I learned on Wednesday night that it's fun to play "grill the Google exec." There's also now a little purple lava lamp in my kitchen. You can blame the press cocktail party that Google threw at its New York headquarters at the iconic former Port Authority building in Chelsea.
What you have to understand is that the "Google media party," targeting consumer and lifestyle reporters, had been shrouded in notoriety for the past month. The always classy Page Six section of the New York Post, after all, had described the shindig as "more like a singles mixer than a meet-and-greet with reporters" and "a party for horny tech nerds who want cute girls to show up."
The buzz only escalated when Dan Frommer of the Silicon Alley Insider posted the contents of an e-mail in which Google's public relations team had unceremoniously uninvited him from the party after he'd RSVP'd, seeming to confirm that the event was for the "consumer press," not us icky business and tech writers.
So, upon arriving, I was expecting Google-hued martinis and a crowd split, middle-school-dance-style, into separate packs of catty women's magazine staffers and the geeky male Googlers who were too shy to talk to them. Not quite. There were indeed candy-colored martinis, and the attendees did skew female, but the publications represented included Time, BusinessWeek and Popular Mechanics in addition to Vogue and its ilk. Frommer, for the record, managed to talk his way past the security in spite of his un-invitation. Star magazine editor-at-large Julia Allison was also present, presumably because she can never miss a party that's been written up on Page Six.
And some of the Googlers in question turned out to be a whole lot more important than I'd expected. Among those present were Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience; Doug Merrill, vice president of engineering; Elliot Schrage, vice president of global communications and public affairs; and most notably Craig Silverstein, the company's director of technology and a recent New York transplant, who's literally Googler No. 3. You know, after Larry Page and Sergey Brin.
The top-level Googlers were remarkably cheerful and didn't seem to mind that a few nosy tech reporters were hounding them for dirt while the "consumer and lifestyle" journalists were checking out displays that demonstrated real-life uses for Google applications. Some of the geek press chose to focus on the widely rumored Google phone or the more fantastical prospect of space elevators. But the Googlers sure weren't telling us much.
Considering my beat here at CNET News.com, I chose to make social media my topic of futile inquiry. When I asked Merrill whether Google's social-networking aims were headed toward broad distribution or targeted "destination" sites, he simply repeated the usual line of "Google's aim is to organize all the world's information..." which I took to be a hint toward the former.
Questions about buying a stake in Facebook were similarly rebuffed. But with regard to the TechCrunch-reported topic of a shadowy planning meeting for a massive social-media announcement that may or may not take place on November 5, answers weren't so uniform.
"I don't know if (the meeting) even took place," Mayer said amid a bit of the usual cannot-confirm-or-deny banter. Other execs' responses were more in the ballpark of "no, we can't comment, but you might want to keep an eye on our social-media initiatives in the near future anyway."
Just about the only upcoming project that the Googlers (both execs and minions) were willing to confirm was that the company's New York headquarters are indeed expanding to the Chelsea Market building on the other side of Ninth Avenue. The New York Googler head count is currently about 700; looks like it's going to be getting bigger very soon.
In closing, I should note that beforehand, reporters in attendance were invited to go on tours of the New York Googleplex's fourth floor, where all the techies (the sixth floor is for the sales staff, and my engineer tour guide told us that there were "way more suits" up there). I'd never seen the Googleplex beyond the "Tech Talk" space where press events are occasionally held, so this piqued my interest.
The entire expanse is "geographically oriented" to match the island of Manhattan, so there are conference rooms named after subway stops and landmarks. Also spotted: pitchers of banana nut hemp smoothies, an inflatable kiddie pool full of plastic balls in the "game room" alongside massage chairs and Dance Dance Revolution mats, and "yield" signs to prevent Razor scooter crashes in the hallway.
It's more or less exactly what you'd expect from Google. Oh, and they gave us free lava lamps. Mine looks great next to the toaster.
When the perky tour guide asked if anyone in our small group of reporters had any questions, I chose to ask what was new with Kaiser, the ball python who had been famously slithering amok in the Chelsea offices earlier this year after escaping from an engineer's cubicle.
The Googler said (paraphrased here), "You know, that happened on April Fools' Day, so I don't even know if there really was a python." Googler, I beg to differ.