November 2005

James Stegall


Amazon, My Private Library

I'm greedy. I want to walk into my local library and have every type of media available, from vinyl to MP3, Betamax to DVD, hardback to trade paper. I want the media at my command to originate from when it first started getting made, and since I'm also lazy, I want the library to recommend the media best suited to my tastes (based also on my current mood would be outstanding, but that's asking a lot). Once my library presents me with a list of potential, long-tailed media for my consumption, I also want to know whether other people liked it or not because I put a lot of credence in what others think, and I don't want to get caught listening to unhip music, even if the library thinks I'll like it. If the requirements I just laid down almost sound like a certain online retailer, it's because I'm trying to think of all the ways that Amazon is not like a library. The biggest argument would be They charge for their stuff and that's true but libraries aren't completely free either, especially when you figure the cost of traveling to them, paying late fees, donating to their underfunded existence, paying taxes, etc. The cost of using Amazon, at least for used books and music, is actually pretty low when you consider the value of what you're getting. Take recommendations. If you have used Amazon for several years, and then take the time to click through a couple pages of questions about stuff you bought and stuff you like, Amazon will start making fairly accurate recommendations on other stuff you might enjoy. This service is a little dodgy because Amazon is in the business of making money, and certain aspects of their service can't be trusted. For instance, they don't recommend used stuff, and their recommendations tend to be in line with items getting hyped everywhere else -- but when Amazon recommended Franz Ferdinand to me several months in a row, I finally listened to the band and had to admit I liked them. For somebody who doesn't read music magazines or watch MTV, but likes new music every now and then, that's a useful service. It's pretty much exactly what a live librarian provides in your local library. Where Amazon wins, and what keeps me coming back to their site as a resource, is in the very library-ness of their set-up what I see as their real value. The best thing Amazon ever did was to open the site to used book sales. Suddenly it was no longer their sole burden to enter all that back catalog floating out there in garage sales and used book stores. Other people started doing it for them. Whereas a physical library is limited by the number of books it can hold, and ends up selling or throwing out hundreds of books a year, Amazon isn't limited by physical boundaries. So long as people keep entering obscure items in the database, Amazon's usefulness will grow. And for every odd book, CD or DVD entered, there is somebody with an opinion about it to add some quantifying meta-information. What started as a way to increase books sales has become, I think, Amazon's most useful feature besides its sheer inventory. In a physical library, you depend on the librarian to make a recommendation about the information you're looking for it's their job and people trust them. Amazon's offered information is a little more caveat emptor but when you're comparing several out-of-print books on a subject you know nothing about, a couple quality customer reviews can make all the difference in your purchase decision. A vast inventory is that much more valuable when information makes it relevant, which is what customer reviews provide. When copyright enthusiasts talk about the Long Tail, this is where the value lies. When a database like Amazon's prescribes equal value to book printed yesterday and one printed in 1985, the author who normally would have seen their creation slide into obscurity can instead see a resurgence in popularity. This is something a physical public library can't provide, even through extended networks (academic libraries are another story) and a great argument for calling Amazon what it is: a private library. And people are giving Amazon this priceless information for free! Like the thousands of amateurs chipping away at the information in Wikipedia, trying to make it the best encyclopedia history has seen, thousands of consumers voice their opinions and give advice on various subjects through Amazon's customer reviews. When they aren't writing opinions, they're assembling lists of connected items, filing other items away as things they want, and writing free manuals where none are available. When ePinions first started trying to pay people for their opinions, maybe nobody understood just how much people like to talk about, categorize and show off their stuff. Of course ePinions failed pretty quickly as a way for reviewers to make money all Amazon has to do is pay in little titles like Top 500 Reviewer and people provide them with insightful, well-written commentary. In the meantime, Amazon hasn't been sitting on this information. They are continuously thinking of new ways to sort it out and leverage it to their best advantage. They appear to understand that the information they make available about a product is almost more important than the product itself, since a bad review, or three stars or less on an item can mean sales-death. Sometimes no reviews at all is better than one bad review when it comes to a split-second buying decision. Amazon's power as an information source will only continue to grow. As a for-profit system, we can be fairly certain it will continue to find ways to make its vast database more useful and relevant. However, that same priceless information lives at the whim of Amazon's weird business practices. According my financial analyst friend, Amazon doesn't make a profit, pays no dividends on shares, and yet somehow continues to conduct business. Maybe somebody can explain it to me. When I think of losing information resources like Google and Amazon, I realize I would be willing to pay a monthly fee the anathema of online content. The thing is, if Amazon dies, what happens to all that information? The largest interconnected media database history has ever seen could just disappear. . . Would someone else buy it, charge for its use? Or could Amazon represent the next generation of private libraries in-home terminals providing all media ever created, either as a digital product or as a used purchase? Maybe Google Print will beat them to it.