Hangin' with Mr. Cooper

Rob Walker
Larry Page and Anderson Cooper
Google CEO Larry Page and CNN host Anderson Cooper.

by Rob Walker | @YahooTech

Several times during yesterday’s live stream of the Google I/O developers conference, speakers noted that more than a million people were watching online. I was one of them, or I wouldn’t know that. Of course, I had tuned in to this three-plus hour string of announcements of new Google products and features because I was looking for something to write about. And while I was personally underwhelmed by most of what got said on that stage in San Francisco, I do wonder what it means that what is basically a very long infomercial can attract what amounts to a mass audience.

Google’s official blog today says that “millions” watched thestream, but let’s just say that 1 million were watching at any given moment. That’s more people than were watching CNN, MSNBC and CNBC combined at any given moment on a typical day this week. Even in primetime, Anderson Cooper had around half a million viewers, Rachel Maddow about 600,000, Piers Morgan about 475,000. Admittedly, Fox’s prime time shows all got more viewers than Google’s conference, but still: Its audience was huge, by the standards of TV news. 

So what is so appealing about watching Google executives brag about Google products? Having watched much of the event, I would say it was not the actual content. And reading all the tech-blog coverage attempting to wring significance from the latest Maps update and the creation of a Spotify clone and so onhasn’t changed my mind about that. A piece over on Fast Company’s Co.Labs blog suggests that tech company “unveiling” events like this are “shared-experience moments,” like the moon landing. Someday, perhaps, we will reminisce about where we were when we heard Larry Page take potshots at Microsoft and Oracle.

Or perhaps not. But surely the fact that events like this — or similar product-hype spectacles from Facebook or Apple or others — can draw a crowd that CNN would envy says something about the specific nature of the cultural fascination with technology. Just as there is a kind of prestige, for some, in being an early adopter of the latest gadgetry or upgrade, there’s clearly an urge out there to be a first-knower. Why wait to hear about Google’s new photo tools from some tech journalist who has actually, you know, evaluated them, when you can hear about it at the same time the journalists do?

This urge is not about future memories of history-making events. It’s about something close to the opposite: experiencing the fleeting moments before new information becomes old news. To enjoy that game, every second counts. Before you know it there will be a new batch of announcements, from Google or someone else, and the crowd will gather again to be the first to hear what will soon be universally known — or, often as not, universally forgotten.