What struck me, over the course of the weekend, was the deference with which he was treated once people found out who his employer was. This particular Googler traced his professional roots to the music industry -- he had been an engineer, working with Dolby on advanced speaker systems -- and yet he gets more recognition for being a part of the search juggernaut than he ever did in rock 'n' roll, arguably the world's sexiest profession. So I asked him about it.
"People are definitely more impressed by the work I do at Google than by the work I did at Dolby," he acknowledged. "Think about it. Only a handful of people will ever be in the market for high-end speaker systems, but every single person in this restaurant has been touched by Google."
What this gentleman experiences is the phenomenon of hyper-vertical fame. It's nothing new, and there are plenty of examples of it online. I've seen Richard MacManus get the same treatment, seen the shift in people's demeanor when they figure out he's the Richard MacManus. It's predicated on them knowing why he deserves to have that definite article italicized, but it's there. (He's founder and editor of the tech blog ReadWriteWeb, in case you're wondering.)
I vividly remember arriving at a group breakfast, full of excitement to share my news with the one person there I knew would appreciate it: "You're not going to believe this!" I cried. "Hugh MacLeod tweeted my blog post!" My one friend got it. Everyone else sat there with blank looks on their faces.
People have been famous within their particular spheres forever -- go out and rent "The King of Kong" if you don't believe me. What's new is the "famous person" reaction to the brand itself. Think about it. Any old Twitter can get people to verb their name, but conferring fame on staff members sets a new bar for companies to aspire to. Coca-Cola has as much brand recognition as Google. But how impressed would you be if you met someone who worked at Coca-Cola? If it were the CEO, yeah, I can see that. But the manager of one of the bottling plants?
Coca-Cola touches as many people as Google does, but Google has a distinct advantage in the famestakes: they are the kingmakers. They don't just touch people; they are the conduit by which we learn what is important and what isn't. Perhaps more than any brand in history, Google gives the impression of being a single entity, a creature on whose good side we wish to remain.
It's an exciting thing to live in an era in which computer engineers provoke the same reaction as pop stars. Perhaps we shouldn't be revering anyone at all -- but isn't it at least better to revere people for their smarts than for their booty-shaking?
*The employee number has been changed to throw the paparazzi off the scent.