The mural has been there for a year now. On first glance, the artwork, on a wall facing the two elevators, is a frightening mash up of a J.M.W. Turner painting and a storyboard for a scene from The Perfect Storm. It depicts a tumescent oceanscape, dominated by a wall of surf that is about to upturn a pitiful sailing ship.
The image was discovered by Google VP of product management Bradley Horowitz when he opened Google Image Search and typed “Emerald Sea” — which had just been chosen as the project code name. The first result, a depiction of an 1878 painting created by German immigrant artist Albert Bierstadt, so impressed Horowitz that he commissioned a pair of art students to copy it on the wall facing the fourth floor elevators. That way, the hundreds of workers contributing to Emerald Sea would draw inspiration as they headed to their computers to remake Google into a major social networking force.
The massive wave symbolizes the ways Google views the increasingly prominent social aspect of the web — as a possible tsunami poised to engulf it, or a maverick surge that it will ride to glory. Beirstadt’s turbulent vision is the perfect illustration. “We needed a code name that captured the fact that either there was a great opportunity to sail to new horizons and new things, or that we were going to drown by this wave,” Gundotra said last August, when Google first showed me a prototype.
Did he say drown? It almost beggars belief that the king of the search — the most successful internet business ever, with $30 billion in yearly revenue — would be running scared by the social networking trend led by Facebook, a company that barely rakes in a few billion. Nonetheless, people at Google feel that retooling to integrate the social element isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity. As early as last August, I asked Gundotra whether he felt Emerald Sea was a bet-the-company project.
“I think so,” he replied. “I don’t know how you can look at it any other way.”
Google still wants to organize the world’s information. But this time, it’s personal.