Glass, Home and solipsism

One of the things you're supposed to work out some time in your adolescence is that though you're the star of your own life, you're not the star of anyone else's.  Some companies never work this out.

A few years ago I worked on a project to make a video-on-demand service for a big UK supermarket chain. All of the supermarket execs kept saying things like 'our customer' or 'the Sainsco customer'. After a while, I worked out what bothered me about this. I do indeed go to one of their shops - or at least I think I do. I'm actually not 100% sure if it's a Tesco or a Sainsbury. I buy food there every week, but I don't consider myself their customer - at least not in the sense they meant it. Rather, it's one of 10 shops I go to in a week, and one of 20 errands I might run. 

In other words, your customers' relationships with you are the only relationships you have as a business and you think a lot about them. But you're one of a thousand things your customer thinks about in a week, and one of dozens of businesses. And they probably have their own ideas about how they want to engage with you (though they wouldn't put it in those words) - assuming they think about you at all

This applies even to Google or Facebook (which brings me to the title of this post). There's lots of data showing the high proportion of online time that people spend using Facebook, and the high volume of web searches that they do using Google. Facebook and Google are important. But that doesn't mean they're everything. 

When I was watching the launch event for Facebook Home, a loud alarm bell started ringing for me when Mark Zuckerberg said words to the effect that "phones should be about more than apps - they should be about people" - by which of course he meant "about Facebook". The problem with this is that actually, we've spent the last 6 years making phones about more than just people. People use Facebook on their phones a LOT, yes, but they do a lot of other things as well. If all I wanted was a phone about people I'd be using a $20 Nokia with a battery that lasts a month. 

The same point, I think, applies to Google Glass. If you spend all day in the Googleplex, thinking googly thoughts about data ingestion and Now and the interest graph, then having 'Google' hovering in front of your eyes instead of rubbing on a phone seems like a really obvious progression. If everyone you know owns a Tesla and is deeply engrossed in new technology, then the idea that there might be social problems with Glass doesn't come up - everyone's too busy saying 'AWESOME!'. In much the same way, no-one on the Facebook Home team seems to have realised that most people's news feed isn't full of perfectly composed photos of attractive friends on the beach. 

Jack Dorsey wrote a blog post a while ago saying that 'users' is the wrong word to describe people who, well, use your service.  He was perfectly right in the sense that the word elides the obligation you should feel to a customer. However, an equal problem is the use of the possessive itself. You can think of people as users or customers - but they're not yours. They don't belong to you, and they may barely even care that you exist. The old Google rejoiced in sending people away from the site as fast as possible, because the result mattered, not the search. Glass points to a risk of forgetting that.