Google Is Powerful — But Not as Powerful as an Angry Mob

When big companies are at odds with a critical mass of consumers, bet on the consumers.

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The iconic angry mob from Frankenstein (1931)

When the bombshell broke on Monday that Google was buying Nest — the maker of slick, web-savvy thermostats and smoke detectors — for $3.2 billion, I confessed to “at least some trepidation” over the possible long-term consequences. Some folks are a lot more worked up than that.

Dan Hon, for instance, has expressed his alarm over the deal — and over big, powerful companies acquiring small companies that have cultivated communities of users in general —  in the form of a series of extremely gloomy tweets that regard the deal as an invasion. (I learned about them at John Gruber’s Daring Fireball.)

Here’s a sample of Hon’s line of thinking:

And another:

Even if you’re not instinctively mistrustful of Google, Hon’s take merits your attention. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility that Google will screw up this deal.

I disagree with him on a basic point, however: If Google were to mess around with Nest in ways that ticked people off, they wouldn’t be powerless to do anything about it. Consumers scare big companies into rethinking their actions all the time, and there are innumerable examples of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon and other tech giants overreaching and then being forced to back down.

Back in 2010, when Google tried to turn Gmail into a social network by giving it a Twitter-esque feature called Buzz, for instance, some people were very, very unhappy. Google tweaked Buzz repeatedly to address its critics, and when the feature still failed to go anywhere, the company killed it. More recently, Twitter changed how its feature for blocking another user worked — and then, in the wake of widespread complaints, changed it back only hours later.

It’s true that lashing back like this requires a quorum. It only gets results if a meaningful percentage of a company’s customers are irate, and if they attract enough attention to their cause to embarrass the company in question. At the moment, there’s a fair amount of controversy with Google over a new feature that lets Google+ users send a message to any other user’s Gmail account, whether or not they know that person’s e-mail address. Google hasn’t been forced to respond yet. Maybe it won’t. But if enough people get riled up, and make enough noise, the odds are high that the company will at least make the feature something recipients need to opt into.

In the case of Nest, people like Hon are doing both Google and Nest customers a service by expressing their angst right now. Doing so preemptively lowers the chances of Google doing something untenable with the data Nest collects. If it does, though, and enough people are furious enough over it, I’d bet on the angry mob, not the big company.