The (Amazon) Prime Directive

The (Amazon) Prime Directive

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Prime Day is coming up! That’s right, the artificially constructed holiday devoted to boosting the fortune of the world’s richest man during slow summer sales months!

But if Amazon's recent ventures into hellish working conditions, selling facial recognition to the surveillance state, and urban-development-by-bidding-war haven't already turned you off from the festivities, here's a fun story about how "The Everything Store" is playing recklessly with the marketplace it's created—to the detriment of sellers and customers (but not, of course, Jeff Bezos[1]).

It's a story with echoes of companies like Uber and Facebook: mega-corporations that attain their massive scale by creating entirely new spaces for exchange—privatized realms full of dark patterns that twist and change with the companies’ whims. It’s a story about platform capitalism, and the rotten underbelly of the markets that make today’s world go round.[2]

Reply All's recent episode "The Magic Store" begins with a question—in the last year or so, have you felt like Amazon's listings are becoming sketchier, or even shittier? Maybe you thought it was just part of the general rending of the world's foundations since 2016? (In a broader, Yeatsian sense, perhaps it is). Maybe you noticed specific things, like a product that wasn't quite what it claimed to be, or a veritable zoo of keywords crammed into the product's name. Or maybe you heard the strange story this February of the Acton, MA couple who started getting dozens of Amazon packages they didn't order, apparently tied to a fraudulent review service.

Friends, all of these are all linked! As the episode details, Amazon has long relied on third-party sellers to vastly increase its product inventory, which originally allowed it to compete with eBay to become "The Everything Store" that it is today. There have always been problems policing these sellers, but as Amazon has tried to compete with a new, international challenger, Alibaba, it’s relaxed standards on international third-party sellers—and now the floodgates have broken loose.

It seems with the influx of new sellers—often in places like China, beyond the reach of Amazon’s legal tools—pre-existing methods for gaming the third-party seller system grew into enterprises that in some areas are overtaking legitimate sellers. As the Washington Post’s Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg reported, there are Facebook Groups, subreddits, and YouTube channels devoted to matching folks looking for a bit of extra cash with Amazon sellers looking to pay for positive reviews. If the paid reviewers aren’t buying your product fast enough, no problem—just ship the item to an arbitrary address in Acton, MA. Whether the reviewer actually lives at the address or not, the algorithm is so powerful that bleeding inventory for “verified” reviews is well worth it.   

Perhaps most disturbingly, the entire human assemblage reshapes itself whenever Amazon tweaks its search algorithm

There’s an entire invisible industry of resellers and contractors and gig workers devoted to moving products up just one or two slots on the Amazon search results. There are even services for quickly producing new seller accounts in the event that Amazon catches your account’s shady activities and bans it. Perhaps most disturbingly, the entire human assemblage reshapes itself whenever Amazon tweaks its search algorithm: when Amazon stopped weighting how often a product was sitting unbought in carts and wish-lists, the system smoothly pivoted from paying Bangladeshi gig workers to express interest in products they never intended on buying to paying American college students to write reviews for products that canny sellers were paying them to buy.

This hurts customers, who are directed towards shoddy and even dangerous products; as well as sellers, who are forced to play the game or engage in bidding wars with copycats who do. But Amazon seems helpless to keep the frauds out—and it may not even want to. As we learned from the example of Twitter’s jittery stock when it began purging bot accounts this month, the Invisible Hand (read: investment analysts) cares much more about the supposed number of users on these services than their quality.

At the end of the episode, the Reply All hosts and guests discuss their discomfort with Amazon, and how—despite what they just spent so much effort learning—they still rely on Amazon by default for so many everyday purchases. This is by design! Simply by being as large and as comprehensive as it is, Amazon positions itself to fill your every need. And then it uses some really devious psychology—Prime subscriptions are at the heart of this—to keep you hooked even when it’s not even economically worth it.

It’s not going to slow down. From its founding until 2015, Amazon didn’t consistently turn a profit, choosing instead to reinvest in growth at all costs. And “all costs” means the human cost to those caught up in the machine, too: It’s not for nothing that everyone from Spanish warehouse workers to New York activists have been working to disrupt the Amazon machinery in the run-up to Prime day. For Amazon, though it’s a brutally successful strategy—one that’s worked well for Jeff Bezos and investors, and it will continue to drive Amazon’s horizontal expansion as it grows from a bookseller to a behemoth selling everything from hippie groceries to deportation machinery. Capital must be fed.

I'm not going to condemn you for buying stuff on Amazon on Prime Day or any other day. I still have a Prime account, and I am psyched for the continuation of The Expanse and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. But I'm trying to move away from defaulting to buying books or knick-knacks or entertainment off Amazon, and thinking critically about what I’m there for. And if that makes me go outside to buy something—well, it’s good for my psychology, it recommits me to fighting for walkable cities, and it sends a little less money to the richest man in the world.

[1] Full disclosure – I, like Jeff Bezos, am a graduate of Princeton, and hope each time I return for Reunions to catch a glimpse of our richest alumnus. Maybe I’ll have a better chance now that I’ve written this. More unsettlingly, much of the critical reporting this piece relies on was done by reporters at the Washington Post which is (as our nicknamer-in-chief keeps reminding us), owned by Jeff Bezos Himself. In this world, we are all fallen, and we can’t get up.

[2] If you want to read people smarter than I about managing private platforms with immense reach that function as marketplaces of ideas or just-plain-marketplaces, I recommend Logic Magazine’s most recent issue on Scale or Tarleton Gillespie's recent book Custodians of the Internet (which I haven’t yet read, but which I’m very much looking forward to reading, based on its excerpts and adaptations in Logic and in Wired).

Christmas in July

Christmas in July