Hyphen Press

Lazy links

When it launched its website in July 1995, the internet seller Amazon seemed a wondrous thing. Here was a bookstore stocked with almost every title, and one that would reach parts of the country (the United States of America) that were far from any bricks-and-mortar shop. It was indeed based in Seattle, and its employees, one imagined, were mainly grunge-kids in baggy jeans and t-shirts, fetching and packing the books for minimum wages. The company seemed endearing to those of us who like brave new ventures.

Those days have gone. Amazon is now all-pervasive. Now it sells books as just one item among many: Amazon Grocery is one of the latest departments. Entering the Amazon websites, you enter an all-embracing world: a forest, indeed. Behind every tree is a snake that hisses ‘you bought that, so what about buying this?’ There is no sense of place: no sense of where this company is situated and how to get in touch with it. The only action one can take is place another order, or flee – pursued by snakes that hiss ‘Customers who bought items in your Recent History also bought …’. In this it differs from other megastores that, whatever one thinks of them – and it’s the worst – do have a physical presence and do offer customers some knowledge of who they are shopping from. For example, the Tesco and Wal-Mart websites give addresses and phone numbers and even some company history. By contrast Amazon is like the weather: just there and not open to influence from human beings.

The point of these remarks is not to launch an analysis of Amazon. Yes, there are clues to be found in discussions of its business practices, its employment practices, its way with patenting of software features. But this would require more energy and more knowledge than we have, and these remarks have a modest aim.

Read the internet, especially the blogs, and see how, when a book is mentioned, writers link to the Amazon page that describes it: as if that is sufficient description. Once, in the early days, this may have been a useful thing to do. But now, when any book or CD or film is so extensively described and discussed, not least on the websites of the people who made or published the thing, a link to Amazon is often a dumb move. Why direct people to this selling jungle, when calmer and often more extensive information is available elsewhere?

From a million blogs, take one of the smartest, Design Observer. Jessica Helfand refers to Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never let me go and we click to find ourselves on the amazon.com page for this book. From the thicket of selling messages, one can see the cover and (hard to find at first) the blurb. Disregarding the reviews by anyone who cares to write in, that’s it. Now go to the publisher’s website: the same cover, the same blurb (Amazon only knows what the publisher tells it), and quite a bit more, including a conversation with the author and an excerpt from the book. The Random House website is without the extraordinary clutter of Amazon’s: one can move around it without the snakes.

Another example: Norman Geras’s Normblogbest UK blog of 2005 – habitually links to Amazon to explain further. Thus, in his post on jazz tunes that stay in the memory, all his links were to CDs on Amazon. The link for the Strayhorn/Ellington song ‘Take the “A” Train’ goes to a set of CDs of the Duke Ellington Orchestra recordings on which the tune was first recorded. Amazon’s page has some samples from the CDs, but they don’t include ‘Take the “A” Train’. We learn almost nothing about the song from this link. If Norman Geras had spent just a few seconds with another behemoth of the internet, Google (faceless, subliminally selling, world-dominating, but for the moment still worth the trip), he would have come to this wonderful page, which gives the original recording by the band with a visual analysis of it, bar-by-bar. So here world-beating Amazon scores about 1 out of 100 on information, while Grinnell College, Iowa, gets near to maximum points. Or go to SongTrellis to see a score and hear the chord changes for the tune, plus a brief description that tells one most of what it is necessary to know: ‘Changes for "Take the ’A’ Train" composed by Billy Strayhorn. This was one of the signature pieces for the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Strayhorn was Ellington’s collaborator from the 1940’s till his death. Ellington referred to him as “my alter ego”.’ (Geras assumes that the tune was written by Ellington, not Strayhorn.)

There are some superior bloggers who know how to do it better and who take the trouble to go to the fullest source. Chris Brooke’s Virtual Stoa is one. For example, recommending some books by friends, he links to the publishers. To the knee-jerk Amazon-linkers one might say: scrub it from your bookmarks. The rewards will be much greater.

Robin Kinross / 2007.01.20