Anyone reading the tech press last week couldn’t avoid the gushing over Marissa Mayer’s appointment to become CEO of Yahoo!. Google’s first female engineer and the brains behind the elegantly simple white search home page, the 37-year old Mayer will face a tremendous new challenge in taking the helm of the ailing internet company. Whether she will be capable of restoring Yahoo! to its once great stature is debateable (is any human so capable ?), and I certainly wish her success for many reasons. But let’s get down to the more pressing questions…
Google: To acquire… or sabotage ?
Is this a devious scheme by Google to either a) get their hands on or b) sabotage their former arch-rival in the web portal race ? By installing one of their most loyal lieutenants (remember, Mayer was employee #20 at Google), could this be a sneaky tactic to repurpose Yahoo! from the inside, perhaps even using Yahoo! as a pawn in the greater battle against Facebook ?
The Yahoo!/Mayer announcement generated an interesting contrast of reactions between France and the U.S. Although my sample size is purely anecdotal, the near entirety of my French network reacted to this news with suspicion of a Google/Yahoo! conspiracy. And these are educated, tech-savvy individuals who pay attention to the digital media space and often have some form of professional involvement in the sector. In contrast, the conspiracy theory didn’t even occur to a single one of my American counterparts.
Why such a stark contrast ?
Studies have shown how conspiracy theories depend a lot on environment. Beyond crystal meth labs and bong-filled fraternity houses, people that are distant from the source of an event are more inclined to succomb to conspiratory imagination than those within proximity. Countries with dominant state control, or that eschew meritocracy, can be more conducive environments too. Sound familiar, France ?
The French, of course, do not have a monopoly on paranoia. Barely topping the “Birthers” and the “Truthers” in America, one of my overall favorites is the eccentric Englishmen, David Icke, who believes that the world is secretly run by a group of shape-shifting intergalactic lizards. Subscribing to a conspiracy theory can be comforting, relieving the believers of the burden of understanding the complex nature of the world. A conspiracy theory can make sense out of a topic that is otherwise confusing, and it can do so in an appealingly simple way.
Suggesting that Marissa Mayer’s placement is part of a nefarious Google scheme would get you ridiculed at a cocktail party in Palo Alto. The fact of the matter is that Mayer is an incredibly competent, talented and ambitious person for whom the top job at Yahoo! was simply too compelling a challenge to pass up. In continuing the spirit of “Don’t be evil”, I hope Mayer does good. I also hope she does well.