The Best of the Best
Revisiting the past two months' "Must-Reads"
Hello Amazon Chroniclers! There are two things happening here. I am traveling along America’s eastern coast, which tempted me to shut down the newsletter for a week, since I am busy busy busy. Also, this week was a pretty quiet one for Amazon, dominated by press releases and a big Apple event that sucked a lot of oxygen out of the tech journalism room. Are there smart things to be said about Amazon’s new partnership with Volkwagen? Probably! But there is no great urgency to say them.
So what I thought what could be best for this week is a quick revisiting of the articles I’ve marked so far as “must-reads” for Amazon watchers. We can see whether the added months or weeks of context have added any layers, or catch an out-of-cycle story that might still be all-too relevant. And it gives new readers a chance to catch up on what the newsletter is all about, the kinds of stories I like to highlight, and the overall perspective on Amazon those stories create.
In other words, read these recommended stories, and you’ll have a very good idea of where I’m coming from and where things are headed with The Amazon Chronicles.
So let’s start with the very first must-read, from the first proper issue, “Interpreting Amazon’s Earnings.” This was:
John Herrman, “The Secret Life of Amazon’s Vine Reviewers”
Herrman’s slice-of-life, “here’s how weird it is to live in late capitalism” approach is potentially deceptive; it is that, but it also offers rich insights into the fiddly ways in which Amazon works. I read this now very much in the light of Zack Kanter’s “What Is Amazon?” (see below). Faced with a difficulty (Amazon’s overwhelming catalog makes it difficult to make its best products visible), Amazon creates a platform. In fact, Amazon creates multiple platforms, some working at cross purposes: the advertising side of the company is selling companies a solution (advertise with us, make your product more visible), while product review teams are working to get their own visibility-boosting metrics up by somewhat artificially creating more reviews. It’s a hodgepodge set of solutions to problems Amazon’s created itself, by making itself the Everything Store. But Amazon, the phenomenon, is equally both those problems and those solutions.
The second must-read, from Amazon’s Game of Monopoly, is one I’ve already returned to at some length, in “There Are Only Two Amazon Stories That Matter”:
Lina M. Khan, “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox”
Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Presidential campaign has helped moved the needle on public discussion of the big “A” word (yes, antitrust) when it comes to the biggest tech companies, but Khan’s Yale Law Review article already had the momentum going. What’s more, Khan puts Amazon square in the center of her genealogy of legal reasoning around antitrust. She shows how Amazon created itself to be the perfect non-monopoly monopoly, counting on its relentless focus on lower prices and consumer benefits to wash out anything potentially anticompetitive in its approaches. So the article doubles as a way of thinking about the changing legal reasoning around antitrust and a way of thinking about Amazon, the quintessential company formed in those changes’ wake. It’s only getting more relevant, so the time to read it is now.
Issue number three, “The Union Forever,” had three must-reads.
Whet Moser, “The Cloud”
Sometimes readers tell me I should do a basics/ABCs issue, explaining nuts-and-bolts stuff like how Amazon Web Services works, which a lot of people don’t fully understand. (I’m not sure everyone working in AWS fully understands it, but let’s leave that there.) Moser’s “The Cloud” is as good a basic introduction to the idea of AWS and cloud computing as you can ask for. Part of Quartz’s “Obsession” series, it gives you a capsule history, some mind-boggling numbers, and a few future ideas to chew on.
Alexis Madrigal, “How Big Is Amazon?”
Madrigal thinks about Amazon’s overall infrastructure in a slightly different way, in terms of overall square footage. “Amazon now has 288 million square feet of warehouses, offices, retail stores, and data centers,” writes Madrigal, and it’s only getting bigger. What’s more, the growth in square footage isn’t being driven by Amazon’s sudden acquisition of lots of retail space, or the explosion of cloud computing; it’s still Amazon’s nuts-and-bolts logistics business, moving retail goods around the world, that accounts for most of its space.
Rachel Siegel, “Flesh and blood robots for Amazon”
This is a story about retail arbitrage, people who buy up goods by the case at low prices from retail stores and sell them on Amazon’s marketplace at a markup, especially where the goods plug a gap in the marketplace. Now I wonder, though, whether and how these freelance workers (since that’s really what they are) fit into Amazon’s new scheme of promoting verified non-counterfeit goods above all else? In some cases, it doubtlessly won’t matter; people searching for a particular product on Amazon will find it if they’re looking hard enough. But Amazon has ways to make things very difficult on third-party sellers if they don’t like what you’re up to. So long as the arbitrage works for everyone, things are good; the second it seems like more trouble than it’s worth, off goes the spigot.
“The Bridge Is Over” had no must-reads, as it was a special report. But “Don’t Cry For Me, Long Island City,” on the other hand, after synthesizing a whirlwind of takes on Amazon pulling out of HQ2 in Long Island City, Queens, settled on the decidedly boring story of Amazon’s tax returns:
Matthew Yglesias, “Amazon’s $0 corporate income tax bill last year, explained”
What can I say? I whiffed on this one. Yglesias’s article is perfectly serviceable, but it’s not a must-read. It doesn’t answer any burning questions about Amazon or point the way towards its future, other than to say Amazon likes to reinvest its profits, it enjoys the privilege of stock-based compensation, and the company has good accountants. I picked a solid article that allowed me to condense a bunch of takes from that week into a single link, and called it a must-read. It was a mistake. I’m looking for something a little bit deeper, a little longer-lasting. I’ll try to do better in the future.
From “A Star Is (Not) Born” (one of my better newsletters, by the way, especially if you’re interested in Amazon Video):
Margaret Burin, “What it’s like to work in an Amazon Australia warehouse”
I wrote this at the time:
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “What it’s like to work in an Amazon Australia warehouse” is not breaking all-new ground, at least not for those of us who’ve read Mac McClelland’s “I Was A Warehouse Wage Slave,” or Hamilton Nolan’s series of “True Stories of Life As An Amazon Worker,” or Dave Jamieson’s “The Life and Death of an Amazon Warehouse Temp.” At this point, if you don’t know that warehouse work at Amazon and its peer companies is extraordinarily difficult, dangerous, often humiliating, and thoroughly casualized in its reliance on temporary workers without guarantees or benefits, you’re choosing not to know.
What I think is striking about what the ABC has done, which other stories have touched on but not delved into, is the psychological reality of working as a picker. It’s not just tough blue-collar work. There’s an ideology involved that you as a worker are required to buy into… This ideology is reinforced through constant surveillance and measurement… The ABC story reflects this inside-outside, Imaginary Amazon vs. Real Amazon divide very well through its juxtaposition of official Amazon footage and photographs with its uncensored stories from current and former workers.
Still holds up today, even as the stories of the reality of work inside Amazon’s warehouses have multiplied and metastasized.
From “Amazon Is A Marketplace For Information”:
Shahid Buttar and Mitch Stoltz, “Antitrust Enforcement Needs to Evolve for the 21st Century”
This report comes from the EFF, and it pushes a very simple idea: antitrust rulings need to lean harder on the “essential facilities doctrine.” This comes out of railway law, but roughly states that a monopolist with control of a bottleneck that’s essential to other competitors needs to provide reasonable use of that bottleneck, in the absence of a regulatory agency that can provide bright-line rules for use of the essential facility.
This is a pretty lightweight way to get around some monopolistic problems regarding access to platforms. I think my mistake with this one was that while it touched on things I’m interested in and that are relevant to the potential regulation of Amazon, it’s not really about Amazon, which is already pretty open in terms of access to its platforms. I mean, Amazon is even putting Apple TV+ on Kindle Fires from the jump, which, considering the years of handwringing it took to get Prime Video on Apple TVs, is a small miracle.
Broadly speaking, the way I can justify it is this: there are a lot of people thinking about monopolies, antitrust, and monopolistic behavior on tech platforms. There are a lot of approaches being put forward to help us rethink how these things have been arranged in the past. It’s worth being broadly aware of this range of discourse when you’re talking about Big Tech and antitrust.
Elizabeth Warren, “Here’s How We Can Break Up Big Tech”
My long reading of this post is at “There Are Only Two Amazon Stories That Matter,” and I still feel like this is the Amazon story that matters most right now. Warren’s Iowa poll numbers right now are decent but not overwhelming, but she’s by far leading the way in terms of proposing policies that are pushing other Democratic candidates for President to make a stand.
Basically I propose that Warren’s “spin off Whole Foods, spin off Zappos, spin off Amazon Basics,” top line when it comes to Amazon is slightly disingenuous. The real meat of the proposal comes in the possibility of designating Amazon’s marketplace and Amazon Web Services as platform utilities under the law, and regulating them accordingly. It’s less about inexpensive USB cords, and more about what Amazon is doing with all of the data it’s pushing around for its competitors and the tech ecosystem as a whole.
From “Amazon Keeps Making Its Basics Better”:
Zack Kanter, “What Is Amazon?”
This essay is just great. As I wrote last week:
What’s so elegant about this argument is how Kanter both shows how product advertising has the possibility of eroding everything that Amazon has built, while also showing that advertising is a necessary conclusion to everything that Amazon has built. Like Oedipus being the very murderer he’s looking for, it’s both tragic and tidy.
What’s also fascinating to me is to watch Amazon convert itself from being “the retailer with the lowest prices on everything” to “the trusted retailer with low prices on all of the best products,” and how that both works with and against the grain when it comes to ads. Because on the one hand, advertising offers brands a chance to distinguish themselves from the pack. But on the other, advertising necessarily extends this chance to the company that pays the most, which is not necessarily the best product. It’s a conundrum, and one Amazon is going to resolve in some of the most counterintuitive of ways, like pulling ads from nonprofitable products, and hiding products that get waves of negative reviews. It’s going to layer all these customer and seller platforms on top of each other, and hope the result is coherent. And if you’re a customer? You’re counting on Amazon to pull it off. Because they always somehow have before.
Thanks for reading this self-indulgent self-roundup. I hope you’ve found at least one thing you may have missed the first time around, or (like me) can re-encounter the same text in a new context now.
See you next week with more Amazon news,