One of the things I love about Google, and there are a few, is the clever illustrations it uses to decorate its home page. At first these “Google Doodles” appeared mostly on holidays – St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day. New Year’s. By the middle of the last decade, the company had started celebrating iconic birthdays – of Albert Einstein, Vincent Van Gogh,and other icons. Over the last few years, those lovable rascals at the Googleplex seem to be having so much fun that they’ve found fun ways to mark various elections, Dr. Seuss’ birthday, and the 50th Anniversary of the LEGO Brick. Sometimes, part of the fun is seeing them honor geek icons who aren’t well-known to the general public: The Doodle for Stanislaw Lem, the Polish science fiction author who wrote “Solaris,” is a wonder to behold.
Of course, Googlers aren’t known for their sense of irony. Today the company’s homepage honors the birthday of Mark Twain. What’s interesting is the way it does so. The illustration looks like a comic strip with three panels. In the first, one boy hands his friend a paint can; in the second, he watches as his friend paints a fence; in the third, he offers a thumbs-up for his buddy’s work as his friend sits, exhausted, on the ground. The scene evokes “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” when Tom’s Aunt Polly makes him whitewash her fence and he tricks his friends into doing the work by convincing them that it’s fun.
In modern terms, this might be called “Sawyersourcing” – and few companies have done more to promote it than Google. Jimmy Wales is more of a Sawyer-esque character, a quintessentially American huckster who talked people he never met into writing an encyclopedia for him, then convinced the media that he wanted to run a charity even though he’s an Objectivist. But Google made this idea respectable by making large donations to Creative Commons, Harvard’s Berkman Center, and other institutions. Sometimes, Sawyersourcing produces great work. But technology companies, like Tom, rarely volunteer to share the wealth the way they share the work.
Twain himself, one suspects, would be laughing his ass off.