150 conscious choices?

How often do you check your email per day?

One major reason why is the #1 psychological ingredient in slot machines: intermittent variable rewards.

If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.

Does this effect really work on people? Yes. Slot machines make more money in the United States than baseball, movies, and theme parks combined. Relative to other kinds of gambling, people get ‘problematically involved’ with slot machines 3–4x faster according to NYU professor Natasha Dow Schull, author of Addiction by Design.

Image courtesy of Jopwell

But here’s the unfortunate truth — several billion people have a slot machine their pocket:

  • When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we’re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got.
  • When we pull to refresh our email, we’re playing a slot machine to see what new email we got.
  • When we swipe down our finger to scroll the Instagram feed, we’re playing a slot machine to see what photo comes next.
  • When we swipe faces left/right on dating apps like Tinder, we’re playing a slot machine to see if we got a match.
  • When we tap the # of red notifications, we’re playing a slot machine to what’s underneath.

Apps and websites sprinkle intermittent variable rewards all over their products because it’s good for business.

But in other cases, slot machines emerge by accident. For example, there is no malicious corporation behind all of email who consciously chose to make it a slot machine. No one profits when millions check their email and nothing’s there. Neither did Apple and Google’s designers want phones to work like slot machines. It emerged by accident.

But now companies like Apple and Google have a responsibility to reduce these effects by converting intermittent variable rewards into less addictive, more predictable ones with better design. For example, they could empower people to set predictable times during the day or week for when they want to check “slot machine” apps, and correspondingly adjust when new messages are delivered to align with those times.

Hijack #3: Fear of Missing Something Important (FOMSI)

Another way apps and websites hijack people’s minds is by inducing a “1% chance you could be missing something important.”

If I convince you that I’m a channel for important information, messages, friendships, or potential sexual opportunities — it will be hard for you to turn me off, unsubscribe, or remove your account — because (aha, I win) you might miss something important:

  • This keeps us subscribed to newsletters even after they haven’t delivered recent benefits (“what if I miss a future announcement?”)
  • This keeps us “friended” to people with whom we haven’t spoke in ages (“what if I miss something important from them?”)
  • This keeps us swiping faces on dating apps, even when we haven’t even met up with anyone in a while (“what if I miss that one hot match who likes me?”)
  • This keeps us using social media (“what if I miss that important news story or fall behind what my friends are talking about?”)

But if we zoom into that fear, we’ll discover that it’s unbounded: we’ll always miss something important at any point when we stop using something.

  • There are magic moments on Facebook we’ll miss by not using it for the 6th hour (e.g. an old friend who’s visiting town right now).
  • There are magic moments we’ll miss on Tinder (e.g. our dream romantic partner) by not swiping our 700th match.
  • There are emergency phone calls we’ll miss if we’re not connected 24/7.

But living moment to moment with the fear of missing something isn’t how we’re built to live.

And it’s amazing how quickly, once we let go of that fear, we wake up from the illusion. When we unplug for more than a day, unsubscribe from those notifications, or go to Camp Grounded — the concerns we thought we’d have don’t actually happen.

We don’t miss what we don’t see.

The thought, “what if I miss something important?” is generated in advance of unplugging, unsubscribing, or turning off — not after. Imagine if tech companies recognized that, and helped us proactively tune our relationships with friends and businesses in terms of what we define as “time well spent” for our lives, instead of in terms of what we might miss.

Hijack #4: Social Approval

Easily one of the most persuasive things a human being can receive.

We’re all vulnerable to social approval. The need to belong, to be approved or appreciated by our peers is among the highest human motivations. But now our social approval is in the hands of tech companies.

When I get tagged by my friend Marc, I imagine him making a conscious choice to tag me. But I don’t see how a company like Facebook orchestrated his doing that in the first place.

Facebook, Instagram or SnapChat can manipulate how often people get tagged in photos by automatically suggesting all the faces people should tag (e.g. by showing a box with a 1-click confirmation, “Tag Tristan in this photo?”).

So when Marc tags me, he’s actually responding to Facebook’s suggestion, not making an independent choice. But through design choices like this, Facebook controls the multiplier for how often millions of people experience their social approval on the line.

Facebook uses automatic suggestions like this to get people to tag more people, creating more social externalities and interruptions.

The same happens when we change our main profile photo — Facebook knows that’s a moment when we’re vulnerable to social approval: “what do my friends think of my new pic?” Facebook can rank this higher in the news feed, so it sticks around for longer and more friends will like or comment on it. Each time they like or comment on it, we’ll get pulled right back.

Everyone innately responds to social approval, but some demographics (teenagers) are more vulnerable to it than others. That’s why it’s so important to recognize how powerful designers are when they exploit this vulnerability.

Hijack #5: Social Reciprocity (Tit-for-tat)

  • You do me a favor — I owe you one next time.
  • You say, “thank you”— I have to say “you’re welcome.”
  • You send me an email— it’s rude not to get back to you.
  • You follow me — it’s rude not to follow you back. (especially for teenagers)

We are vulnerable to needing to reciprocate others’ gestures. But as with Social Approval, tech companies now manipulate how often we experience it.

In some cases, it’s by accident. Email, texting and messaging apps are social reciprocity factories. But in other cases, companies exploit this vulnerability on purpose.

LinkedIn is the most obvious offender. LinkedIn wants as many people creating social obligations for each other as possible, because each time they reciprocate (by accepting a connection, responding to a message, or endorsing someone back for a skill) they have to come back to linkedin.com where they can get people to spend more time.

Like Facebook, LinkedIn exploits an asymmetry in perception. When you receive an invitation from someone to connect, you imagine that person making a conscious choice to invite you, when in reality, they likely unconsciously responded to LinkedIn’s list of suggested contacts. In other words, LinkedIn turns your unconscious impulses (to “add” a person) into new social obligations that millions of people feel obligated to repay. All while they profit from the time people spend doing it.

Imagine millions of people getting interrupted like this throughout their day, running around like chickens with their heads cut off, reciprocating each other — all designed by companies who profit from it.

Welcome to social media.

After accepting an endorsement, LinkedIn takes advantage of your bias to reciprocate by offering *four* additional people for you to endorse in return.

Imagine if technology companies had a responsibility to minimize social reciprocity. Or if there was an independent organization that represented the public’s interests — an industry consortium or an FDA for tech — that monitored when technology companies abused these biases?

Hijack #6: Bottomless bowls, Infinite Feeds, and Autoplay

YouTube autoplays the next video after a countdown

Another way to hijack people is to keep them consuming things, even when they aren’t hungry anymore.

How? Easy. Take an experience that was bounded and finite, and turn it into a bottomless flow that keeps going.

Cornell professor Brian Wansink demonstrated this in his study showing you can trick people into keep eating soup by giving them a bottomless bowl that automatically refills as they eat. With bottomless bowls, people eat 73% more calories than those with normal bowls and underestimate how many calories they ate by 140 calories.

Tech companies exploit the same principle. News feeds are purposely designed to auto-refill with reasons to keep you scrolling, and purposely eliminate any reason for you to pause, reconsider or leave.

It’s also why video and social media sites like Netflix, YouTube or Facebook autoplay the next video after a countdown instead of waiting for you to make a conscious choice (in case you won’t). A huge portion of traffic on these websites is driven by autoplaying the next thing.

Facebook autoplays the next video after a countdown

Tech companies often claim that “we’re just making it easier for users to see the video they want to watch” when they are actually serving their business interests. And you can’t blame them, because increasing “time spent” is the currency they compete for.

Instead, imagine if technology companies empowered you to consciously bound your experience to align with what would be “time well spent” for you. Not just bounding the quantity of time you spend, but the qualities of what would be “time well spent.”

Hijack #7: Instant Interruption vs. “Respectful” Delivery

Companies know that messages that interrupt people immediately are more persuasive at getting people to respond than messages delivered asynchronously (like email or any deferred inbox).

Given the choice, Facebook Messenger (or WhatsApp, WeChat or SnapChat for that matter) would prefer to design their messaging system to interrupt recipients immediately (and show a chat box) instead of helping users respect each other’s attention.

In other words, interruption is good for business.

It’s also in their interest to heighten the feeling of urgency and social reciprocity. For example, Facebook automatically tells the sender when you “saw” their message, instead of letting you avoid disclosing whether you read it (“now that you know I’ve seen the message, I feel even more obligated to respond.”)

By contrast, Apple more respectfully lets users toggle “Read Receipts” on or off.

The problem is, maximizing interruptions in the name of business creates a tragedy of the commons, ruining global attention spans and causing billions of unnecessary interruptions each day. This is a huge problem we need to fix with shared design standards (potentially, as part of Time Well Spent).

Hijack #8: Bundling Your Reasons with Their Reasons

Another way apps hijack you is by taking your reasons for visiting the app (to perform a task) and make them inseparable from the app’s business reasons (maximizing how much we consume once we’re there).

For example, in the physical world of grocery stores, the #1 and #2 most popular reasons to visit are pharmacy refills and buying milk. But grocery stores want to maximize how much people buy, so they put the pharmacy and the milk at the back of the store.

In other words, they make the thing customers want (milk, pharmacy) inseparable from what the business wants. If stores were truly organized to support people, they would put the most popular items in the front.

Tech companies design their websites the same way. For example, when you you want to look up a Facebook event happening tonight (your reason) the Facebook app doesn’t allow you to access it without first landing on the news feed (their reasons), and that’s on purpose. Facebook wants to convert every reason you have for using Facebook, into their reason which is to maximize the time you spend consuming things.

Instead, imagine if …

  • Twitter gave you a separate way to post a tweet than having to see their news feed.
  • Facebook gave a separate way to look up Facebook Events going on tonight, without being forced to use their news feed.
  • Facebook gave you a separate way to use Facebook Connect as a passport for creating new accounts on 3rd party apps and websites, without being forced to install Facebook’s entire app, news feed and notifications.

In a Time Well Spent world, there is always a direct way to get what you want separately from what businesses want. Imagine a digital “bill of rights” outlining design standards that forced the products used by billions of people to let them navigate directly to what they want without needing to go through intentionally placed distractions.

Imagine if web browsers empowered you to navigate directly to what you want — especially for sites that intentionally detour you toward their reasons.

Hijack #9: Inconvenient Choices

We’re told that it’s enough for businesses to “make choices available.”

  • “If you don’t like it you can always use a different product.”
  • “If you don’t like it, you can always unsubscribe.”
  • “If you’re addicted to our app, you can always uninstall it from your phone.”

Businesses naturally want to make the choices they want you to make easier, and the choices they don’t want you to make harder. Magicians do the same thing. You make it easier for a spectator to pick the thing you want them to pick, and harder to pick the thing you don’t.

For example, NYTimes.com lets you “make a free choice” to cancel your digital subscription. But instead of just doing it when you hit “Cancel Subscription,” they send you an email with information on how to cancel your account by calling a phone number that’s only open at certain times.

NYTimes claims it’s giving a free choice to cancel your account

Instead of viewing the world in terms of availability of choices, we should view the world in terms of friction required to enact choices. Imagine a world where choices were labeled with how difficult they were to fulfill (like coefficients of friction) and there was an independent entity — an industry consortium or non-profit — that labeled these difficulties and set standards for how easy navigation should be.

Hijack #10: Forecasting Errors, “Foot in the Door” strategies

Facebook promises an easy choice to “See Photo.” Would we still click if it gave the true price tag?

Lastly, apps can exploit people’s inability to forecast the consequences of a click.

People don’t intuitively forecast the true cost of a click when it’s presented to them. Sales people use “foot in the door” techniques by asking for a small innocuous request to begin with (“just one click to see which tweet got retweeted”) and escalate from there (“why don’t you stay awhile?”). Virtually all engagement websites use this trick.

Imagine if web browsers and smartphones, the gateways through which people make these choices, were truly watching out for people and helped them forecast the consequences of clicks (based on real data about what benefits and costs it actually had?).

That’s why I add “Estimated reading time” to the top of my posts. When you put the “true cost” of a choice in front of people, you’re treating your users or audience with dignity and respect. In a Time Well Spent internet, choices could be framed in terms of projected cost and benefit, so people were empowered to make informed choices by default, not by doing extra work.

TripAdvisor uses a “foot in the door” technique by asking for a single click review (“How many stars?”) while hiding the three page survey of questions behind the click.

Summary And How We Can Fix This

Are you upset that technology hijacks your agency? I am too. I’ve listed a few techniques but there are literally thousands. Imagine whole bookshelves, seminars, workshops and trainings that teach aspiring tech entrepreneurs techniques like these. Imagine hundreds of engineers whose job every day is to invent new ways to keep you hooked.

The ultimate freedom is a free mind, and we need technology that’s on our team to help us live, feel, think and act freely.

We need our smartphones, notifications screens and web browsers to be exoskeletons for our minds and interpersonal relationships that put our values, not our impulses, first. People’s time is valuable. And we should protect it with the same rigor as privacy and other digital rights.

How Google Marketers Exploit Your Discomfort


We’re trained to serve ads in your moments of quiet desperation

Today, three out of four smartphone owners turn to Google first to address their immediate needs. As a result, Google marketers like me must survive on our ability to play on your impatience and impulsiveness when you’re using a mobile device. We must be there to serve you an ad in your “micro-moment,” the second you decide to use your phone to alleviate the discomfort of not having “it” now — whether “it” is a last-minute sale, directions to a soon-closing store, information about a fast-filling class, or anything else.

As Google plainly phrases it, micro-moments are the “intent-rich moments when decisions are made, and preferences shaped.” This belies what Google can’t say: Your need-it-now mentality usually comes with uncomfortable feelings of anxiety and fear. When you’re shopping in this mindset (for anything, not just a product), your restraint is clouded by emotion. Your immediate transactional, navigational, or informational “need” is conflated with a desire for your bad feelings to go away.

In reality, Google’s goal (and our goal, as Google marketers) is to separate you from as much of your money as possible every time you aren’t thinking clearly —and we do so through ads. Micro-moments are so important to Google’s bottom line that, since a May 2016 keynote, Google has taught us marketers how to best leverage them against you. We do this by serving the ad best suited to your flavor of impulse, and by making sure we’re there for each of those impulses. In a perfect world, marketers would be trained to help you use Google well when you are of an impressionable mind. Instead, we’re taught to exploit your befuddlement.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you have micro-moments about 150 times per day. You will see ads during most of them. These ads speak to what you seek; play on emotions that are unlike you; and fit your age, income, gender, location, and browsing history (as well as other targeting methods I outlined in part 1). Marketers who can’t serve ads in your moments of ephemeral distress die a quick death.

Desperation in consumerism is nothing new. Consumerism relies on it. But today, the degree of targetable desperation with ads is unprecedented. Micro-moments are a very recent phenomenon. They have only been made possible in the last few years due to specific conditions:

  • The number of cellphones in consumers’ hands has hit critical mass.
  • Our relationship with our phones has changed.
  • Our relationship with Google has changed.

A basic example of a micro-moment that any marketer would kill for is when you, the consumer, are standing in a shoe store and it’s about to close. You know for a fact the store has the new Air Max you’ve had your eyes on, but you’re not so sure about the reviews on these new kicks. You’re going to be dropping a couple of hundred bucks, so you definitely want to confirm the reviews are good before you buy. But you can’t find a salesperson to ask about the sneakers. Or, more likely, there’s one standing right by you, but you trust what your phone says over what they do (we’re all guilty of this).

“Dear shoppers,” the intercom says, “we’ll be closing in five minutes. Please bring your final purchases up to the register.”

In a moment of desperation, you turn to Google. You search for “Nike Air Max reviews.” The results page loads, and our ads get in their positions.

As Google “thinks,” the switches are flipping inside the AdWords account of every marketer targeting your physical location, your query (“Nike Air Max reviews”), your age, your gender, your income, and so on. Savvy marketers that are a match will bid up aggressively in a battle to have the №1 result position on your phone (the top two positions on mobile are coveted because they’re all that really matter; the vast majority of mobile users don’t scroll down the search results page).

The ads load.

“We’re closing,” the salesman says. You ignore him, again (poor guy).

A marketer somewhere in the world has just won the battle for your micro-moment.

You’re about to click the ad to read the review it promises to show you, but at the very last moment, your eye catches the price in the ad copy. The exact shoes are listed for $25 cheaper than in the store. That’s it; you’ve made up your mind. You have converted. You don’t make eye contact with anyone, and you make directly for the exit. Sitting in your idling car afterward, you buy the sneakers through the ad.

A marketer somewhere in the world has just won the battle for your micro-moment. They are awarded your money for their victory as well as another, more important trophy: your conversion. That marketer accrues a “+1” tally mark in their AdWords ledger. They forever will be able to look back at that very moment to see the levers that delivered your sale and tweak them as needed to ensure their client’s ad is in the №1 position in any of your future micro-moments.

Micro-moments are leveraged by marketers on behalf of advertisers (in the previous example, that would be Nike) in nearly every industry, whether it’s in B2C (business to consumer) or B2B (business to business). It doesn’t matter whether the product the ad is selling is a sneaker, a loan, a bail bond, a whitepaper download, or a free eBook. As long as there’s an action that the marketer wants you to take, there will always be a correlating moment when they exploit your desperation.


Sometimes the desperation we’re leveraging against you in your micro-moment happens organically, like in the shoe store example. Sometimes it happens inorganically, with the urgency manufactured by us. Ads with countdowns and bogus “flash” sale ads are some ways we create FOMO that plays on your fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

There are industries whose very services rely on the urgency inherent in micro-moments — using the mobile device as a panacea. One of these is locksmiths, who, for years, abused Google ads to exploit people when they were locked out of their homes.

When you are in the market for no product other than the alleviation of discomfort, your phone is your salve.

For example, a successful marketer with a locksmith client would know to skew up their bids for women searching for help online after standard business hours on mobile devices. Marketers know these women, who are locked out of their homes, are often very tired, may have their children with them, and might not have anywhere else to go. In other words, these are women who are willing to do anything to alleviate their anguish, no matter the cost.

After the Google searcher places a call to the locksmith through the ad, the offending advertiser may sell the call out to an offshore center while the searcher waits for help. And when that help arrives, it comes at 10 times the price promised in the ad. Scammers aren’t often shy about using intimidation to demand full payment on the spot. In one common practice, the imposter locksmith drills the lock and won’t let the Google searcher into their house until they pay up.


Advanced marketers know it’s not enough to simply be there in each of your need-it-now moments when it’s something tangible you seek. Sometimes, what you seek is immaterial but no less exploitable. Marketers who rise to the top in a world of constant micro-moments understand that your desire to buy, go, or do is not the only reason you turn to your phone in a state of urgency.

Today’s average consumer spends 4.7 hours per day on their phone. And I’d wager most of that time is not spent with the intent of buying a product before a sale ends or getting to the mall before it closes or signing up for a degree program. A chunk of the time you spend on the phone is, of course, during stretches of boredom—when you’re in the bathroom, while your spouse is telling you about their day, or when you’re driving on a side street. A successful manipulator of micro-moments is not as interested in serving you ads when you’re bored—when you have little intent and are not led by emotion.

You don’t even have to open Google to be exploited.

But we want to serve you ads during another form of downtime when you are clouded by emotion: during your moments of social awkwardness. And we humans are uncomfortable in social settings many, many times per day: in the elevator, waiting at Starbucks, when a stranger sits across from us on the train, or when a co-worker inquires about our weekend. There is no adult who doesn’t understand the unique sensation in the guts triggered by these modern encounters, or how ridiculous it can feel to get your coffee, settle in at a table, and then sit there with no distractions. When you are in the market for no product other than the alleviation of discomfort, your phone is your salve.

You don’t even have to open Google to be exploited; if you just browse the web, Gmail, or YouTube, you will be served a Google ad. Whether you click it or not, you are being impressed, counted as a view-through, and entered into a conversion path that will culminate days and clicks later.

There’s an ad for every variety and instance of your relief-seeking—all of them hosted across channels through Google. The targeting methods used to convert you at your lowest are informed by Google and wielded, at times irresponsibly, by marketers.

And Google keeps us informed of the best practices.

How I Quit Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Amazon


A reflection on my month without Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Amazon, plus a how-to guide if you want to quit the biggest companies in tech.

SLAUGHTERHOUSE BIG FIVE:
EVERYTHING WAS UGLY AND NOTHING WORKED

It was just before closing time at a Verizon store in Bushwick, New York last May when I burst through the door, sweaty and exasperated. I had just sprinted—okay I walked, but briskly—from another Verizon outlet a few blocks away in the hopes I’d make it before they closed shop for the night. I was looking for a SIM card that would fit a refurbished 2012 Samsung Galaxy S3 that I had recently purchased on eBay, but the previous three Verizon stores I visited didn’t have any chips that would fit such an old model.

When I explained my predicament to the salesperson, he laughed in my face.

“You want to switch from you current phone to an… S3?” he asked incredulously.

I explained my situation. I was about to embark on a month without intentionally using any services or products produced by the so-called “Big Five” tech companies: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. At that point I had found adequate, open source replacements for most of the services offered by these companies, but ditching the Android OS, which is developed by Google, was proving difficult.

Most of the tech I use on a day-to-day basis is pretty utilitarian. At the time I was using a cheap ASUS laptop at work and a homebrew PC at my apartment. My phone was a Verizon-specific version of the Samsung Galaxy J3, a 2016 model that cost a little over $100 new. They weren’t fancy, but they’ve reliably met most of my needs for years.

For the past week and a half I had spent most of my evenings trying to port an independent mobile OS called Sailfish onto my phone without any luck. As it turned out, Verizon had locked the bootloader on my phone model, which is so obscure that no one in the vibrant Android hacking community had dedicated much time to figuring out a workaround. If I wanted to use Sailfish, I was going to have to get a different phone.

I remembered using a Galaxy S3 while living in India a few years ago and liking it well enough. I ultimately decided to go with that model after finding extensive documentation online from others who had had success porting unofficial operating systems onto their phones. So two days and $20-plus-shipping later, I was in possession of a surprisingly new-looking Verizon Galaxy S3. The only thing that remained to do before loading Sailfish onto the device was to find a SIM card that fit. SIM cards come in three different sizes—standard, micro, and nano—and my nano SIM wouldn’t fit in the S3’s micro SIM port.

By the time I explained all this to the Verizon employee, he had found a SIM card that would work. As he navigated the Android setup menu he asked me if I wanted him to link my Google account to the phone. “Oh that’s right,” he said, looking up from the phone and laughing. “Sorry, it’s just a habit.”

I could hardly blame him for the slipup. I’m probably the only person who has ever come into the store who didn’t want to synchronize the Google services they use with their phone. It’d be senseless to resist that kind of convenience and Google knows this, which is why Android prompts you to enter your Google credentials before you’ve even reached the phone’s dashboard for the first time. But what I wanted to know is whether there was another way.

Want a more in-depth explanation of why you might want to quit the Big Five? Check out my introductory blog post on how this experiment came about

By now, it’s common knowledge that Google, Facebook, and Amazon are harvesting as much of our personal data as they can get their hands on to feed us targeted ads, train artificial intelligence, and sell us things before we know we need them. The results of this ruthless data-driven hypercapitalism speak for themselves: Today, the Big Five tech companies are worth a combined total of $3 trillion dollars. When I started my month without the Big Five in May, Google’s parent company Alphabet, Amazon, and Apple were racing to be the first company in history with stock worth $1 trillion. In August, Apple became the first to reach this milestone and just a few weeks later Amazon’s market cap also briefly passed $1 trillion.

With the exception of Microsoft and Apple, these fortunes were not built by selling wildly popular products, but by collecting massive amounts of user data in order to more effectively sell us stuff. At the same time, this data has also been abused to swing elections and abet state surveillance. For most of us, giving away our data was seen as the price of convenience—Google and Facebook are “free” to use, after all.

Although Amazon now sells its own products, its rapid growth was fueled by selling other people’s products. This gave the company unprecedented access to consumer habits and data, which it used to spin out its own consumer goods brands and gain invaluable experience in logistics and web hosting. Both its in-house consumer brands and Amazon Web Services are now core parts of Amazon.

The widespread adoption of Microsoft and Apple products over the past 40 years, meanwhile, was no accident, but the result of monopoly-focused business tactics. The end result was that their products appear to be a natural default. You’re either a Mac person or a Windows person and you stick to your brand because that’s the way it’s always been.

 

As the open internet was swallowed whole by the megacorporations of Silicon Valley, however, a revolution was occurring in free, open source software (FOSS). Although FOSS can trace its roots back to the crew working at MIT’s artificial intelligence laboratory in the early 1980s, it broke into the mainstream in a big way largely due to the creation of Linux, an open operating system developed in the early 90s. These days there’s a galaxy of free and open source software that offers adequate alternatives to most Big Five services, and much of it is powered by Linux. In fact, a lot of the Big Five services you use on a daily basis are probably also based on Linux or open source software that has had some proprietary code grafted on top of it before it was repackaged and sold back to you.

My goal with going a month without the Big Five was to see if I could rely solely on open source or independent software without compromising what I was able to accomplish with proprietary code. Basically, could I live my normal life with open source alternatives?

Going into the experiment, I realized that there was a good chance I’d come crawling back to some of the Big Five services when it was over. Yet as I discovered over the four weeks, switching to independent alternatives didn’t negatively affect most parts of my life, but it did take a little getting used to.

Before diving into the nitty gritty of what worked and what didn’t, however, let me explain the limits of the experiment.

LIMITATIONS

After announcing my intention to relinquish Big Five services for a month, People On The Internet pointed out that my experiment would fail because I would almost certainly visit a website hosted by Amazon’s cloud service at some point, thereby indirectly putting money into Jeff Bezos’s pocket. This is, of course, true. Amazon Web Services hosts a number of popular sites that I use on a regular basis, such as Netflix, Reddit, Spotify, SoundCloud, and Yelp, all of which I visited at least once during the month.

Unfortunately, avoiding this kind of indirect support of Big Five through their back-end services will become even more difficult to avoid in the future. For example, Google is beginning to lay its own undersea internet cables, creating the infrastructure for totally networked homes, and developing self-driving car services. Microsoft is aggressively pursuing cloud computing platforms and recently acquired GitHub, a code repository I frequently use while teaching myself how to program. Amazon moved into the space data business and is also working on networking your home with devices like Alexa, and Facebook still controls how much of the world communicates through its website, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

Yet even if I did scrupulously avoid visiting sites hosted on Amazon Web Services, the experiment was designed to be temporary. This meant that rather than shutting down my work Gmail accounts, I had them forward my email to an alternative email provider that I would then use to send and receive emails. There were also inevitably important files that I neglected to transfer from my Google Drive to an alternative hosting service when I was preparing for the experiment, so I had to log in to my Google account to retrieve those files and move them over. Or there were times when I was attempting to change a YouTube link to a HookTube link and accidentally landed on YouTube.

I don’t think the handful of lapses alluded to above undercut the spirit of the experiment, however, since I wasn’t intentionally using any services offered by the Big Five. If I were permanently planning to leave the Big Five I would have transferred all my files from Google Drive, deleted my Gmail accounts, and so on.

So with these experimental limitations in mind, I present the Motherboard Guide to Quitting the Big Five, based on my own experience in May 2018.

THE MOTHERBOARD GUIDE
TO QUITTING THE BIG FIVE

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Image: Motherboard

HOW TO QUIT FACEBOOK

My experiment in leaving the Big Five arguably began back in March, when I deleted my Facebook account in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Of all the companies I abandoned for this experiment, Facebook and its subsidiaries were by far the easiest. I have tried and failed to start an Instagram account several times over the years. I find Instagram unbelievably boring and I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll never understand its already large, and still growing, appeal.

Quitting WhatsApp was more difficult since I used it to keep in touch with my friends abroad, many of whom live in countries where WhatsApp is the default communication tool. With friends and family in the US, I switched over to the encrypted chat app Telegram or just stuck to normal SMS and email. As I soon learned, the ideal messaging platform doesn’t exist. If security is your thing, WhatsApp, Messenger, Signal, and Telegram all have their flaws and all offer comparable services. The main advantage of WhatsApp is that nearly a quarter of the world already uses it.

I have been off Facebook for a few months now and my only regret is that I didn’t leave sooner. Although there is admittedly something of a phantom-limb effect right after leaving—pulling out my phone in response to imaginary pings from Messenger or reflexively navigating to the Facebook login page only to realize I no longer had a profile—the feeling that I was always missing something quickly subsided. I go out with friends and attend events just as much as I did before. I have no qualms about missing events that I would’ve received a mass Facebook invite to because now I live in blissful ignorance of their occurrence. Contrary to my expectations, my FOMO is at its lowest point in years.

“Contrary to my expectations, my FOMO is at its lowest point in years”

Admittedly, leaving Facebook is a privilege. In many places, Facebook and Messenger are people’s only links to the outside world, or people may depend on Facebook to run their business. It can also make it challenging for people to contact you if you leave. Although I made a point of collecting contact information from my friends before I deleted my account, there were inevitably some I forgot.

During my month without the Big Five, I received an email from an Argentinian friend I hadn’t seen in years who was passing through New York. When we met for dinner, he mentioned how hard I had been to track down without Facebook. Fortunately, I’ve listed my email publicly on my website and still had a Twitter profile at that point, so he was able to find an alternative method of contacting me. But for people who don’t work in industries where it’s normal to make your email public or to have a personal website, these types of missed connections are bound to happen.

As for the actual process of deleting your Facebook profile, it’s pretty simple. I’ve covered the process in detail in another article, but there are a few points you’ll want to consider before taking the plunge. If you’re the type of person who signs up for other apps such as Tinder or Airbnb with your Facebook account, then deleting your Facebook profile is going to be way more of a pain in the ass because you’re going to have to switch all those accounts over to an email login first. Second, if you have hundreds of photo albums dating back to 2008 that you want to save, be prepared to spend a few hours scraping them off of Facebook. (There are scripts that help with this, but I didn’t find any of them to be that efficient.) Other than that, there’s a button on Facebook that will allow you to download all your data in one fell swoop. It includes every like, comment, and event invite from the past decade so you can cherish these internet minutiae until you grow old and die.

Read More: Delete All Your Apps

There are a number of legitimate reasons you might want to consider leaving Facebook. In my case, I left due to my discomfort with the idea that I was giving away huge amounts of intensely personal data to a company that had a history of mishandling its users’ information. I was also getting tired of wasting so much time endlessly scrolling through status updates from people whom I hadn’t seen or talked to for years. I had managed to convince myself that clicking “like” on digital simulacra of people’s lives was socializing and, to borrow Mark Zuckerberg’s favorite word, being part of a “community.”

There’s no doubt that humans are social creatures and that human interaction is a critical part of an individual’s wellbeing. How strange, then, that a mounting body of evidence shows that reducing social media use actually decreases loneliness and feelings of unhappiness. To make matters worse, sometimes Facebook makes us unhappy on purpose.

But even if you have more free time than you know what to do with and don’t mind forking over your data to a multi-billion dollar company that just “runs ads,” you might consider ditching Facebook because it is a breeding ground for disinformation. In the past three years, evidence has emerged that Facebook was a primary vector for sowing political discord in the United States and, so far, Zuckerberg hasn’t demonstrated that his company has the faintest idea of how to stop it. Maybe one day it will figure out an effective filter for fake news, but until then, there’s a good chance that meme your racist uncle just posted was generated by a Russian bot.

Read More: The Impossible Job: Inside Facebook’s Struggle to Moderate 2 Billion People

During Zuckerberg’s testimony before the US Congress in April, Senator Lindsey Graham asked him point blank whether Facebook was a monopoly. Zuckerberg danced around the question and was ultimately unable to provide an example of alternative services offering a similar product to Facebook.

Although there are lots of alternative social media platforms out there, none of them are used by half the world’s population, which is exactly what makes Facebook so valuable. Still, if you want to keep social media in your life, you might want to use an alternative platform, such as Mastodon (a decentralized Twitter imitator) or Ello (a privacy-oriented, ad-free Facebook alternative). You won’t find anyone you know on there, probably, but at least your social media fix won’t come at the cost of your privacy.

HOW TO QUIT APPLE

I’ve only owned two Apple products in my life. One was an old 120 gigabyte iPod classic that I still miss dearly. The other was an iPhone 4 that I got in 2010 and had for a year and a half before I switched to Android and never looked back.

Since I didn’t have any Apple products to relinquish for my monthlong experiment, I used the time for a little introspection on why I dislike Apple products. The main reason is that I was raised using Windows, so I was disincentivized to learn the quirks of a new OS. As I grew older, however, I also found Apple’s “walled-garden” approach to its device ecosystem infuriating. (For many people, however, this closed ecosystem and interoperability between Apple devices is exactly what makes its products attractive.)

Apple’s obsession with total control is perhaps best exemplified by the release of iPhone 7 in 2016, which got rid of the ubiquitous headphone jack that has been used by literally every other digital device since forever and replaced it with a proprietary dongle. This was an affront to Apple’s devout followers, sure, but that didn’t stop the company from selling more than 200 million iPhones last year at around $600 a pop. And yet here we are, years after Apple adopted the dongle, and people are still mourning the loss of the headphone jack.

I know why I don’t use Apple, but even after a month of thinking about it, I still couldn’t rationalize why anyone would spend a night sleeping outside an Apple store to get their hands on one of its overpriced products. People love to justify their purchase of iPhones by appealing to the superior security of iOS compared to Android. But recent updates have significantly closed the security gap between Android phones and iPhones.

After a month of thinking about it, I still couldn’t rationalize why anyone would spend a night sleeping outside an Apple store to get their hands on one of its overpriced products

Unfortunately, there are no independent studies about what motivates most people to buy Apple phones, but I suspect that security probably wouldn’t top the list. Besides, as the fallout between the FBI and Apple over backdoors reminded us, there’s no such thing as an unhackable device. In fact, there’s a relatively cheap hacking tool that can be used by cops to bypass iPhone encryption. Even when Apple tried to fix this with a patch, iPhones got hacked again anyway. C’est la vie!

Okay, but what about Macs? Apple’s laptops and desktop computers are usually adored for their performance specs and native applications that are geared toward creative types (GarageBand, iMovie, etc.). Apple knows this, which is why a recent commercial campaign for MacBook features artists making art while a Daniel Johnston song called “Story of an Artist” plays in the background. Very subtle. The thing is, you can build a custom PC that matches or surpasses the technical specs of a high-end Mac without spending $5,000.

Despite what you may have heard, building a custom PC is not as hard as it sounds. It’s basically just an expensive and delicate form of electronic Lego. I don’t have any formal experience in computer science and I was able to build a decent PC with 2 GPUs, 16 gigs of memory, two terabytes of storage, and a quad-core CPU for around $1,000 by using handy tools such as PC Part Picker. My PC has way more power than I’ve ever needed and still costs less than a new MacBook and far less than a Mac desktop. As for the Mac’s native applications, most of these have fine Linux equivalents. For example, here’s an extensive list of free sound and MIDI software for Linux; Ubuntu Studio is great for most video editing needs; there are even several open source alternatives to Siri.

HOW TO QUIT AMAZON

Depending on how you look at it, Amazon is either the hardest or the easiest company to quit of the Big Five. On the one hand, its consumer-facing business is mostly predicated on the idea of convenience, as evidenced by products like the Dash button or Alexa. This should, in principle, make it easy to quit since it would only require going back to the old ways of buying things from an actual brick-and-mortar store or visiting websites that sell specific goods.

When I started my experiment, I had an Amazon Prime account, but really only used Amazon to regularly buy three things: Books, cat food, and cat litter. As someone who exclusively uses public transportation, these items are a pain to buy at a store and transfer to my house because they are large and heavy. Of course I could just order the cat products from another site, but Amazon Prime offers free shipping and the ability to set up recurring automatic orders.

Read More: How To Get Amazon Prime for Free for Life

During my experiment, however, I was determined to patronize my locally owned pet store since this seemed to be the most antithetical to Amazon’s dominance of all things retail. Carrying these items the few blocks to my house sucked (a box of cat litter weighs 40 pounds), but what blew even more was the price difference. The same cat food I always buy on Amazon cost more than twice as much at my local pet store. While this was fine for a month, I couldn’t afford this large of an increase in my expenses in the long term. My best bet, then, would be to still buy the pet items I needed online from websites such as Chewy, which still provide most of the convenience offered by Amazon.

It wasn’t convenience alone that made Amazon into the behemoth it is today—there were plenty of online book retailers around when Amazon hit the scene in 1994. What made Amazon successful was that its catalog included books not carried by other (online) bookstores. Over the past two decades, it has expanded this logic to every type of consumer good and this is precisely what makes “the everything store” so difficult to quit.

Whereas a brick-and-mortar store can only carry a finite inventory, Amazon’s inventory is effectively limitless. This combination of infinite selection and total convenience is exactly the type of selling point that appeals to America’s workforce, which is increasingly strapped for both time and money. For people living in rural areas or with disabilities, Amazon’s rapid delivery services can also be a lifeline.

I am able-bodied and live in one of the largest cities in the world, so quitting Amazon is arguably a privilege. I didn’t mind calling my local bookstore to ask it to order a particular title or popping into the local pet store every few weeks if that’s what it took to cut the company from my life.

Then one day I was making a recipe that called for pine nuts, only to discover that none of the three grocery stores in my neighborhood carried them. The only other grocery store remotely close to me was Whole Foods, which was recently acquired by Amazon and definitely carried pine nuts. So I caved, dear reader, and bought some overpriced seeds from an Amazon subsidiary.

Although shopping local or going to other online stores is an option for quitting Amazon, some of its other subsidiaries are far more difficult to replace because they are unique. I don’t game, but if I did it would be hard to find an adequate replacement for Twitch because so many gamers already use it. Likewise, the Internet Movie Database for movie facts and Goodreads for book reviews are two online destinations for which there isn’t an adequate alternative and are basically the go-to sites for their respective domains. Finally, as mentioned earlier, many major websites such as Netflix and Spotify run on Amazon Web Services, so if you use these services you’re also indirectly supporting Amazon.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of good reasons to limit your patronage of Amazon and its subsidiaries. For starters, Amazon has become notorious for its mistreatment of workers. A 2015 New York Times expose detailed the grueling expectations placed on Amazon’s white collar workers, and story after story after story keeps bubbling up that details the inhumane conditions faced by Amazon’s warehouse employees.

You may also take issue with Amazon’s development of facial recognition software that is used for predictive policing and the company’s support of similar products made by companies such as Palantir that use its cloud hosting service. Even if Amazon’s Echo and Dot are ostensibly benign, they are also liable to be hacked and turned into spy devices.

Finally, Amazon has developed a reputation for steamrolling local economies and may end up killing over 2 million jobs as it increases its dominance over traditional retail and other market sectors.

HOW TO QUIT MICROSOFT

I have used Microsoft’s operating system for as long as I can remember. My family’s first computer ran Windows 95, but the first experience I can recall with a computer was Windows 98 and the boot theme must’ve imprinted itself on my impressionable, 5-year-old brain because I’ve exclusively used Windows ever since. The Vista and XP years were rough, I’ll admit, but it’s always darkest before dawn. Windows 10 certainly has its flaws (especially when it comes to privacy), but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t dreading swapping it out for Ubuntu, a popular Linux distribution.

Developed as an open source operating system by Linus Torvalds in the early 90s, Linux has grown from a nerdy curiosity to a defining feature of modern computer systems. Indeed, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook are all major donors to the Linux foundation, which underscores their reliance on the kernel. These days the Linux kernel powers around 75 percent of cloud platforms and is also found at the core of many consumer-facing devices, including every phone using Android, which is the most popular mobile OS in the world by a huge margin.

Although Linux is prized by system admins everywhere for its versatility, it’s been slow to catch on as an operating system for average PC users who mostly use their computers for web browsing, word processing, and other simple tasks. In the beginning, Linux was still very experimental and didn’t offer equivalents for many of the standard programs found on Windows PCs or Macs. Further, many popular programs didn’t bother to create a version of their software that could be used on machines running Linux.

Today, things are much better in this respect. There are Linux equivalents of everything from Microsoft Office to Adobe’s Photoshop, and popular applications such as Spotify usually offer a Linux version of their software.

Prior to this experiment, my only experience with Linux was setting up a cryptocurrency mining rig that ran a custom operating system called EthOS specifically designed for mining. This familiarized me with some basic terminal commands, but really I was a total Linux noob.

Fortunately, getting Linux up and running on my laptop and home PC was pretty easy. For the laptop, I used a colleague’s 2010 Alienware gaming laptop. Rather than partitioning the hard drive, which is a way to have multiple operating systems on a single computer, I opted to erase Windows and have the laptop only run Ubuntu.

To do this, I downloaded Ubuntu (there are plenty of different Linux distributions to choose from, but Ubuntu is one of the most popular distros for casual users) onto a USB drive. If you wanted to try Linux before fully committing to replacing your OS with it, it is possible to run any distribution from a thumb drive. Since I was going to be doing this experiment for a month and wanted to have access to the computer’s storage space, I opted to wipe the computer and install Linux.

On my home PC, I have two terabytes of hard drive space, so I had more than enough room to host two operating systems side by side and still have a decent amount of storage allocated to each OS. When partitioning a disk to run both Windows/MacOS and Linux on the same computer, you can choose how much of your hard drive you want to allocate to each OS. In my case I chose to split it evenly. Now, whenever I reboot that PC, it will automatically boot into Windows, but if I enter the boot menu after restarting the computer, I can also choose to boot into Linux instead.

In spite of the easy of installation and compatibility with most software programs, Ubuntu and other Linux operating systems still haven’t really taken off in the mainstream. The reason for this, I think, is that using Linux actually feels like using a computer—as in, the remarkably complex network of transistors, logic gates, and the other stuff ensconced whatever device you’re reading this on. Linux violates the first rule of getting people to use a technology, which is that it shouldn’t feel like you’re using technology at all. To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, it should feel like magic. Linux does not feel like magic; it feels like a pain in the ass—at least until you’ve figured out how to use a command terminal.

We’ve gotten so accustomed to graphical user interfaces that most of us have forgotten that prior to the mid-80s, most computers didn’t have application icons that could summon advanced programs with a double tap on a mouse. Instead, pulling a document from a file or launching a program required the user to actually enter the desired command as text. The latest version of Ubuntu has a sleek graphical interface that isn’t that much different from what you’d find on Windows or MacOS, but after a few days of learning command terminal it’s hard to go back.

It’s possible to do basically everything from a Linux terminal, but just because it’s possible doesn’t necessarily mean you want to. Learning to effectively use the terminal was definitely the most gratifying part of my experiment. Although I am still a novice, I really liked that it allowed me to tell the computer exactly what I wanted it to do, without having to navigate endless menus or other superfluous features. It felt like I had real control over my computer, as opposed to being forced to use applications based on what the designers thought their users wanted. I also learned a great deal about how an operating system actually works by having to think through directory structures and follow logical sequences of commands.

Still, the first few days of using Linux were incredibly frustrating. It felt like I had to Google—ahem, query on DuckDuckGo—the answer for the simplest things, such as how to download an application. At this point, Ubuntu has a pretty extensive package repository, so many programs you use on a regular basis are probably one-click downloads. But if you want to run a more obscure program, you’re going to have to compile it yourself from the source, which includes learning how to make a directory and all that good stuff.

Other than my initial difficulties with the terminal, the Linux experience with Ubuntu was quite pleasant. There are alternative open source programs for pretty much everything you’d find on a Windows system. For example, LibreOffice is a perfect substitute for Word, Excel, and Powerpoint, GIMP is a more than adequate substitute for Adobe Photoshop for amateur photo editing, and Pidgin is a great instant messaging app. If you absolutely need to run Windows programs on a Linux machine, there’s an app called Wine that will let you do just that.

There are also a number of other “hidden” advantages that come with Linux. For starters, it is arguably the most secure OS—you probably don’t even need an anti-virus program. Ubuntu, along with and other Linux distributions, is generally an ultra-efficient and lean operating system, so if you are using an older computer like I was, you shouldn’t have any trouble running it. Best of all, it’s entirely free. This was a breath of fresh air after using Microsoft, which will charge you an arm and a leg for Windows ($139 for the home edition) and then still more for its defining features, such as Microsoft Office ($70 for a single user home edition).

HOW TO QUIT GOOGLE

Google was without a doubt the hardest company to purge from my life, but for this reason, also the most necessary. I am dependent on Google products for almost everything in my personal and professional life. At work, my editors and I workshop stories in Google docs; our company email system is hosted on Gmail servers; my contact with people at VICE that don’t directly work with Motherboard is almost exclusively through Hangouts; I organize calls with sources on Google Calendar; all my documents and photos are automatically synced to Google Drive; I frequently write about videos I find on YouTube; Google Maps is only way I know how to navigate New York City; Google’s Authenticator app secures many of my most important online accounts; Chrome has been my web browser since it was released a decade ago; and most importantly, my phone, and 75 percent of all the other phones on the planet, run Android, which is mainly developed by Google.

In some cases, Google’s products are far better than anything else out there (Google Maps) or are seemingly irreplaceable because that’s what everyone else uses (YouTube). Yet the real attraction to Google is that all of its products are seamlessly integrated across devices. The idea of unlinking all these vital aspects of my professional and personal life was off-putting, and trying to find adequate replacements for all these services seemed nearly impossible. But I am here to tell you that there is life after Google.

GMAIL

The easiest Google product to ditch was Gmail because there are plenty of good alternative email providers out there. I opted to go with Protonmail, a Swiss email provider that encrypts every email sent through its service. The only downside I noticed was that I used up approximately half of my allotted 500 MB of free storage space in the month.

It is, of course, possible to do a paid subscription and upgrade to get more storage, but this costs significantly more than Gmail’s storage upgrades, which also allows for file hosting through Google Drive. For the sake of comparison, 5 GB of storage on Protonmail costs a little over $5/month, whereas Google charges $2/month for 100 GB. This is the economics of scale at work.

Although it is possible to set up your own email server, this process is quite complex, though there are a few startups that are trying to streamline the process. If you haven’t set up a web server before (more on this below), try doing that first before making the leap to hosting your own email.

Rather than going through the hassle of deleting all my Gmail accounts for a month, I set up my Gmail accounts to automatically forward incoming mail to my new Protonmail accounts, so technically Google was still processing my email. For anyone looking to permanently ditch Gmail you’ll still probably want to forward your emails to your new email account at first so that you don’t end up missing anything important while your contacts catch up to your new email address. Another option is to send out a mass email informing your contacts of your new address.

GOOGLE DRIVE

My professional and personal life is such that I have amassed a substantial collection of documents, voice recordings, photographs, and other digital flotsam. To help keeps tabs on data distributed across several devices and to guard against data loss through hard drive destruction, I used a paid subscription to Google Drive. This got me a whopping 100 GB of storage space on Google’s servers for a couple bucks a month, but the real cost was a substantial loss of privacy. Google automatically scans the contents of its user documents stored on Drive to prevent violations of its terms of service and serve up targeted ads. Up until last year it also scanned personal Gmail accounts.

Although I always had the option of moving my personal documents to a different hosting device or to a local hard drive, this always seemed to be more hassle than it was worth since half of my job takes place in Google Docs, which my editors and I use for collaborative editing. Google Drive was convenient because it allows for collaboration on documents and storage in the same spot.

There are several great alternative cloud hosting services available, but far fewer alternative web services for collaborating on documents. One of the best known open source collaborative editors is Etherpad, which launched in 2008…and was almost immediately acquired by Google.

I opted to try Piratepad, a fork of Etherpad that was created by the Swedish Pirate Party. Although I loved the spirit of Piratepad, its barebones format made editing articles difficult because it was harder to leave comments and make suggestions on articles. Instead, you had to make changes directly in the document.

Moreover, whenever I tried to copy an article from Piratepad into VICE’s content management system, the format was totally wonky and reformatting the article added a substantial amount of time to the publishing process.

The solution my editors and I eventually landed on was far from ideal. I would write an article locally using LibreOffice Writer (the Linux equivalent of Word), send the document in Slack to my editors, who would upload it to Google Drive on their own computers, edit it, re-download it as an ODT file—the file format for text documents in LibreOffice—then send it back to me on Slack for rewrites. Despite how wildly inefficient this was, it allowed for all the editing amenities found in Google Docs without messing with the article’s format. Although this worked well enough for the month, it’s hard to imagine that this would be sustainable long term. As far as I could tell, when it comes to collaborative editing software there’s still no good replacement for Google Docs.

As for the hosting platform, I decided to use NextCloud, an open source fork of the file hosting service ownCloud. I was pleasantly surprised at how intuitive NextCloud’s interface was and how easy it was to integrate across my devices, including my rooted phone. NextCloud is run out of Germany, but because it is open source software, anyone can host their own file storage server locally and not rely on it. This only requires about $40 in set-up costs for a Raspberry Pi, a storage medium such as an external hard drive, and an ethernet cord. This sounds complicated, but there are plenty of easy-to-follow tutorials to set up your own “cloud” storage system at home.

MAPS

There was a point in my life where I knew how to use a compass and read a topological map, but whatever part of my brain was reserved for storing this information started to atrophy the day I discovered Google Maps. This app is, without question, the best map app in existence, which makes sense given how much Google has invested in mapping technology. The company has fleets of cars with cameras mounted on them that roam the world’s streets, but its most important data is anonymously submitted by millions of users whose smartphones deliver movement data to Google as they navigate a city.

At this point I couldn’t locate my own ass without consulting Google Maps, so the prospect of trying to navigate New York City—a city I had moved to only a few months prior—without this cartographic crutch was daunting. Last year, a cartographer named Justin O’Beirne published a fascinating deep dive into why Google’s maps are so good and why every competitor, including Apple, has found Google Maps to be basically impossible to replicate, so I knew going in I was going to experience a serious downgrade in navigation capabilities.

Despite this, there are plenty of alternative map apps to choose from. The three best alternatives, Apple Maps and Waze were off-limits because they are owned by Apple and Google, respectively. (I was also under the impression that Here was still owned by Nokia (Microsoft), but have since learned that it was sold to a consortium of German automakers in 2015.) I remembered the days when MapQuest was still considered the go-to for navigation, so I opted to use its service, figuring it probably got better over the years. If it has, it was hard to tell.

One of the most convenient things about Google Maps is that it integrates various forms of transportation into its directions. You’ll get different directions depending on whether you’re biking, taking a car, walking, or taking the subway. MapQuest, however, only offers driving and walking, which is less than ideal in a city where public transit and biking are major modes of transportation.

Throughout the month, I found myself getting frustrated with little things like having to figure out the crossroads of a subway stop, rather than just typing in the name of the stop to get MapQuest to understand where I was. Likewise, I ended up taking a lot of inefficient bike routes because the MapQuest app couldn’t tell me which streets had bike lanes. There’s something really nice about only having to type in “library” in Google Maps to get directed to New York Public Library a few blocks away. Unless you type out the full “New York Public Library” in MapQuest, you’re liable to get directions to a library in another state.

CHROME

Abandoning Chrome was more of an annoyance than anything. I’ve surfed the web using Google’s browser for a while now after years of being a devoted Firefox user. Although I still had Firefox installed on my laptop, it wasn’t nearly as perfectly tuned as my Chrome settings were. I mostly kept it around to use when I had to visit a site that insisted I turn off my various ad blockers and anti-tracking plugins I use on Chrome. The main reason I left Firefox a few years ago was its lackluster security, which is slowly improving.

Although I also briefly used Opera and Brave for this experiment, I ultimately settled on Firefox as my go-to browser. Opera and Brave are both based on Chromium, the underlying engine for Google’s Chrome browser.

Despite being open source, Firefox is not entirely Google-free, either. For the past decade, Mozilla has had an off-and-on agreement with Google to use its search engine by default, which is quite lucrative for Mozilla. Still, it wasn’t running Google’s engine, so I opted to use it for the majority of my experiment. As far as user experience was concerned, switching to Firefox was hardly a noticeable change.

GOOGLE SEARCH

There are plenty of alternative search engines out there, but the two leading candidates—Bing and Google Search—were off limits. For my experiment, I opted for DuckDuckGo, a privacy-oriented search engine. DuckDuckGo doesn’t track your searches nor serve you targeted ads. It’s hardly any wonder, then, that it is the default search engine for the TOR network.

DuckDuckGo also replicates a lot of features found in Google search, such as autocomplete and a command that allows you to directly search a website through the browser. For instance, if I were to type “!imdb the most unknown,” I’d find myself on IMDB’s page for Motherboard’s first documentary, The Most Unknown. Of course I wouldn’t have done that, however, because IMDB is owned by Amazon.

While I appreciated these features, I couldn’t help but notice a remarkable deterioration in the quality of my search results compared to Google. With Google, I can type in a loose collection of keywords and usually find my desired result. With DuckDuckGo, my searches would have to be painstakingly exact. This made things difficult when I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, and constantly made me wonder if there were better search results that I wasn’t seeing. In any case, DuckDuckGo was still pretty impressive and it felt good to know I wasn’t being tracked every time I put something in the search bar.

Despite its best intentions and willingness to call Google to task for its monopolizing business practices, DuckDuckGo is not entirely free from the grips of the Big Five. According to the company, DuckDuckGo makes money by serving ads from the Yahoo-Microsoft search alliance. While these ads are based on the search query, rather than data about the user, at least a portion of DuckDuckGo’s revenue comes from Microsoft’s pockets. DuckDuckGo also is part of the Amazon affiliate program, so if you purchase Amazon products using the search engine the company earns a small commission.

YOUTUBE

A significant part of my job involves watching YouTube videos, so I had to figure out a way to still get access to them without routing my traffic through the website. In May, there was a really convenient service around called Hooktube that could do just that. To use HookTube, you simply replaced the “youtube” portion in any YouTube video link with “hooktube.” That’s it. When you used HookTube, you wouldn’t be routing traffic through Google’s servers, giving views to the videos, or seeing any ads.

Of course, all these videos still exist on Google’s servers and HookTube would be useless without them. This is yet another case where there is really no real replacement for YouTube in terms of the sheer amount of content hosted on the site. There are plenty of other video platforms (Vimeo, for example) but they have different—and vastly smaller—video libraries.

I really fell in love with HookTube, but unfortunately the service is no more. As detailed in HookTube’s changelog, on July 16 the service was ended due to increasing pressure from YouTube’s legal team. Although HookTube still exists, its links are routed through Google’s servers.

“HookTube is now effectively just a lightweight version of YouTube and useless to the 90 percent of you primarily concerned with denying Google data and seeing videos blocked by your governments,” the changelog reads. “Rest in pieces.”

In the meantime, others have attempted to make replacement versions of HookTube. Some of these appear to work well, but as HookTube demonstrated, it’s only a matter of time before they attract the attention of YouTube’s legal department. While it’s certainly possible to create an endless array of mirror sites to avoid censorship from internet service providers, similar to how torrenting sites such as Pirate Bay continue to operate despite a crackdown on torrenting, no one appears to have done the same with HookTube yet.

AUTHENTICATOR

If you’re thinking of ditching Google and you use two-factor authentication to secure your accounts, make sure you have your recovery code for every account secured using Google Authenticator. If you do not have these, you will be locked out of your account. I cannot emphasize how important it is to triple check that you have a backup way to get into accounts secured with two-factor authentication when leaving Google.

While I wouldn’t suggest reverting to SMS-based verification, which can be spoofed by attackers, there is a good alternative two-factor authentication service out there called Authy.

Read More: What Is a Two-Factor Authentication Recovery Code?

Authy can be used on any site that supports Authenticator, but it comes with a few distinct advantages, the most notable being that it has multiple-device functionality. Authenticator is tied to a single device, so if you want to use it on your phone and tablet at the same time, you’re out of luck. You’ll have to transfer all of your accounts to the new device.

Authy allows you to have the service on multiple devices, so if you lose your phone and haven’t backed up your seeds like I told you to, you’ll still be able to get back into your devices. (Importantly, you can also disable Authy on the lost device.) Moreover, Authenticator only works on mobile devices, whereas Authy works on desktops and laptops as well.

ANDROID

When I arrived home from the Verizon store with my Samsung Galaxy S3, I immediately set to work trying to figure out how to get Sailfish OS on it. Sailfish is perhaps the last truly independent mobile operating system available—Firefox OS, Windows Phone, and Ubuntu Mobile have all bitten the dust in the past few years. At this point, only about 0.1 percent of all smartphones aren’t running iOS or Android. If I were going to truly ditch Google, I was going to have to ditch Android as well.

Android is nominally “open source,” but it is far from “free open source software” in any meaningful sense. Google has maintained the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) since it acquired Android in 2005. Google’s software engineers are responsible for new releases of the Android operating system.

Android is based on the Linux kernel, the part of an operating system responsible for interfacing with the device’s hardware and managing the computer’s resources such as CPU and RAM. This source code is released for free through AOSP, so anyone can take the Android code made by Google developers and use it to make their own version of Android.

When you buy a phone, the Android OS that comes with it also has a bunch of services grafted on top. These are the Google Mobile Services (GMS) that many users take to be defining features Android: Google search, Maps, Drive, Gmail, and so on. These services are definitely not open source.

So why does this matter if anyone can modify Android code, or “fork” it, any time they want? Even if someone managed to fork Android and clone all its best apps, they’d be hard-pressed to find a manufacturer to build a device for this Android clone. As Ben Edelman, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, explained in a 2016 paper, device manufacturers are free to produce phones running “bare” versions of Android, but this means no Google apps are allowed to be pre-installed on the device.

If the device manufacturer wants to include Google Mobile Services on its Android phones, it must sign a Mobile Application Distribution Agreement that requires it to pre-install certain Google applications in prominent places, such as the phone’s home page. Google search must also be set as the default search provider “for all web access points.” Google also requires that its Network Location Provider service be “preloaded and the default, tracking users’ geographic location at all times and sending that information to Google.”

More troubling is that Google makes all device manufacturers that want to run Google Mobile Services on their devices sign an “Anti-Fragmentation Agreement” (AFA). This is a legal agreement that states the manufacturers won’t fork their own version of Android to run on their devices. As Edelman notes, no copies of this agreement have ever been leaked to the public, even though the existence of the document has been confirmed by Google. This is justified on the grounds that it will ensure that all apps work across all versions of Android, rather than having apps that only work with some Android forks.

Similar limitations bind members of the Open Handset Alliance, a group formed by Google in 2007 to bring together companies committed to developing products that are compatible with Google’s Android. According to Ars Technica, OHA contractually binds members from building non-Google approved devices that run competing Android forks. This is acknowledged by Google in a 2012 blog post: “By joining the Open Handset Alliance, each member contributes to and builds one Android platform, not a bunch of incompatible versions.”

As the venture capitalist Bill Gurley wrote in a particularly prescient blog post from 2009, Google’s tactic ensures it dominates the mobile OS market and drives everyone to use its real money maker—search. The reason search is so valuable is because it can gather data on its users and use it to sell them targeted ads. Android, Gurley writes, is not a “product” because Google is not trying to make a profit on it. Instead, “they want to take any layer that lives between themselves and the consumer and make it free (or even less than free). Google is scorching the Earth for 250 miles around the outside of the castle to ensure that no one can approach it. And best I can tell, they are doing a damn good job of it.”

The results of this tactic speak for themselves. Today, approximately 88 percent of all smartphones on the market run Android, and most of them are running Google’s version of the OS. Nevertheless, Google makes it a point to remind people that Android is open source so any company can put the bare AOSP version on their devices. This is technically true, and a few foolhardy companies have tried.

Perhaps the best cautionary tale is Amazon Fire, which was launched in 2014 on a bare AOSP version of Android. The device was widely panned for lacking Gmail and other basic apps, and Amazon discontinued the device the following year after racking up $170 million in losses and a surplus of $83 million worth of unsold devices.

In recent months, Google has moved to further its grip on uncertified Android devices. Previously, it was possible to buy a bare AOSP phone and side-load Google Play to download other Google apps so you could use it like a normal Google-certified Android. In March, however, Google started to block all uncertified Android from accessing any Google services or apps. The vibrant Android modification community was shit-out-of-luck if it wanted to use any Google services or log into its Google accounts.

In short, that left people with three options:

  1. If they wanted to use any Google services, they had to use Google-certified Android devices and an unmodified version of Android released by Google.
  2. They could use a bare AOSP or modified version of AOSP Android, but not access any Google services.
  3. They could use Sailfish OS, open source mobile operating system that is still being actively developed, but they still wouldn’t be able to use any Google services as applications. (They could still visit Google maps or Gmail through their browser, although the mobile versions of these services are less than stellar.)

I opted to use Sailfish OS, which is why I found myself in a Verizon store in Bushwick downgrading my phone to a Samsung Galaxy S3. The Sailfish OS is developed by Jolla, a small Finnish company that was started in 2012 by a group of former Nokia developers who jumped ship just prior to Nokia’s acquisition by Microsoft.

Initially, Jolla aspired to create an alternative phone that would pair with its open source, alternative operating system. Yet after years of setbacks and failed launches, it scaled back its ambitions to work exclusively on Sailfish.

Jolla has recently changed its focus to enterprise customers, but a small dedicated group of die-hard Sailfish fans have kept the consumer Sailfish OS alive and continue to drive its development.

Read More: Meet Sailfish, the Last Independent Mobile Operating System

Motherboard Editor-in-Chief Jason Koebler had a Nexus 5 that he had flashed with Sailfish. Before the experiment began I messed around with it a bit to familiarize myself with the operating system. I liked Sailfish a lot—its interface was close enough to Android to be familiar, but had enough idiosyncrasies to make it distinct. The most noticeable difference is that Sailfish is far more gesture-oriented.

Although Sailfish is an open source, alternative OS, you’re not limited to open source apps. Sailfish supports Android apps, which can be side-loaded onto the phone by downloading the app’s APK file from the internet and loading it onto the phone manually. Still, Jolla’s documentation for Sailfish says, “We always advise against installing Google Services on SailfishOS, as it is known to potentially cause a multitude of problems ranging from serious to trivial.”

Despite really liking Sailfish, I was ultimately unable to use the operating system for my experiment. I couldn’t use Jason’s phone because, though the Nexus 5 was manufactured by LG, it was developed in partnership with Google.

Although Samsung has recently embraced the Android modification community and there’s plenty of documentation available for how to install Sailfish on a Samsung Galaxy S3, Verizon does everything in its power to make sure its customers can’t get root access to its devices.

Verizon and other carriers, such as AT&T, have emerged as the biggest threat to the modification of mobile operating systems in the US by shipping all their phones with locked bootloaders. A bootloader is low-level software that is the first thing to start up when you turn on your phone. It makes sure all the software is working properly and in certain cases prevents users from installing unauthorized software.

Locked bootloaders prevent users from gaining the type of deep access to their phone to be able to swap out a stock Android OS for custom operating systems. Ironically, Microsoft’s Nokia phones and Google’s Nexus and Pixel phones make it super easy to unlock the bootloader on many carriers and are thus easy to customize. This isn’t the case with any phone on Verizon’s network. (Enterprising Android modders have figured out how to unlock the bootloader for some Verizon Android phones, but these are few and far between.)

After days of trying and failing to unlock my bootloader to flash Sailfish OS onto my Samsung Galaxy S3, I admitted defeat. Instead, I opted to run SuperLite, a lightweight version of Android, a ROM developed as part of the Android Open Kang Project (AOKP). (“Kang” is developer slang for stolen code.) AOKP is free open source software based on the official AOSP releases, but it is modified with third-party code contributed by the AOKP community and gives its users even more control over how the Android software interacts with their phone’s hardware.

Since I was unable to unlock my bootloader, I couldn’t “flash” a new ROM to my phone, which would have completely removed the stock Android version and replaced it with a custom ROM of my choice. Instead, I had to install the SuperLite AOKP ROM side-by-side with the stock version. Once it was installed, I could choose which version of the Android I wanted to boot into—basically the equivalent of partitioning your hard drive on a laptop or desktop.

The first step to do this is to enable developer mode in from the Android settings menu. Then, I downloaded and installed the file for a custom recovery system. In my case, I opted for Team Win Recovery (TWRP), one of the most popular recovery systems among Android modders. Once I had installed this on my phone (I just plugged my phone into my computer’s USB port and dragged the TWRP file to the SD card in my phone) I booted into the phone’s recovery mode and restarted my phone.

Next it was time to install the SuperLite AOKP ROM. After installing the SuperLite ROM on my phone’s SD card, I rebooted the phone. From the TWRP menu, select the “Boot Options” menu and then “ROM-Slot-1.” Select the option to create the new ROM slot. Once the ROM slot is created, go back to the main TWRP menu, select the “Install” option and then the zip file for the AOKP ROM you want to install. This will install the AOKP ROM on the ROM slot you just created. Once it’s done installing, reboot the phone and you should boot into the custom AOKP ROM.

It’s worth mentioning here, I think, just how much of a pain in the ass this was for someone who was unfamiliar with the process of rooting phones. Although most of my problems ended up being because of my phone’s locked bootloader, it still took several nights of trial and error to figure out what was going wrong and how to fix it. Ultimately, my difficulties with flashing various ROMs would delay the start of the experiment by several days.

So what was life like using a bare bones, AOKP version of Android without Google? Overall, I didn’t notice much of a difference. I could still link my Protonmail to my phone as well as my cloud storage through NextCloud. I side-loaded Spotify and Lyft by downloading their APK files from the internet and moving them to my phone. (I later learned that Lyft uses Google Maps and so was limited to using Uber.) The only real difference was when it came to using maps, as I mentioned above.

POST MORTEM: 6 MONTHS LATER

It’s now been six months since I finished my experiment, which was plenty of time to see which Big Five services crept back into my life. I resumed using pretty much every Google product the day after the experiment ended. This was mostly due to the nature of my job, which depends on access to my company Gmail account and collaborative editing in Google Docs.

Yet even in my personal life I continue to use Google Maps, Google Drive, and Google Search, although I try to limit my personal searches to DuckDuckGo as often as possible.

In June I also upgraded my phone to a Samsung Galaxy S7, which is currently running the latest version of Android.

A few months after the experiment ended, I swapped out my crappy laptop at work for a homebrew PC. If there was ever a time to fully make the transition to Linux, this was it, and yet I still found myself paying for Windows 10 and partitioning my drive so I could have access to each OS. Old habits die hard, but I now use the terminal in Windows quite regularly whereas before I didn’t use it at all.

Although I still use Amazon on occasion I have ended my Prime subscription and make a point of shopping local or buying from alternative websites whenever possible. So far, this change hasn’t made any noticeable difference on my quality of life.

I still think Apple is a ripoff and Facebook continues to get pwned by lawmakers for its mishandling of user data and disinformation. After I left Facebook, however, I found that I liked being off of social media so much that I also deactivated my only other social media account—Twitter. I have often heard that leaving Twitter when you work in media is a recipe for career suicide. For journalists who depend on it as a tool, this may very well be true. In my case, however, I’ve found that now that I have excised social media from my life I am far less stressed and have a lot more free time. I read more books and devote more time to my actual hobbies rather than scrolling endlessly through timelines.

It’s hard to say whether this experiment could scale to the point of becoming a sustainable way of existing. It was a success insofar as it is definitely possible to use open source replacements for pretty much every major service offered by the Big Five. It was a failure in that it was slightly less convenient and often resulted in an burden on others who were still using the Big Five services, such as my editors.

There was also something of a social burden, too, since I wasn’t able to use most major messaging apps. This was mostly a problem when it came to WhatsApp, which I use for international communication. Within the US, however, relying solely on SMS wasn’t an issue. Although it seemed like leaving Facebook would put a dent in my social life, this remained pretty much the same.

Finally, the experiment failed in the sense that I had to make compromises during the experiment, such as visiting websites hosted on Amazon Web Services or using an AOKP version of Android instead of Sailfish.

I’m certainly not the first person to forsake the Big Five and I’m sure I won’t be the last. There are dedicated communities of people who are determined to not use Google at any cost, however they remain the “preppers” of online life. This raises a disturbing question, however. Is a widespread migration to alternative services possible or, for that matter, even desirable?

It is certainly possible in principle, but a lot would have to change before the mass adoption of alternative services became realistic. Society would have to create the infrastructure for a more sustainable open source ecosystem. As Nadia Eghbal details in the report Roads and Bridges , free and open source software is built on the back of unseen and often unpaid labor. Some of the most popular open source projects in the world are developed and maintained by a few dedicated individuals. If we really care about their projects, we need to find a better way to support their work, other than relying on their goodwill. No one is really incentivized to keep these projects afloat, even if they’re found at the core of many Big Five services.

Whether ditching Big Five services is desirable is a much more difficult question to answer. There is no question that each of the Big Five companies has built incredibly valuable tools that have fundamentally changed the world. The reason most of us would be reluctant to abandon these tools is because they are usually free, useful, and convenient. Yet we are quickly learning the hidden costs of this digital convenience.

Since starting this experiment, #Deletefacebook has grown from a small protest to a sustained and widespread boycott. Google is now facing scrutiny from US and European regulators for mishandling data and monopolization, as well as its work on a censored search engine for China. Amazon continues to be criticized for its treatment of employees, reliance on government tax breaks and handouts, and willingness to sell surveillance tools to law enforcement agencies. Apple is in the middle of a US Supreme Court case about whether it used unlawful business tactics to monopolize its app store.

The social value of the tools developed by the Big Five is what we make of them—they are neither good nor evil by default. As DuckDuckGo demonstrated, it’s possible to create a great search engine that is still supported by ads, but doesn’t harvest user data. Linux has shown that its possible to make an incredibly robust operating system by drawing on the talents of thousands of developers. Android hackers have illustrated no lack of creativity when it comes to pushing the boundaries of what is possible with mobile operating systems, only to be thwarted by Google’s insistence on total control.

Perhaps our lawmakers will be able to reign in the worst inclinations of the titans of Silicon Valley. Or maybe people will get so fed up with the overreach of the Big Five that they will seek alternative services on their own, which seems far more unrealistic to me, given the general lack of understanding about how these companies operate and why it matters.

Nevertheless, I think it is a highly instructive experience to try to see how many Big Five services you can cut from your life, even if it’s just for a few days. Not only will you learn a lot about how servers, personal computers, and mobile phones work, but you might find some open source replacements better than what you were using before.

The important thing is to realize that none of these services are necessary. We may have come to develop a deep reliance on them, but that’s not the same thing. Being an “Apple person” or a “Windows person” is a marketing gimmick, not a personality trait. Amazon is just a version of Walmart that collaborates with cops. Your community existed before Facebook. Google wasn’t always a verb. We have the ability to change these companies by the way we interact with them—but only if we want to.

Google Removes Egg from Salad Emoji to Make It ‘More Inclusive’ for Vegans


Hi. Sorry. This is dumb. Bye.

How do vegans survive? Not only must they avoid all meat and dairy, but they cannot so much as glance at a virtual representation of an animal product. No cheese, no honey, no leather shoes, and absolutely no using an emoji with an egg [gasp] in it.

Well, thank God Google has recognised the hugely unethical nature of pixels in the form of an egg. Yesterday, the tech company announced that it would be removing the hard-boiled egg from its salad emoji, thus allowing Android-owning vegans to regain the use of their phones.

According to The Verge, Google plans to introduce 157 new emojis to the Android P Beta 2 when it’s released later this year. It will also be editing the salad emoji as part of a push for, er, “diversity.”

In a tweet, Jennifer Daniel, head of Google’s Expression design team, explained the change. “There’s big talk about inclusion and diversity at Google,” she wrote. “So if you need any evidence of Google is making this priority, may I direct your attention to the emoji—we’ve removed the egg in Android P Beta 2, making this a more inclusive vegan salad.”

This isn’t the first time Google has amended an emoji after great emotional turmoil. Late last year, the company finally responded to months of complaints about the placement of cheese in its burger emoji, redesigning it to go over the burger, instead of over the bun.

What would we do without you, Google?

Google turns 20 with Easter eggs and special images to celebrate


You can see the garage where Google started today in Street View and a few other goodies.

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To celebrate 20 years, Google has updated its eponymous search engine. The company also hid a few easter eggs in the site to acknowledge how far it has come.

The familiar Google Doodle, which usually relates to a holiday or fun fact, is a clickable video. If you click, the video plays an animation sequence of Google’s most popular queries since 2000.

If you need to search something fairly outdated, like “MP3 file” or “chat room,” Google search now has something snarky to say about it. If you search one of these terms, the search engine reminds you that it’s 2018 and asks if you meant a more relevant search like “stream music” or “text the group.”

If you’re interested to see where the company got its start, Google Maps in Street View gives you a detailed look inside the original garage headquarters. You get the full experience of the search engine’s first office with wires snaking through hallways, paperwork strewn across the desks, the original logo design, and old desktops displaying Google in its infancy.

As Google reflects on its past, it also looks toward the future. Ben Gomes, vice president of Google News and Assistant announced updates to the search engine on Monday.

To make the desktop browser more like the app, Google is launching Discover and redesigning Google Images.

Google’s image search has been updated to be more visual with Instagram type Stories. When you search an image, Google’s algorithm will rank results based on website authority. The more relevant the image is to the entire website, the higher it will appear in the search.

Google Lens also lets users “draw” on an image they’ve searched which can trigger a deeper, more specific search. The new updates include activity cards to keep track of search history and more intelligent query suggestions.

Scientists Are Annoyed by This Pretty Big Flaw in The New DNA Emoji


They had one job (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

Unicode, the standards body that decides which emojis we all need on our phones and laptops, is finally adding a bunch of science emojis to the mix, including DNA – but there’s confusion over the style of the doodle that will eventually get used.

That’s because one of the samples shown by Unicode and Emojipedia shows DNA strands twisting to the left, as they do on the less common Z-DNA.

For the most common B-DNA structure, the one that is responsible for the origins of life, the twists should be right-handed.

The difference isn’t easy to spot at first, but it’s crucial in dictating the way the ladders of DNA are structured – it’s like going down a spiral staircase clockwise or anticlockwise, with one state the complete mirror image of the other.

dna emojis 2The new emoji, as imagined by Emojipedia.

Scientists love accuracy more than most, and so the new symbol sample has caused some frustrated reactions on Twitter, as Gizmodo reports.

Researchers have been quick to point out that Unicode and Emojipedia has gone for a spiral that twists in the wrong direction – or at least in the more obscure, less common direction.

However, the original draft of the new emojis for 2018 had the DNA emoji twisting in the correct way, so it seems there’s some confusion about which one will eventually get used.

dna emojis 3The original Unicode draft.

If you’re struggling to understand what we mean, point your index finger away from you, push out your hand and rotate your finger in a clockwise direction – you’re drawing DNA in the air. If you rotate your finger anticlockwise, you’re drawing Z-DNA.

All is not lost though: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung and the rest all design their own emoji styles on top of whatever Unicode puts forward – that’s why emojis look different from device to device and app to app.

So there’s still hope these tech giants may not totally stuff up, and the final emoji designs on our devices will end up spiralling the right way.

In the meantime, scientists are busy pointing out the mistake. It may not matter too much in the grand scheme of things, but if you’re going to have a DNA emoji, you might as well make sure you get it right.

Other science-related emojis in the list of 157 new ones rolling out this year include a magnet, a test tube, and a petri dish (there’s a full list at Emojipedia). Before too long then, you should be able to have much more meaningful emoji-based science conversations with your friends.

DNA’s double-helical structure, which creates the twisting pattern, was discovered way back in 1953, with a right-handed spiral.

Since then scientists have wondered what caused that right-handed bias. One idea is that cosmic rays destroyed the left-handed ancestors of DNA on the early Earth, but at the moment we really don’t know for sure.

What we do know is that DNA should have a right-handed spiral, and flipping it over to show a mirror image is wrong – just as wrong as trying to exactly duplicate the actions of a right hand with a left hand.

This isn’t the first time this mistake has been made – the same error has appeared in textbooks and in graphics many times in the past – and we can’t get too angry when we’re getting skateboards and kangaroos added to our emoji vocabulary.

Now though, you should all know what to look out for. When the emojis eventually land on your phone, take a close look to see which way the DNA strand is twisted.

Silicon Valley’s Tax-Avoiding, Job-Killing, Soul-Sucking Machine


Four companies dominate our daily lives unlike any other in human history: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. We love our nifty phones and just-a-click-away services, but these behemoths enjoy unfettered economic domination and hoard riches on a scale not seen since the monopolies of the gilded age. The only logical conclusion? We must bust up big tech.

I’ve benefited enormously from big tech. Prophet, the consulting firm I cofounded in 1992, helped companies navigate a new landscape being reshaped by Google. Red Envelope, the upscale e-commerce company I cofounded in 1997, never would have made it out of the crib if Amazon hadn’t ignited the market’s interest in e-commerce. More recently, L2, which I founded in 2010, was born from the mobile and social waves as companies needed a way to benchmark their performance on new platforms.

Over the past decade, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google—or, as I call them, “the Four”—have aggregated more economic value and influence than nearly any other commercial entity in history. Together, they have a market capitalization of $2.8 trillion (the GDP of France), a staggering 24 percent share of the S&P 500 Top 50, close to the value of every stock traded on the Nasdaq in 2001.

How big are they? Consider that Amazon, with a market cap of $591 billion, is worth more to the stock market than Walmart, Costco, T. J. Maxx, Target, Ross, Best Buy, Ulta, Kohl’s, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Bed Bath & Beyond, Saks/Lord & Taylor, Dillard’s, JCPenney, and Sears combined.

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Meanwhile, Facebook and Google (now known as Alphabet) are together worth $1.3 trillion. You could merge the world’s top five advertising agencies (WPP, Omnicom, Publicis, IPG, and Dentsu) with five major media companies (Disney, Time Warner, 21st Century Fox, CBS, and Viacom) and still need to add five major communications companies (AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Charter, and Dish) to get only 90 percent of what Google and Facebook are worth together.

And what of Apple? With a market cap of nearly $900 billion, Apple is the most valuable public company. Even more remarkable is that the company registers profit margins of 32 percent, closer to luxury brands Hermès (35 percent) and Ferrari (29 percent) than peers in electronics. In 2016, Apple brought in $46 billion in profits, a haul larger than that of any other American company, including JPMorgan Chase, Johnson & Johnson, and Wells Fargo. What’s more, Apple’s profits were greater than the revenues of either Coca- Cola or Facebook. This quarter, it will clock nearly twice the profits that Amazon has produced in its history.

The Four’s wealth and influence are staggering. How did we get here?

As I wrote in my book, The Four, the only way to build a company with the dominance and mass influence of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple is to appeal to a core human organ that makes adoption of the platform instinctive.

GOOGLE: MIND-ALTERING

Our brains are sophisticated enough to ask very complex questions but not sophisticated enough to answer them. Since Homo sapiens emerged from caves, we’ve relied on prayer to address that gap: We lift our gaze to the heavens, send up a question, and wait for a response from a more intelligent being. “Will my kid be all right?” “Who might attack us?”

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As Western nations become wealthier, organized religion plays a smaller role in our lives. But the void between questions and answers remains, creating an opportunity. As more and more people become alienated from traditional religion, we look to Google as our immediate, all-knowing oracle of answers from trivial to profound. Google is our modern-day god. Google appeals to the brain, offering knowledge to everyone, regardless of background or education level. If you have a smartphone or an Internet connection, your prayers will always be answered: “Will my kid be all right?” “Symptoms and treatment of croup. . .” “Who might attack us?” “Nations with active nuclear-weapons programs . . .”

Think back on every fear, every hope, every desire you’ve confessed to Google’s search box and then ask yourself: Is there any entity you’ve trusted more with your secrets? Does anybody know you better than Google?

FACEBOOK: THE HEART OF THE MATTER

Facebook appeals to the heart. Feeling loved is the key to well-being. Studies of kids in Romanian orphanages who had stunted physical and mental development found that the delay was due not to poor nutrition, as suspected, but to lack of human affection. Yet one of the traits of our species is that we need to love nearly as much as we need to be loved. Susan Pinker, a developmental psychologist, studied the Italian island of Sardinia, where centenarians are six times as common as they are on mainland Italy and ten times as common as in North America. Pinker discovered that among genetic and lifestyle factors, the Sardinians’ emphasis on close personal relationships and face-to-face interactions is the key to their superlongevity. Other studies have also found that the deciding factor in longevity isn’t genetics but lifestyle, especially the strength of our social bonds.

Facebook gives its 2.1 billion monthly active users tools to fuel our need to love others. It’s satisfying to rediscover someone we went to high school with. It’s good to know we can keep in touch with friends who move away. It takes minutes, with a “like” on a baby pic or a brief comment on a friend’s heartfelt post, to reinforce friendships and family relationships that are important to us.

AMAZON: ALWAYS CONSUMING

What sight is to the eyes and sound is to the ears, the feeling of more, of insatiety, is to the gut. We crave more stuff psychologically just as the stomach craves more sugar, more carbs, after an indulgent meal. Originally this instinct operated in the service of self-preservation: Having too little meant starvation and certain death, whereas too much was rare, a bloat or a hangover. But open your closets or your cupboards right now, and you’ll probably find you have ten to a hundred times as much as you need. Rationally, we know this makes no sense, but society and our higher brain haven’t caught up to the instinct of always feeling like we need more.

Amazon is the large intestine of the consumptive self. It stores nutrients and distributes them to the cardiovascular system of the 64 percent of American households who are Prime members. It has adopted the best strategy in the history of business—“more for less”—and deployed it more effectively and efficiently than any other firm in history.

APPLE: SET TO VIBRATE

The second-most-powerful instinct after survival is procreation. As sexual creatures, we want to signal how elegant, smart, and creative we are. We want to signal power. Sex is irrational, luxury is irrational, and Apple learned very early on that it could appeal to our need to be desirable—and in turn increase its profit margins—by placing print ads in Vogue, having supermodels at product launches, and building physical stores as glass temples to the brand.

A Dell computer may be powerful and fast, but it doesn’t indicate membership in the innovation class as a MacBook Air does. Likewise, the iPhone is something more than a phone, or even a smartphone. Consumers aren’t paying $1,000 for an iPhone X because they’re passionate about facial recognition. They’re signaling they make a good living, appreciate the arts, and have disposable income. It’s a sign to others: If you mate with me, your kids are more likely to survive than if you mate with someone carrying an Android phone. After all, iPhone users on average earn 40 percent more than Android users. Mating with someone who is on the iOS platform is a shorter path to a better life. The brain, the heart, the large intestine, and the groin: By appealing to these four organs, the Four have entrenched their services, products, and operating systems deeply into our psyches. They’ve made us more discerning, more demanding consumers. And what’s good for the consumer is good for society, right?

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Well, yes and no. The Four have so much power over our lives that most of us would be rocked to the core if one or more of them were to disappear. Imagine not being able to have an iPhone, or having to use Yahoo or Bing for search, or losing years’ worth of memories you’ve posted on Facebook. What if you could no longer order something with one click on the Amazon app and have it arrive tomorrow?

At the same time, we’ve handed over so much of our lives to a few Silicon Valley executives that we’ve started talking about the downsides of these firms. As the Four have become increasingly dominant, a murmur of concern—and even resentment—has begun to make itself heard. After years of hype, we’ve finally begun to consider the suggestion that the government, or someone, ought to put the brakes on.

Not all of the arguments are equally persuasive, but they’re worth restating before we get to the real reason I believe we ought to break up big tech.


Big tech learned from the sins of the original gangster, Microsoft. The colossus at times appeared to feel it was above trafficking in PR campaigns and lobbyists to soften its image among the public and regulators. In contrast, the Four promote an image of youth and idealism, coupled with evangelizing the world-saving potential of technology.

The sentiment is sincere, but mostly canny. By appealing to something loftier than mere profit, the Four are able to satisfy a growing demand among employees for so-called purpose-driven firms. Big tech’s tinkerer- in-the-garage mythology taps into an old American reverence for science and engineering, one that dates back to the Manhattan Project and the Apollo program. Best of all, the companies’ vague, high-minded pronouncements—“Think Different,” “Don’t Be Evil”—provide the ultimate illusion. Political progressives are generally viewed as well-meaning but weak, an image that offered the perfect cover for companies that were becoming hugely powerful.

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg told women to “lean in” because she meant it, but she also had to register the irony of her message of female empowerment, set against a company that emerged from a site originally designed to rank the attractiveness of Harvard undergraduates, much less a firm destroying tens of thousands of jobs in an industry that hires a relatively high number of female employees: media and communications.

These public-relations efforts paid off handsomely but also set the companies up for a major fall. It’s an enormous letdown to discover that the guy who seems like the perfect gentleman is in fact addicted to opioids and a jerk to his mother. It’s even worse to learn that he only hung out with you because of your money (clicks).

In my experience as the founder of several early Internet firms, the people who work for the Four are no more or less evil than people at other successful companies. They’re a bit more educated, a little smarter, and much luckier, but like their parents before them, most are just trying to find their way and make a living. Sure, many of them would be happy to help out humanity. But presented with the choice between the betterment of society or a Tesla, most would opt for the Tesla—and the Tesla dealerships in Palo Alto are doing well, really well. Does this make them evil? Of course not. It simply makes them employees at a for-profit firm operating in a capitalist society.

Our government operates on an annual budget of approximately 21 percent of GDP, money that is used to keep our parks open and our military armed. Does big tech pay its fair share? Most would say no. Between 2007 and 2015, Amazon paid only 13 percent of its profits in taxes, Apple paid 17 percent, Google paid 16 percent, and Facebook paid just 4 percent. In contrast, the average tax rate for the S&P 500 was 27 percent.

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So, yes, the Four do avoid taxes . . . and so do you. They’re just better at it. Apple, for example, uses an accounting trick to move its profits to domains such as Ireland, which results in lower taxes for the most profitable firm in the world. As of September 2017, the company was holding $250 billion overseas, a hoard that is barely taxed and should never have been abroad in the first place. That means a U. S. company is holding enough cash overseas to buy Disney and Netflix.

Apple is hardly alone. General Electric also engages in massive tax avoidance, but we’re not as angry about it, as we aren’t in love with GE. The fault here lies with us, and with our democratically elected government. We need to simplify the tax code—complex rules tend to favor those who can afford to take advantage of them—and we need to elect officials who will enforce it.


The destruction of jobs by the Four is significant, even frightening. Facebook and Google likely added $29 billion in revenue in 2017. To execute and service this additional business, they will create twenty thousand new, high-paying jobs.

The other side of the coin is less shiny. Advertising—whether digital or analog—is a low-growth (increasingly flat) business, meaning that the sector is largely zero-sum. Google doesn’t earn an extra dollar by growing the market; it takes a dollar from another firm. If we use the five largest media-services firms (WPP, Omnicom, Publicis, IPG, and Dentsu) as a proxy for their industry, we can estimate that $29 billion in revenue would have required about 219,000 traditional advertising professionals to service. That translates to 199,000 creative directors, copywriters, and agency executives deciding to “spend more time with their families” each year—nearly four Yankee Stadiums filled with people dressed in black holding pink slips.

The economic success stories of yesterday employed many more people than the firms that dominate the headlines today. Procter & Gamble, after a run-up in its stock price in 2017, has a market capitalization of $233 billion and employs ninety-five thousand people, or $2.4 million per employee. Intel, a new-economy firm that could be more efficient with its capital, enjoys a market cap of $209 billion and employs 102,000 people, or $2.1 million per employee. Meanwhile, Facebook, which was founded fourteen years ago, boasts a $542 billion market cap and employs only twenty-three thousand people, or $23.4 million per employee—ten times that of P&G and Intel.

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Granted, we’ve seen job destruction before. But we’ve never seen companies quite this good at it. Uber set a new (low) bar with $68 billion spread across only twelve thousand employees, or $5.7 million per employee. It’s hardly obvious that a ride-share company—which requires actual drivers on the actual roads—would be the one to arbitrage the middle class with a Houdini move that would have Henry Ford spinning in his grave.

But Uber managed it by creating a two-class workforce, complete with a new classification: “driver-partners,” in other words, contractors. Keeping them off the payroll means that Uber’s investors and twelve thousand white-collar employees do not share any of the company’s $68 billion in equity with its “partners.” In addition, the firm is not inconvenienced with paying health or unemployment insurance and paid time off for any of its two-million-strong driver workforce.

Big tech’s job destruction makes an even stronger case for getting these firms to pay their fair share of taxes, so that the government can soften the blow with retraining and social services. We should be careful, however, not to let job destruction be the lone catalyst for intervention. Job replacement and productivity improvements—from farmers to factory workers, and factory workers to service workers, and service workers to tech workers—are part of the story of American innovation. It’s important to let our freaks of success fly their flag.


Getting warmer. Having your firm weaponized by foreign adversaries to undermine our democratic election process is bad . . . really bad. During the 2016 election, Russian troll pages on Facebook paid to promote approximately three thousand political ads. Fabricated content reached 126 million users. It doesn’t stop there—the GRU, the Russian military-intelligence agency, has lately taken a more bipartisan approach to sowing chaos. Even after the election, the GRU has used Facebook, Google, and Twitter to foment racially motivated violence. The platforms invested little or no money or effort to prevent it. The GRU purchased Facebook ads in rubles: literally and figuratively a red flag.

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If you’re a country club with a beach or a pool, it’s more profitable, in the short run, not to have lifeguards. There are risks to that business model, as there are to Facebook’s dependence on mainly algorithmic moderation, but it saves a lot of money. The notion that we can expect big tech to allocate the requisite resources, of the companies’ own will, for the social good is similar to the idea that Exxon will take a leadership position on global warming. It’s not going to happen.

However, the alarm for trust busting, not just regulation, rang for me in November, when Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr pleaded with the general counsels of Facebook, Google, and Twitter, “Don’t let nation-states disrupt our future. You’re the front line of defense for it.” This represented a seminal moment in our history, when our elected officials handed over our national defense to firms whose business model is to nag you about the shoes you almost bought, and remind you of your friends’ birthdays.

They should be our front line against our enemies?

Let’s be clear, our front line of defense has been, and must continue to be, the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Not the Zuck.


It’s not just federal officials who have folded in the face of big tech. As part of their bid for Amazon’s second headquarters, state and city officials in Chicago proposed to let Amazon keep $1.3 billion in employee payroll taxes and spend this money as the company sees fit. That’s right: Chicago offered to transfer its tax authority to Amazon and trusts the Seattle firm to allocate taxes in a manner best for Chicago’s residents.

 

The surrender of our government only gets worse from there. If you want to manufacture and sell a Popsicle to children, you must undergo numerous expensive FDA tests and provide thorough labeling that outlines the ingredients, calories, and sugar content of the treat. But what warning labels are included in Instagram’s user agreement? We’ve now seen abundant research indicating that social- media platforms are making teens more depressed. Ask yourself: If ice cream were making teens more prone to suicide, would we shrug and seat the CEO of Dreyer’s next to the president at dinners in Silicon Valley?

Anyone who doesn’t believe these products are the delivery systems for tobacco- like addiction has never separated a seven- year-old from an iPad in exchange for a look that communicates a plot to kill you. If you don’t believe in the addictive aspects of these platforms, ask yourself why American teenagers are spending an average of five hours a day glued to their Internet- connected screens. The variable rewards of social media keep us checking our notifications as though they were slot machines, and research has shown that children and teens are particularly sensitive to the dopamine cravings these platforms foster. It’s no accident that many tech companies’ execs are on the record saying they don’t give their kids access to these devices.

All of these are valid concerns. But none of them alone, or together, is enough to justify breaking up big tech. The following are reasons I believe the Four should be broken up.

The Purpose of an Economy

Ganesh Sitaraman, professor at Vanderbilt Law School, argues that the U. S. needs the middle class, that the Constitution was designed for a balanced share of wealth for our representative democracy to work. If the rich have too much power, it can lead to an oligarchy. If the poor have too much power, it can lead to a revolution. So the middle class needs to be the rudder that steers American democracy on an even keel.

 believe that the primary purpose of the economy, and one of its key agents, the firm, is to create and sustain the middle class. The U. S. middle class from 1941 to 2000 was one of the most ferocious sources of good in world history. The American middle class financed, fought, and won good wars; took care of the aged; funded a cure for polio; put men on the moon; and showed the rest of the world that self-interest, and the consumption and innovation it inspired, could be an engine for social and economic transformation.

The upward spiral of an economy depends on the circular flow between households and companies. Households offer resources and labor, and companies offer goods and jobs. Competition motivates the invention and distribution of better offerings (happy hour, rear-view camera, etc.), and the big wheel spins round and round. Big tech creates enormous stakeholder value. So why are we witnessing, for the first time in decades, other countries grow their middle class while ours is declining? If an economy is meant to sustain a middle class, and the social stability it fosters, then our economy is failing.

Without a doubt, there have been tremendous gains in productivity in the U. S. over the past thirty years. It would be hard to deny that the American consumer, at every level, has become the envy of the free world. Yet the productivity boost and the elevation of the consumer to modern-day nobility have created a dystopia in which we’ve traded well- paying jobs and economic security for powerful phones and coconut water delivered in under an hour.

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How did that happen? Since the turn of the millennium, firms and investors have fallen in love with companies whose ability to replace humans with technology has enabled rapid growth and outsize profit margins. Those huge profits attract cheap capital and render the rest of the sector flaccid. Old-economy firms and fledgling start-ups have no shot.

The result is a winner-takes-all economy, both for companies and for people. Society is bifurcating into those who are part of the innovation economy (lords) and those who aren’t (serfs). One great idea will make a twenty- something the darling of venture capital, while those who are average, or even just unlucky (most of us), have to work much harder to save for retirement.

It’s never been easier to be a billionaire or harder to be a millionaire. It’s painfully clear that the invisible hand, for the past three decades, has been screwing the middle class. For the first time since the Great Depression, a thirty-year-old is less well-off than his or her parents at thirty.

Should we care? What if these icons of innovation are the disrupters we need to keep our economy fit? Isn’t there a chance we’ll come through the other end of the tunnel with a stronger economy and higher wages? Already there’s evidence that this isn’t happening. In fact, the bifurcation effect seems to be gaining momentum. It’s likely the biggest threat to our society. Many will argue it’s the world we live in. But isn’t the world what we make of it? And we have consciously shifted the mission of the U. S. from producing millions of millionaires to producing one trillionaire. Alexa, is this a good thing?


Markets Are Failing, Everywhere

Right now we are in the midst of a dramatic market failure, one in which the government has been lulled by the public’s fascination with big tech. Robust markets are efficient and powerful, yet just as football games don’t work without referees who regularly step in, throw flags, and move one team backward or forward, unfettered capitalism gave us climate change, the mortgage crisis, and U. S. health care.

Monopolies themselves aren’t always illegal, or even undesirable. Natural monopolies exist where it makes sense to have one firm achieve the requisite scale to invest and offer services at a reasonable price. But the tradeoff is heavy regulation. Florida Power & Light serves ten million people; its parent company, NextEra Energy, has a market cap of $72 billion. However, pricing and service standards are regulated by people who are fiduciaries for the public.

The Four, by contrast, have managed to preserve their monopoly-like powers without heavy regulation. I describe their power as “monopoly-like,” since, with the possible exception of Apple, they have not used their power to do the one thing that most economists would describe as the whole point of assembling a monopoly, which is to raise prices for consumers.

Nevertheless, the Four’s exploitation of our knee-jerk antipathy to big government has been so effective that it’s led most of us to forget that competition—no less than private property, wage labor, voluntary exchange, and a price system—is one of the indispensable cylinders of the capitalist engine. Their massive size and unchecked power have throttled competitive markets and kept the economy from doing its job—namely, to promote a vibrant middle class.


Air Supply

How do they do it? It’s useful here to remember how Microsoft killed Netscape in the 1990s. The process starts innocently enough, as a firm builds an outstanding product (Windows) that becomes a portal to an entire sector—what we’d now call a platform. To sustain its growth, the company points the portal at its own products (Internet Explorer) and bullies its partners (Dell) to shut out the competition. Even though Netscape had the more popular browser, with over 90 percent market share, it couldn’t compete with Microsoft’s implicit subsidies for Internet Explorer.

It’s happening everywhere across the Four, whether it’s the slow takeover of the entire first page of search results that Google can better monetize, substandard products on your iPhone’s home screen (like Apple Music), coordinating all assets of the firm (Facebook) to arrest and destroy a threat (Snap), or information-age steel dumping via fulfillment build-out and predatory pricing no other firm can access the capital to match (Amazon).


(Un)Natural Monopolies

Maybe the consumer is better off with these “natural” monopolies. The Department of Justice didn’t think so. In 1998, the federal government filed suit against Microsoft, alleging anticompetitive practices. During the trial, one witness reported that Microsoft executives had said they wanted to “cut off Netscape’s air supply” by giving away Internet Explorer for free.

In November 1999, a district court found that Microsoft had violated antitrust laws and subsequently ordered the company to be broken into two. (One company would sell Windows; the other would sell applications for Windows.) The breakup order was overruled by an appeals court, and ultimately Microsoft agreed to a settlement with the government that sought to curb the company’s monopolistic practices by less stringent means.

The settlement was criticized by some for being too lenient, but it’s worth asking whether Google—today worth $770 billion and the object of affection for any free-market evangelist—would exist if the DOJ hadn’t put Microsoft on notice regarding the infanticide of promising upstarts. In the absence of the antitrust case, Microsoft likely would have leveraged its market dominance to favor Bing over Google, just as it had used Windows to euthanize Netscape.

Indeed, the DOJ’s case against Microsoft may have been one of the most market-oxygenating acts in business history, one that unleashed trillions of dollars in shareholder value. The concentration of power achieved by the Four has created a market desperate for oxygen. I’ve sat in dozens of VC pitches by small firms. The narrative has become universal and static: “We don’t compete directly with the Four but would be great acquisition candidates.” Companies thread this needle or are denied the requisite oxygen (capital) to survive infancy. IPOs and the number of VC-funded firms have been in steady decline over the past few years.

Unlike Microsoft, which was typecast early on as the “Evil Empire,” Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon have combined savvy public-relations efforts with sophisticated political lobbying operations—think Oprah Winfrey crossed with the Koch brothers—to make themselves nearly immune to the scrutiny endured by Microsoft.


The Four’s unchecked power manifests most often as a restraint of competition. Consider: Amazon has become such a dominant force that it’s now able to perform Jedi mind tricks and inflict pain on potential competitors before it enters the market. Consumer stocks used to trade on two key signals: the underlying performance of the firm (Pottery Barn’s sales per square foot are up 10 percent) and the economic macro-climate (more housing starts). Now, however, private and public investors have added a third key signal: what Amazon may or may not do in the respective sector. Some recent examples:

The day Amazon announced it would enter the dental-supply business, dental-supply companies’ stock fell 4 to 5 percent. When Amazon reported it would sell prescription drugs, pharmacy stocks fell 3 to 5 percent.

Within twenty-four hours of the Amazon– Whole Foods acquisition announcement, large national grocery stocks fell 5 to 9 percent.

When the subject of monopolistic behavior comes up, Amazon’s public-relations team is quick to cite its favorite number: 4 percent—the share of U. S. retail (online and offline) Amazon controls, only half of Walmart’s market share. It’s a powerful defense against the call to break up the behemoth. But there are other numbers. Numbers you typically won’t see in an Amazon press release: • 34 percent: Amazon’s share of the worldwide cloud business

44 percent: Amazon’s share of U. S. online commerce

64 percent: U. S. households with Amazon Prime

71 percent: Amazon’s share of in-home voice devices

$1.4 billion: Amount of U. S. corporate taxes paid by Amazon since 2008, versus $64 billion for Walmart. (Amazon has added the entire value of Walmart to its market cap in the past twenty-four months.)

What about Facebook? Eighty-five percent of the time we spend on our phones is spent using an app. Four of the top five apps globally—Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger—are owned by Facebook. And the top four have allied, under the command of the Zuck, to kill the fifth—Snap Inc. What this means is that our phones are no longer communications vehicles; they’re delivery devices for Facebook, Inc.

Facebook even has an internal database that tells it when a competitive app is gaining traction with its users, so that the social network can either acquire the firm (as it did with Instagram and WhatsApp) or kill it by mimicking its features (as it’s trying to do with Stories and Bonfire, which are aimed at Snapchat and Houseparty).

Google, for its part, now commands a 92 percent share of a market, Internet search, that is worth $92.4 billion worldwide. That’s more than the entire

advertising market of any country except the U. S. Search is now a larger market than the following global industries:

paper and forest products: $81 billion

construction and engineering: $79 billion

real estate management and development: $76 billion

gas utilities: $58 billion

How would we feel if one company controlled 92 percent of the global construction and engineering trade? Or 92 percent of the world’s paper and forest products? Would we worry that their power and influence had breached a reasonable threshold, or would we just think they were awesome innovators, as we do with Google? And then there’s Apple, the most successful firm selling a low-cost product at a premium price. The total material cost for the iPhone 8 Plus is $288, a fraction of the $799 price tag.

Put another way, Apple has the profit margin of Ferrari with the production volume of Toyota. Apple’s users are among the most loyal, too. It has a 92 percent retention rate among consumers, compared with just 77 percent for Samsung users. In February 2017, 79 percent of all active iOS users had updated to the most recent software, versus just 1.2 percent of all active Android devices.

Apple uses its privileged place in consumers’ lives to instill monopoly-like powers in its approach to competitors like Spotify. In 2016, the firm denied an update to the iOS Spotify app, essentially blocking iPhone users’ access to the latest version of the music-streaming service. While Spotify has double the subscribers of Apple Music, Apple makes up the discrepancy by placing a 30 percent tax on its competition.

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Apple is not shy about using its popularity among consumers to its advantage. It was recently discovered that Apple has been purposely slowing down performance on outdated iPhone models, a strategy that is likely to entice users to upgrade sooner than they would have otherwise. This is the confidence of a monopoly.

In the late nineteenth century, the term trust came into use as a way to describe big businesses that controlled the majority of a particular market. Teddy Roosevelt gained a reputation as the original “trust buster” by breaking up the beef and railroad trusts, and filing forty more antitrust suits during his presidency. Fast-forward a hundred years, to 2016, and we find candidate Trump announcing that a Trump administration would not approve the AT&T–Time Warner merger “because it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.” A year later, his Justice Department sued to block it.

So our presidents are still fighting the good fight, right? Well, let’s break this down. AT&T has 139 million wireless subscribers, sixteen million Internet subscribers, and twenty-five million video subscribers, about twenty million of which were acquired from DirecTV. Time Warner owns content-producing brands such as HBO, Warner Bros., TNT, TBS, and CNN. A vertical merger between the two companies could, in theory, create a megacorporation capable of creating and distributing content across its network of millions of wireless-phone, Internet, and video subscribers.

Too much power in the hands of too few? Maybe. But if content-and-distribution heft is what we’re worried about, then Teddy would have been knocking on Jeff’s, Tim’s, Larry’s, and Mark’s doors a decade ago. Already each of the Four has content and distribution that dwarfs a combined AT&T–Time Warner:

• Amazon spent $4.5 billion on original video in 2017, second only to Netflix’s $6 billion. Prime Video has launched in more than two hundred countries and recently struck a $50 million deal with the NFL to stream ten Thursday-night games. Amazon controls a 71 percent share in voice technology and has an installed distribution base of 64 percent of American households through Prime. Name a cable company with a 64 percent market share—I’ll wait. In addition, Amazon controls more of the market in cloud computing than the next five largest competitors combined. Alexa, does this foster innovation?

• Apple is set to spend $1 billion on original content this year. The company controls 2.2 million apps and set a record in 2013 when the number of songs it sold on iTunes hit twenty- five billion. Apple’s library now includes forty million songs, which can be distributed across the company’s one billion active iOS devices, and that’s not even mentioning its television and video offerings. But AT&T needs to sell Cartoon Network?

• Facebook owns a torrent of content created by its 2.1 billion monthly active users. Through its site and its apps, the company reaches 66 percent of U. S. adults. Facebook plans to spend $1 billion on original content. It’s the world’s most prolific content machine, dominating the majority of phones worldwide. Now “what’s on your mind?”

• Four hundred hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, which means that Google has more video content than any other entity on earth. It also controls the operating system on two billion Android devices. But AT&T needs to divest Adult Swim?

Perhaps Trump is right that the merger of AT&T and Time Warner is unreasonable, but if so, then we should have broken up the Four ten years ago. Each of the Four, after all, wields a harmful monopolistic power that leverages market dominance to restrain trade. But where is the Department of Justice? Where are the furious Trump tweets? Convinced that the guys on the other side of the door are Christlike innovators, come to save humanity with technology, we’ve allowed our government to fall asleep at the wheel.

Margrethe Vestager, the EU commissioner for competition, is the only government official in a Western country whose testicles have descended—who is not afraid of, or infatuated with, big tech. Last May, she levied a $122 million fine against Facebook for lying to the EU about its ability to share data between Facebook and WhatsApp, and a month later she penalized Google $2.7 billion for anticompetitive practices.

This was a good start, but it’s worth noting that those fines are mere mosquito bites on the backs of elephants. The Facebook fine represented 0.6 percent of the acquisition price of WhatsApp, and Google’s amounted to just 3 percent of its cash on hand. We are issuing twenty-five-cent parking tickets for not feeding a meter that costs $100 every fifteen minutes. We are telling these companies that the smart, shareholder-friendly thing to do is obvious: Break the law, lie, do whatever it takes, and then pay a (relatively) anemic fine if you happen to get caught.

The monopolistic power of big tech serves as a macho test for capitalists. The embrace of the innovation class makes us feel powerful. We like success, especially outrageous success, and we’re inspired by billionaires and the incredible companies they founded. We also have a gag reflex when it comes to regulation, one that invites unattractive labels. Since I started suggesting that Amazon should be broken up, Stuart Varney of Fox News, a charming guy, has taken to introducing me on-air as a socialist. Any day now, I suspect he’ll start calling me European.

There’s no question that the markets sent a strong signal in 2017 that our economy is sated on regulation. But there’s a difference between regulation and trust busting. What’s missing from the story we tell ourselves about the economy is that trust busting is meant to protect the health of the market. It’s the antidote to crude, ham-handed regulation. When markets fail, and they do, we need those referees on the field who will throw a yellow flag and restore order. We are so there.

The tremendous success of the Four—which alone accounted for 40 percent of the gains in the S&P 500 for the month of October—wallpapers over the fact that, as a whole, the markets in which they operate are not healthy. Late last year, Refinery29 and BuzzFeed, two promising digital-marketing fledglings, announced layoffs, while Criteo, an ad-tech firm, shed 50 percent of its market capitalization. Why? Because there is Facebook, there is Google, and then there is everyone else. And all of those other firms, including Snap Inc., are dead; they just don’t know it yet.

Are we sure all these companies deserve to die? Or is it the case that our markets are failing and preventing the development of a healthy ecosystem with dozens of digital-marketing firms growing, hiring, and innovating?

Search…Your Feelings

Imagine two markets. One that includes the firms below:

Amazon | Apple | Facebook | Google

And another that includes these independent firms:

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As Darth Vader urged his son, I want you to “search your feelings” and answer which market would:

Create more jobs and shareholder value.

While trust busting is typically bad for stocks in the short run, busting up Ma Bell unleashed a torrent of shareholder growth in telecommunications. Similarly, Microsoft, despite its run-in with the DOJ in the 1990s, just hit an all-time high. In addition, it’s reasonable to believe that Amazon and Amazon Web Services may be worth more as separate firms than they are as one.

Inspire more investment.

There are half as many publicly traded U. S. firms than there were twenty-two years ago, and most firms in the innovation economy understand that their most likely—or only—path to exist is to be acquired by big tech. An absence of buyers makes for an economy in which the two options are to go big (become Google) or go home (go out of business). While home runs provide good theater, the doubles and triples of acquisitions by medium-sized firms are likely a stronger engine of growth.

Broaden the tax base.

The aggregation of power has resulted in firms that have so much political clout and resources that they can bring their effective tax rates well below what midsize companies pay, creating a regressive tax system.

Why should we break up big tech? Not because the Four are evil and we’re good. It’s because we understand that the only way to ensure competition is to sometimes cut the tops off trees, just as we did with railroads and Ma Bell. This isn’t an indictment of the Four, or retribution, but recognition that a key part of a healthy economic cycle is pruning firms when they become invasive, cause premature death, and won’t let other firms emerge. The breakup of big tech should and will happen, because we’re capitalists. It’s time.

Mozilla announces an open gateway for the internet of things


Apple, Google, Amazon and Samsung have all been working hard to create their own standard to control all the connected devices around your home. Mozilla just announced that anybody can now create an open gateway to control the internet of things. The organization also confirmed that it is still working on a set of frameworks and open standards so that we don’t end up with an internet of things controlled by big tech companies.

Connected devices are great, until you realize that your connected thermostat only works with the Amazon Echo and your connected lightbulbs only work with Siri and the Home app.

Accessory makers also don’t necessarily want a handful of big tech companies to control the internet of things. Tech giants could end up charging expensive licensing fees to work with their ecosystem. And customers end up having to make tough decisions.

Mozilla is a big proponent of the open web. So it seems natural that the not-for-profit organization has plans for connected devices. Project Things encompasses multiple projects, so let’s look at Mozilla’s work.

First, Mozilla wants to create an open standard with the W3C around the Web of Things. The idea is that accessory makers and service providers should use the same standard to make devices talk to each other. The specifications rely on JSON, and a REST and WebSockets API. Those are standard data and API models on the web, and they should work perfectly fine for connected devices.

Second, Mozilla is working on a Web of Things Gateway so that you can replace your Amazon Echo, Philips Hue hub, Apple TV and Google Home with an open device. You can already create a gateway using a Raspberry Pi 3, and ZigBee and Z-Wave USB dongles.

Eventually, manufacturers could leverage this work to create their own gateways. Maybe Netgear could embed a Web of Things gateway into their next router — your router is connected to the internet and runs 24/7 after all. Developers could also create bridges between the HomeKit API or Amazon’s Smart Home Skill API so that all devices work with your Amazon Echo, Google Home or iPhone without too much effort. Web of Things could become the common language between those proprietary APIs.

Finally, Mozilla is creating the interface to control your connected devices. You can add Mozilla’s progressive web app to your smartphone home screen and control your home. For instance, you can use your voice to turn on the lights, create IFTTT-style rules to automate your house, add a floor-plan to lay out your devices and more.

Mozilla has designed an add-on system so that you can add support for new devices and protocols by installing plugins. It’s important to note that all of this runs on your own gateway in your house. Google or Amazon can’t see when you turn on the light using your voice.

Eventually, I could also see app developers leveraging the Web of Things protocol to create native apps to control your house. But it’s clear that Mozilla wants to attack this issue from all angles. And developers can already start playing around with Project Things and contribute to development.

How You Can Increase Your ‘Google Juice’


Patients can always find a health professional’s website on Google but it’s far more likely when the website appears high up in searches. So how do you make that happen? In this edition of “The Wired Practice,” Ron Harman King, of VanguardCommunications, explains how to boost your “Google juice.”

A transcript of his remarks follows:

If you want to see the first impression you make on most new patients, make sure you Google yourself early and often. Current evidence suggests that most Americans now research doctors online before their first visits by perusing their practices’ websites as well as rate-your-doctor websites. In my experience, these e-powered patients typically are far less interested in where a potential caregiver went to medical school and did a residency and fellowship, than in answering the question, “Can I trust and will I like this doctor?”

Search engines try hard to answer that question. Healthcare providers who cooperate with search engines thusly are rewarded with high internet search rankings. That’s because their websites possess a trait that historically has been referred to as Google juice. Do doctors need or should they care about Google juice? Probably not all, but I find that a great majority indicate strong interest in seeing their names and practice information on page one of Google search results. That’s where Google juice comes in.

To understand Google juice, let’s peer into the black box of internet search engines. The big question about search engines is always, how do I get on page one of Google? Excellent query. The hard truth is that Google doesn’t want you to have the answer. Depending on various sources, Google changes its search engine formula from hundreds to thousands of times annually. The Google algorithm is as much a secret as the recipe for Coca Cola. That’s because they don’t want people gaming the system, since search rankings drive trillions of dollars of business transactions.

Fortunately, a massive industry out there is devoted to reading the tea leaves of internet searches. Thanks to an army of professional search marketers, we know quite a bit about ever-changing methodologies of search-engine rankings.

The first point is that there are multiple ways to appear in internet search results. One is to pay for it through online advertising. Most search engine ads these days are so-called pay-per-click messages: you submit a private bid to Google, Bing, or Yahoo for your ad to appear in certain geographic locations to internet users using specific search terms. Then you pay only if a user clicks on your ad’s link and goes directly to your website.

A second way to rank on Google is through online maps. You’ve no doubt seen the results of a generic internet search for terms such as nearby gas stations or pizza restaurants – a clickable map appears near or at the top of the results page guiding you to such businesses right around you. To get on these maps, you need only register your clinic locations directly with Google.

The third way to rank on search engines is the most important of all. It’s called organic or natural rankings. Organic rankings are not advertisements and they’re not maps – they’re rankings you earn. How? By answering the questions of internet searchers more accurately and comprehensively than just about anyone else.

Here is where the internet intersects with medical research. Back in 1998 Larry Page and Sergei Brin – who were then graduate students at Stanford – bet the future of their new company named Google on a very tried-and-true practice already in existence in science and academia. That is, research papers receiving lots of citations by other research literature eventually earn the status of seminal research. Page and Brin decided this approach was the magic tonic for the internet, too. And they designed a search engine that gave higher rankings to web pages receiving lots of citations from other websites. On the internet, of course, a citation is nothing more than a hyperlink from one web page to another.

Unfortunately, with the meteoric rise of Google as the most popular search engine in the early 21st century, search engine optimization specialists began cheating by launching other websites that all linked back to their principle sites. Google engineers subsequently changed their algorithm so that now the linking websites are also evaluated. No longer could you just put up a bunch of junk websites and have them link back to your main site. The linking sites need to prove their own legitimacy by attracting real visitors using search terms on relevant topics. And what draws organic visitors to websites in general? Three words I want you to remember today: quality of content.

That, my friends, is what Google juice is all about – quality of content. Many people think that search engine optimization requires some sort of magic, a computer fairy dust sprinkled on a website. To be sure, a few coding techniques and special signals to search engines can certainly help SEO. One example is including a popular search term in your website URL or address, such as DallasBoneDoctor.com or PittsburghUrologists.com. Yet 80 to 90 percent of getting to page one of Google rests on answering people’s questions on the internet. The best answers always win.

This is precisely why lengthy website pages tend to rank higher than shorter ones. Studies have repeatedly shown that the optimal length of a web page for search rankings is 2,000 words or more – about the length of a feature-length newspaper or magazine article. So if one of your new year’s resolutions is to get to the top of Google searches, think of yourself not as just a healthcare provider, but a healthcare teacher, too. If you can transfer some of your professional knowledge to web pages, you will achieve Google juice that will enhance your online reputation for years to come.

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