Editorial: Google's power couple
Marissa Mayer used to date Larry Page. There, we said it.
The relationship shouldn't be a big deal. Larry Page is co-founder of Google. Marissa Mayer is vice president of search products and user experience at the company, and employee number 20.
Google is famously consuming of its employees' lives, so it's not a surprise that people should develop relationships at the workplace. The connection was disclosed at Google, even if only at Mayer's prodding. She does not, at least not officially, report to Larry Page. As of last year, they no longer even date.
So why on Google Earth is the fact treated as such a secret? Google's corporate communications department has been putting forward Marissa Mayer as an appealing alternative to the company's overexposed founders. She's been the subject of puff profiles in magazines such as BusinessWeek and Fast Company.
Readers learn that she was on the high-school debate team, and that she welcomes late-night dropins from Google engineers. But, astonishingly, even in this mound of trivial color, not one mention of the fact that she dated one of Google's billionaire founders.
Maybe it's simply not relevant. Well, it's at least as relevant as the fact that Mayer flies kites and has the posture of the ballet dancer she was in her youth. And let's not pretend there's no significance in the tight connections of Google's founders and their first employees. It's because Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the co-founders, are still so close that they've been able to retain effective control of the company, able to pursue any hubristic scheme to bring free wifi and knowledge to the world. Personalities do matter.
Nobody's saying the dating lives of Larry Page and Marissa Mayer are front-page material, or even worth many a blog screed such as this. But the item is a staple of Silicon Valley gossip. I must have heard the tip from a dozen different people in the last month; it must be worth at least a mention. Try this: Marissa Mayer, who joined Google as employee number 20 and dated Larry Page until last year, was promoted to VP of search products. There, that wasn't too hard.
So why gloss over the fact? Some out-of-town reporters are no doubt unaware, true. But most local journalists know the gossip, relish it, and wouldn't dream of working it into an article, unless, say, it was the basis of a sexual harassment suit, which is not on the cards. Their explanation: it isn't worth it. The gossip is a throwaway line, a paragraph at best; but access to Google executives is worth thousands of words, and cover stories.
Google doesn't even have to threaten. Eric Schmidt imposed a year-long ban on cooperation with CNET after the site made a point about privacy by publishing the Google CEO's address and other information. But that didn't last long, Google isn't nearly as fearsome as Apple in its dealings with the media, and I've heard no suggestion that Google explicitly vetoes certain lines of questioning. Marissa Mayer's handlers, in managing the press, still have much to learn from the Tom Cruise's publicists.
What we have here is simple old-fashioned self-censorship. In China, few articles are ever censored. The press knows the rules, and anticipate them. Now, famously, some Google search results, for controversial terms such as Tibet, are self-censored.
It would be easy to make some joke about Google subjecting tech reporters to the same inducements that it faces in China. But this really isn't Google's fault. Any company in a strong position would do the same: use access to control the story. The real embarrassment is that of the Silicon Valley's toothless press corps. Raised on a diet of pre-packaged anecdotes ooh, did you know Google hired a chef who travelled with the Grateful Dead? it's incapable of chewing on a real story.
An evening with Google's Marissa Mayer [one of the few mentions of her relationship with Larry Page, in a comment, about half-way down]
The Search [In John Battelle's book on Google, he describes Mayer as a "cultural force" in the company, but relegates her personal life to a footnote]