Sun, Oct 15, 2006 - Page 17 News List

Life in Google's world

Google's tentacles are reaching far to our everyday lives, which has many observers worried about free speech and the invasion of privacy

By Alex Williams  /  NY TIMES SERVICE , NEW YORK

Dan Firger, a law student, goes nowhere without Google Calendar's aid in New York.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

As Dan Firger, a law student at New York University, strolls from class to class during the course of his day or pauses for a breather in Washington Square Park, his mobile phone is routinely buzzing inside his messenger bag. He can often guess who it is: Google.

Six to eight times a day, text messages pop up, courtesy of Google Calendar, a free daily organizer introduced this year. The program can scan appointments and send reminders of coming events.

Google is everywhere in Firger’s life. He scours the Web with its search engine; he chats with friends in Bolivia using Google Talk; and he receives e-mail messages on a Google Gmail account.

“I find myself getting sucked down the Google wormhole,” Firger said with equal parts resentment and admiration. “It’s all part of Google’s benign dictatorship of your life.”

It seems almost quaint to recall how people used to think Google was everywhere, back around 2003, when its search engine became a cultural phenomenon and a verb. Since then, in a push for global ubiquity, Google has introduced more than two dozen applications and tools. And last week it bought YouTube, the 18-month-old video-sharing site, one of the most habit-forming services on the Web.

While the company says it will keep the YouTube name and Web address, the acquisition gives Google’s regular users — 41 percent of those who search the Internet, according to Nielsen/NetRatings — one more reason to feel they are living on Planet Google.

Since the dawn of personal computing, software makers have sought to be not just providers of products, but universes unto themselves, into which users merge a piece of their identity. Consumers label themselves Macintosh people or derive a psychic sense of belonging from an e-mail address that places them at aol.com or yahoo.com.

Marketing experts consider a Web site an experience — different from using a product like a soft drink — because it’s someplace you go, an arena in which you live out your life. And in this way many people develop a sense of intimacy within it, even trust.

People may think they use Google because they like it, but really, “it’s the reverse,” said Rashi Glazer, a business professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a director of its Center for Marketing and Technology. “You use something and in seeing yourself using it, you say to yourself, ‘Hey, I’m using it all the time, must be because I’m loyal to it.’ It becomes a virtuous circle.”

Donna Hoffman, a founder of eLab 2.0, a research center at the University of California, Riverside, that studies online consumer behavior, said that Google has, in the minds of many users, “become one with the Internet,” achieving a meta-status because as the most-used search engine, “it literally augments your brain. I don’t have to remember quite a few things now because Google can remember them for me. Google is an additional memory chip.”

Some people give their brains over to Google willingly, in part because they accept the anti-corporate credo of the company’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin: Do no evil.

“I really think of them as the good guys’ response to the evil empire,” said Donald Hubin, a philosophy professor at Ohio State University, referring to Microsoft. Hubin said he uses one Google program or another hundreds of times a day: Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Earth, Picasa or Google Scholar, which allows academics to troll for books and peer-reviewed papers.

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