Benevolence As A Business Strategy

“Just out of curiosity,” asks Kevin Drum, “did anyone ever really believe that ‘don’t be evil’ stuff?”

I sort of did. Not because I expected Google to stop acting like a money-making operation and start running itself like a charity, but because I thought “when faced with a short-term tradeoff between degrading the user experience and increasing revenue, choose the better user experience” is a completely reasonable business strategy for a well-capitalized highly-profitable firm. That was the spirit I took “don’t be evil” to be evoking. The original version of this with Google was that they were running the best search engine on the Web, but also keyword-based advertising alongside the search results. Clearly you could charge more for the ads if advertising with Google boosted your PageRank. But the “evil” option there would have been genuinely short-sighted. The best way to run the company was to just act as if the corporate mission was to design the best possible search engine.

For roughly similar reasons, for-profit media enterprises and their employees talk and think a lot about “journalistic ethics.” The point of these companies is to make money, but getting people to trust you and read you is a key step in that process and people prefer to read a publication whose writers and editors are motivated by some grander conception of their role than “we’re here to sell ads.”