Telling the difference between White and Wrong: why Google’s customisable homepage is a personalisation too far


it's strange how accustomed we become to the world…  here I am, comfortably confident in my ability – despite being old enough to remember Return of the Jedi at the Cinema first time round – to live and breathe as a digital native.  I'm down with the kids.  I'm adaptable.  I'm a fluid kind of guy.

only it turns out that I'm not.

above is what my Google search page now looks like.  it's like that because you can now customise it to have any picture you want as a background.  as Marissa Mayer, VP Search Products & User Experience explains on a post, Google has always "enjoyed making your search experience more relevant, useful and fun through personalization" … this new feature … "brings a whole new level of personalization to Google by letting you add a favorite photo or image to the background of the Google homepage".

I don't like it.  I don't like it one bit.  to risk over-using a pun, it's just not white.

the white Google page is (was) important.  there was a clarity, a sharpness to the site that was an intrinsic part of Google's brand DNA; part of its engram – that collection of associations we all carry around in our heads that captures for each of us what a brand is, means, and does.  Google's white helped define that, but more than that, Google's white was iconic.

but this importance of Google's white seems to have been ignored by the organisation.  this it may come to regret.  personalisation and customisation are great, brilliant things.  but not always.

in an article in Intelligent Life a while back, Jonathan Meades' discussed the pervasiveness of the word 'iconic' from Jesus to Obama (via Marmite and Beckham).  a great article that I blogged about at the time.

Meades outlined four conditions necessary for something to be (or be perceived as) iconic.  condition four is immediacy of recognition.  common in objects – the Coca-Cola bottle, the Eiffel tower, Big Ben – but because of the demand of immutability less so in humans, unless they're dead of course.  Meades asks for "the visual equivalent of an unmistakable catchphrase, such as … David Owen's "When I was Foreign Secretary" or Andie McDowell's "Because I'm worth it" … if a catchphrase is a repetitive soundbite, then an icon is a strenuously rehearsed sightbite".

a strenuously rehearsed sightbite, that helps maketh the icon.  and Google just threw it out.

Meades goes on to describe how "in an age of ever-multiplying media outlets, with images disseminated ever more easily, there are ever more potential low-key idols … virtual villages will increasingly make icons of figures that are peculiar to them, just as real villages did in the distant past when the people in the next valley paid obeisance to an alien gamut of gods and totems.  the more the media grow, the less appropriate the prefix "mass".  the globalisation of localism and, beyond that, of atomisation will very likely mean that such niche characterisations as "a living legend among the vertical matrixing community" [or] "an iconic figure in Gremlin Pastures" can be made without leaden irony."

at the time I noted that its a fascinating observation: a long tail of idolism.  the fewer, globally recognised icons sitting alongside the famous-to-a-few icons of our immediate communities and social groups.  I asked if the always-on proximity and ubiquity of the stuff we connect ourselves to is making icons of the people and places around us?  whether the immediacy of a host of personal – and in this case personalised – icons, devalues the idea of an icon, or adds meaning and value to it?

Google may find out.  the hard way.


5 thoughts on “Telling the difference between White and Wrong: why Google’s customisable homepage is a personalisation too far

  1. AB says:

    Stop quoting Meades and set Google back to white! Have you got nothing else to do – really? I bet you’re a delight at a dinner party.

  2. Slightly harsh AB. Great post Chris, white matters. So does novelty of course and I suspect this is what this will turn out to be. More’s the point doesn’t it make the user experience poorer rather than richer? It distracts from the text box rather than enhances it. I personally enjoy google changing its logo periodically (for Olympics, World Aids day or whatever) but playfully subverting an icon for a short time is one thing (and actually enhances the engram) bastardising it in this way (even with a picture of something people hold dear) is quite another. Would be fascinated to know how many people actually do this in the real world.

  3. Aaron Boekestein says:

    So let’s compare Google to its contemporaries in its simplest form; a search engine. Apart from being the largest, how it uncompromisingly sets itself apart form the Bings and the Yahoos is in fact its simplicity. So too right, Chris. What Google is now compromising is it’s uniqueness. Come on Google – why conform now?!

  4. I agreee with the recognisability of the Google homepage. I also think that imitating a “desktop” is a small step towards Google’s invasion of the operating system industry. Customising one’s wallpaper is an integral part of setting up a new computer, and I think Google are getting us ready for the moment when Google itself will be our wallpaper.

  5. thanks for the comments.
    very interesting observation Blue Eyes – would certainly make sense for this to be a step towards Google lending itself towards being our desktop.
    …and once that’s in play you’re only a “now you can drag links to your favourite applications (eg Chrome) onto your Google ‘desktop'” and a “Google OS launches” away from Google owning the lot.
    in that context, fascinating stuff.

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