‘Life at the Googleplex’: Corporate Culture, Transparency, and Propaganda

How the hell am I going to get access to study these uber-elite media companies? In my desperation to find ethnographic facts about ‘corporate culture’ at the new media conglomerated behemoths I am viewing these reflexive industrial videos Google and its subsidiary YouTube upload about themselves. What are these things? Part recruitment propaganda to solicit CVs from the world’s top engineers, part PR-campaign to provide proof of its post-China ‘do no evil’ mantra, part braggadocios chest bump and back slap these videos must have some information that can provide evidence for the ‘real’ internal values and dynamics that influence the 20,000 employees and the 100s of millions of networked people that use their digital tools daily.

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But before I begin this bite-sized Youtube videothon I want to query if anthropological tools exist for such research. First, how would an anthropologist contextualize and categorize these videos? Reflexive, check. Industrial, check. Commercial, probably. They are not viewer-created but they have the amateur aesthetic. Textual studies of reflexive and industrial media and websites in anthropology is under-developed. In that historic genre, ‘ethnographic film,’ there were calls for greater reflexivity. And there are ethnographic investigations into the social life of social media. Patricia Lang, danah boyd, Heather Horst, and Mimi Ito can be consulted for this. And I am sure that there are numerous anthropological studies of race/class/gender as exhibited on Youtube. Alexandra Juhasz and Michael Wesch use YouTube as a pedagogical tech. But as far as I am aware, nobody has thought to look at how governments, corporations, and other institutions self-visualize a public persona. Secondly, who has analyzed the particular limitations and possibilities of this new platform for cultural expression? There is more cultural material on YouTube than in anywhere in the world. We must be able to incorporate this data.
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The first order of analysis would be to use a political economic widget to find out what they hope to get out of this video. Usually, saying something about increasing profit and consumption is enough here. The second order would be to use textual analysis to look for accidental data points. Start with the simple realization that you are seeing into the company, notice the use of space, of the personalization of cubicles, etc. Thirdly, mix these two approaches, political economy and cultural studies, to read the subtle cues and beyond the avowed interview revelations. Pretend you have ethnographic free-reign, knowing that would always be partial even with clearance. As partial and incomplete as these video documents are a conjunctive approach will be necessary. My girlfriend suggested to me that a corporation’s IPO documents are usually remarkably honest and revealing. Also high-tech investment firms/websites such as Techcrunch keep publically available data on acquisitions, investments, and other reflexive materials. Ken Auletta’s book, Googled: The End of the World as we Know It, is incredibly revealing about Google corporate culture but is based on only a few interviews with Page, Brin, and a number with CEO Eric Schmidt. My point is that much can be done with little if the right tools are used.
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The take-away nugget is that the internet provides tools and reasons for greater corporate transparency. Some corporations answer these calls to use the web to exhibit their tax records and to incorporate users/viewers/participants into internal and external regimes of governance and profit-generation. Other corporations expose their chain of production and distribution and how it misses layovers in child labor farms or despotic regimes and ecological disasters. This is all quite wonderful. But along with greater awareness and transparency is also greater capacity for manipulation of the veneer of transparency. So we must be vigilant in our textual readings of corporate transparency practices and perceive beyond the public persona to the numerous motives, values, and metrics for success that corporations deploy. We must figure out sophisticated techniques to study these powerful institutions. Textual study of the secondary and third order of values encoded in publically available online documents is one way. Even if new media corporations isn’t your anthropological fetish, it is certain that some strangely useful video about your fieldsite or subject exists on Youtube and you are going to have to explain your justifications for using it in your research. ┬áI invite us to co-develop these tools.

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

2 thoughts on “‘Life at the Googleplex’: Corporate Culture, Transparency, and Propaganda

  1. Re: “But as far as I am aware, nobody has thought to look at how governments, corporations, and other institutions self-visualize a public persona.”

    This is exactly what my colleague Liz Losh does in her recent MIT Press book “virtualpolitik” (and on her blog of the same name), with a particular emphasis on governments but much relevance for corporations too.

  2. To add to Paul’s comment, you will find anthropologists who study how corporations create public personae by looking at the emerging literature on corporate practice, especially corporate social responsibility. There are also some business scholars who are helpful on these questions. Along those lines, anthropologists interested in audit culture might help you contextualize the ‘transparency’ issue. Good places to start with these sorts of questions would be work by Peter Benson and Marina Welker, as well as Marilyn Strathern’s edited collection on audit cultures.

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