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Mr. Open Web Goes to Google

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Chris Messina, self-titled “open web advocate,” will take that official title at Google (s GOOG) starting Monday, he announced today on his blog. He joins Joseph Smarr, the former CTO of Plaxo, who will also start working for Google later this month. Smarr and Messina are both board members of the OpenID Foundation. The two have been frequent collaborators on open web projects, and co-host the podcast (where Messina also announced the news — embedded below).

Much of Messina’s work will remain outside of Google, though clearly the hope is that he’ll affect the company’s social web products. Messina, who had previously formed Citizen Agency, the consulting firm, and worked with Mozilla, Vidoop and Flock, says he hopes to help create an “OpenID Connect” to compete with Facebook and Twitter Connect. He added via email that he’d like to build out as a sort of app store for open web technology that would be a “clearinghouse and promotion factory” for such projects.

Google, which lags far behind the competition on social products, recently announced a public commitment to “openness” that met mixed reviews, seeing as it still holds its search and advertising businesses close to the vest. However, the hiring of Messina and Smarr gives the company more credibility in these areas. Meanwhile, Messina and Smarr get a much bigger stage to try to embed their ideas into products. Messina writes,

I want more success in turning my ideas into tangible outcomes, and in doing so, prove the power that I see in open, interoperable standards that can make the web a richer and more intricately spun space.

21 Responses to “Mr. Open Web Goes to Google”

  1. I believe my and Brett’s (though I can’t speak for him) concerns are not towards anyone person they are with Google and Google’s public ‘facade.’

    In Ken Auletta’s recent book ‘Googled, The End of World as We Know It” there is a wonderful synopsis in Chapter 13. He quotes Neil Postman’s book ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ where he writes about his assessment of ‘1984’ vs. Huxley’s ‘Brave New World.’ It reads:

    “Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think…Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.”

  2. Mike Beltzner

    Despite anyone’s particular biases or feelings towards Google, I don’t think it can be argued (based on this very comment thread!) that Chris Messina isn’t a different type of Google employee. He’s always willing to dig deeper, understand feedback, and discuss real issues that are deeply felt by participants in the Open Web.

    I look forward to his influence spreading throughout all companies, not just his current employer.

    • Mike

      Thanks for your comments.I have known Chris from the time he arrived in the valley and have watched his evolution. I am with you and in full agreement with your assessment of Messina.

      There is no doubt that Chris will always be Chris, truly one of a kind. If there is anyone, he is the one who can bring change inside Google along side Joe Smaar. And if he fails, it won’t be for trying but from inflexibility of his employers.

      I am going to remain highly skeptical of Google’s social claims, mostly because their DNA isn’t people and social — it is algorithms. I wish Chris all the luck in what is a monumental task. But he is the man for the job.

  3. I think Google is well aware of Chris’ values and I think his body of work speaks for his integrity. I like this fit. Personally, I’ve been concerned about Google’s growth over the years and some of their business practices in the acquisitions they’ve made, but the only real big issue I’ve taken with them was around the China censorship decision.

    I think Chris brings with him a culture that could really compliment Google and hopefully consistently steer them in the right direction when it comes to questions about “open”. I’m not sure he can influence things like access to information in China (Not saying he can’t either), but I think Google is well aware of how he feels about the issue (which from what I’ve read would be pro democracy and access to information, correct me if I’m wrong Chris) and I’m hoping he can bring a new perspective to them the next time they face a situation like that.

    Good for you for taking on the challenge Chris, I think you and Joe are exactly what Google needs.

  4. @Brett and @Rafael: really? What evidence do you have to support that?

    Certainly you can criticize Google’s stance on not open sourcing its search algorithm (though I’m still curious how third parties would make use of such a thing in reality) when it open sources so much else, but to suggest that Google wants to “open” everyone else’s products and services but not its own seems at odds with the evidence of how many of Google’s products are open source:

    As for building a dossier on internet users, Google is one of the companies genuinely trying to move towards more interoperable solutions that enable user choice. Indeed, that’s one of the reasons why I decided it’d be worth it to join.

    In any case, I don’t need to defend Google, because that’s not my job, nor will it be necessarily. But if you’re going to make blatant accusations, I’d love to see what kind of evidence you have to back up your argument, compared against other companies in the field that you think are doing better, if only to elucidate the argument that you’re making.

    • Brett Glass

      Chris, we can hardly expect you to be unbiased in this, because Google is obviously paying you lots of Googlebucks to lobby for it. But the fact is that the code which Google is publishing is not Google’s “product.” Advertising is Google’s product. The code is merely a means by which users will access its product, and so of course Google wants to propagate it far and wide. (While, at the same time, undercutting companies who make similar products but would not bias them toward Google.)

      • Brett Glass

        Ironically, Chris, much of Google’s search technology is patented by, and licensed from, Overture — which developed the AltaVista search engine and is now owned by Yahoo!. (Ever wonder why Google wanted so badly to merge or collude with Yahoo!, and why Microsoft very much wanted to buy Yahoo!? That’s why.)

        In any event, what Google must NOT be allowed to do is to take a leaf from Microsoft’s book and engage in continued horizontal monopoly leverage (which consists of using a monopoly in one market to monopolize others). Microsoft leveraged its operating system monopoly to obtain monopolies in office suites, Internet browsers. Google, likewise, has leveraged its monopoly on Internet search advertising to obtain a monopoly on banner advertising and cross-site user tracking and privacy invasion (via the acquisition of DoubleClick) to a monopoly on online video (via the acquisition of YouTube and favoring YouTube in its search results). It will continue to do such things until the DoJ and the public wake up and recognize what it’s up to.

        Google has hired the two of you to facilitate a similar horizontal move into the areas of social networking and online ID.

      • Interesting. Well, I’m not much a fan of patents, but I guess that’s besides the point.

        In terms of hiring me and Joseph to create a new monopoly? Well, I certainly hope that’s not the case, and won’t be party to such a situation, but of course, only time will tell how this plays out.

        I do think that Facebook Connect presents a generalized threat to personal sovereignty on the web, and if I can use Google’s clout and my connections and purpose to try to create a more open, competitive marketplace, then I’ll have been personally successful. I won’t oversell my own abilities or potential — Google will do what’s good for Google — and I do worry about several of the issues you’ve raised — but I’ve far from concluded that Google is as all-powerful, and all-knowing as you suggest — or at least is the only company out there in this position.

        I’d be more concerned about Cisco or AT&T — but since they don’t have a diversity of consumer products that are social in nature — they seem to be relegated to background status in much of the evolution happening on the social web, in terms of privacy and/or total information awareness.

        But, you’re right — I’m not in your seat, and you’re not in mine, so we bring rather different perspectives to this current conversation!

    • “Open” means only as long as it’s convenient to and/or benefits Google. Chris, it’s not wrong to support and vouch for Google – embrace it. But let others promote their views – perception depends largely on where in the room you sit.

      The “open” code is only a means to propagate it far & wide (as Brett notes) and harvest as much information as possible. Make no mistake about it Google’s business is “advertising” regardless of what you think. Additionally the Terms & Conditions (or Terms of Service) that govern the code are at the sole discretion of Google to alter when and as they fit. Thus any outside developer or company who builds on the “open” code/API could be left out in the cold while Google leverages their (i.e., the developers’) effort for their gain.

      Techcrunch 12/22/09: “For Google, The Meaning Of Open Is When It’s Convenient For Them: “The Story of Totlol”

      • Yeah, alright. That’s a clearer perspective.

        I agree with you that advertising is Google’s business — or at least how they monetize the service they provide. They happen to do both advertising and search well, though Facebook also offers some compelling advertising tools.

        I guess my question for you is: what would you have Google do differently? I’ve considered whether it’s disingenuous for Google to keep the source to their advertising and search products proprietary. At first blush, I agreed with you. Over time, I’m not so sure, given what going open source means — in terms of the commitment you make to the people that build on your source.

        In that sense, I imagine Google is constantly changing these products internally — and trying to manage the community processes of open source really would be unwieldy and inefficient.

        Still — let’s say Google did pursue that path — and mind you, I don’t start earning the big Googlebucks until Monday — how would that change the equation? What if Bing open sourced their search engine first? Just play this out for me, and help me understand where you see it going.

  5. I agree with Brett. What Google has done is silenced what could have become potential critics of its agenda while converting them into “lobbyist.” Congrats Messina and Smarr.

    The unfortunate thing in all this is the average consumer/user of Google’s products is blind to the ‘colonization’ of the Web and users’ data taking place. While Google’s goal may be to make the world’s information accessible and available to all (quote / unquote), that is merely an one step in the workflow of the true objective of ‘collecting’ as much information as possible on its users ranging from; sites being visited, site usage, content consumption, commerce, general web behavior, personal & business conversations, on & on.

    Google touting “open web” simply laughable, insulting and quite frankly nauseating.

  6. Brett Glass

    Google’s agenda is simple. It wants to “open” (that is, make available for free with no compensation for the creators) everyone else’s products and services, but not its own. Furthermore, it wants to build dossiers on Internet users, invade their privacy, and control their online identities.

    Google’s forays into social networking and into the control of users’ online identities are merely part of this agenda.