09 May 2005

Google is not a Faith-Based Initiative

The blogosphere has been alive for the last 48 hours or so with the news that on Saturday evening, the world as we know it came to an end.

It seems that if you attempted to google "armageddon" or "apocalypse" during the fifteen minutes between 6:45 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, you would have found yourself looking at something called "SoGoSearch". Whether this redirection was the result of hacking, a flaw in Google's recently-launched (and still in beta) Web Accelerator service, user-level spyware infestations, or another cause was a hot topic of discussion bordering on panic very nearly minute-by-minute since it occurred. As wild speculation gradually gave way to technical analysis and finally to yesterday's official confirmation from Google, a DNS (Domain Name System)-related issue was identified as the cause. Whether Google is responsible for its own injury or is the victim of an error beyond its control is a matter of ongoing discussion in some circles; as Gizmodo relates, "The consensus seems to be that someone else exploited a DNS mistake on Google’s part. So not a hack, per se, but a 'taking advantage of.'"

Ultimately, this hysteria is most noteworthy because it highlights how Google's utility and reliability have become articles of shared faith amongst the internet-enabled. It will be interesting to see how incidents like this one will affect Google's standing in the eyes of its most fanatical users. Threadwatch.org accurately described this weekend's constant flow of desperate posting as "a blow by blow account from around the world . . . as bewilderment is expressed as people cannot believe what they see".

What's to become of these legions of fans who have come to view Google as not just better than its competitors but somehow different from them, perfect and unbound by the fundamental laws which govern all other players in this space? Just as any crisis of faith tends to either strengthen one's beliefs or destroy them, challenges like these will test the Google mythos and the reputation of web-delivered applications and services more generally. When I first heard about all this, the first thing that came to mind was a Monty Python sketch; this is, of course, understandable since Monty Python is, unlike Google, the one true faith. The sketch is a review of "modern building techniques"; "El Mystico" and his lovely assistant, Janet, are assembling 25-floor apartment buildings on behalf of a local council using nothing but hypnosis. Naturally, the council's architect is asked whether these hypnosis-induced buildings are safe:
Architect: Of course they're safe. There's absolutely no doubt about that. They are as strong, solid and as safe as any other building method in this country provided of course people believe in them.

Cut to a council flat. On the wall there is a picture of Mystico.

Tenant: Yes, we received a note from the Council saying that if we ceased to believe in this building it would fall down.

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