Google, Dodgeball, and Evil

1 03 2010

“Don’t Be Evil” – The mantra of Google has come into play in many of their business decisions. They have tried to sew this message into their fabric of which the company operates upon, and keep it in mind when expanding their business with new projects in different directions. However, one question in Ken Auletta’s book Googled got me thinking. The question asks what is evil and what happens if Google doesn’t see something as evil, but someone else does, or vice versa? Essentially, how and why does Google determine what is evil?

Auletta’s book offers a fairly detailed history of the Google company, as well as semi-biographies on the owners and founders. This helped the audience get to know the brains, and take a look into why certain decisions were made, and perhaps a better understanding of what they think of as “evil.” But in doing some research for a case study on a new technology for another class, I found an example of something involving Google, and that I would generally consider “evil,” or at least “not entirely ethical.”

Google has been dappling in the social networking arena, recently launching Buzz. But this is not their first attempt either. In 2005, Google experimented with mobile GPS-based social networks. Dodgeball was a company founded in 2000 by Dennis Crowley and Alex Rainert that combined real-time status updates like Twitter, social friends and lists like Facebook, user generated tips and reviews for establishments like Yelp, and a GPS tracker to share all this information.

Google “acquired” Dodgeball in 2005 and brought the founders along with the project. However, just two years later, the Crowley and Rainert left Google, dissatisfied with the direction Dodgeball was headed, and the lack of time dedicated to the project. Dodgeball failed to catch on and grow, and in January 2009, Google announced that it would be dropping the project and discontinuing the Dodgeball service. The very next month, Google released Google Latitude, a mobile GPS social network very similar to Dodgeball that runs as an add-on to Google Maps. Undeterred, Crowley revealed Foursquare in March 2009. Foursquare began to grow, and now almost a year later, the social network boasts over almost 275,000 members internationally, and continues to grow.

So where does Google and their Evil mantra come in? Personally, I find it a little suspicious that Google would drop a project because it was not successful, but then release a similar project less than a month later. Perhaps Google drove the Dodgeball founders away as a strategy, chose to drive Dodgeball into the ground, and then start their own project. Perhaps the low success rate was not because it didn’t catch on with the public, but rather purposefully not marketed right. Perhaps.

But conspiracy theory or not, the actions of Google leave me asking “Are you sure that wasn’t evil?” There was no revealed history about disputes or discrepancies between Dodgeball and Google, so it is unclear why Dodgeball never took off, or why Google chose to invest more effort in a similar side project.

Could a company like Google become so large that it has the possibility to absorb other smaller companies, and then choose to expand on them, terminate them, or make it their own idea? If so, Google (or said company) could regulate its competition, provide less options, and further expand their own business. Sounds kinda evil to me.