by Pat Holt
Friday, July 27, 2001
AOL AND AMAZON: A MATCH MADE IN HELL
I'm sure that Amazon.com is thanking its lucky stars for America Online, which invested $100 million in the ailing Seattle company this week. But what a dreadful and dangerous state of events it is for everybody else.
It seems irrelevant to me whether the deal allows AOL the chance to buy Amazon one day in the future (a subject of much speculation this week). What I do find terrifying is the nature of this "broad strategic alliance" as it exists right now and what it means to readers.
The terms seem unspectacular at first. For that $100 million, Amazon.com will "provide technology such as product comparisons and search capabilities to AOL users," the Wall Street Journal reports. Amazon will also "promote America Online exclusively as an Internet-services provider."
The First Scary Part: Privacy Concerns
In addition, America Online will integrate Amazon's "ability to make recommendations for users based on their past purchases." Uh-oh.
Of course, Barnes & Noble, the slippery dickens, has already wormed its way onto AOL's website as the company's exclusive bookseller.
But what's to stop Amazon, once it "provides technology" for AOL, from also providing the company with information that it's amassed about 29 million Amazon customers, and to "integrate" that information with all that AOL has amassed about ITS customers, and to integrate that with all that Time Warner has amassed about ITS customers?
Imagine how the giant complex of AOL/Time Warner/Amazon could "make recommendations" to you and me "based on our past purchases" (not to mention our credit card companies, social security numbers, medical histories, insurance needs and colonoscopies)?
The prospect of companies routinely collecting personal data on the Internet without our knowledge has been bad enough. But even worse is the potential for conglomerates joining conglomerates to share and manipulate more and more and more data we want kept private.
The Second Scary Part: Commercialization As We've Never Seen
We've already witnessed the way AOL/Time Warner has ruined Internet browsing by commercializing Netscape to death.
With every click, it seems, Netscape users are bombarded by relentless sales boxes that insist you buy the Foreman Golf Master Sizzle Palm Jr. or the Wireless Cuisinart with Fax Capability. Attempts to click these boxes off the screen only provoke more feverish sales pitches to buy, buy, buy.
Now with Amazon "helping" AOL users to compare products and bringing its formidable marketing energies to the promotion of American Online, we can expect a worse deluge than ever.
Granted, this is the American way - Amazon has not been shy about running paid ads, and selling its "recommendations" and slots on its bestseller list before.
But even I felt there was something about Jeff Bezos and his staff that seemed to "get it" about leaving customers alone to explore the website and choose their purchases unhampered by constant sales pitches.
(Of course, what am I saying? Those awful announcements that interrupt the sale of new books on Amazon by offering the same titles as used books up for auction are beyond irritating and offensive - they have a criminal feel, at least until now.
The Third Scary Part: When Does 'Big' Become 'Big Enough'?
I thought AOL was big enough, and before that Time Inc. was big enough and even before that Warner big enough and then Amazon big enough, each one declaring its intention to take over its field today and the world tomorrow.
Then came the subsidiaries multiplying like a cancer with other fast-growing cells within the AOL Time Warner organism, such as Turner Broadcasting and HBO/Cinemax/CNN/WB and People/Fortune/Sports Illustrated and New Line Cinema/Warner Brothers and Atlantic music and Little, Brown/Warner Books and the Atlanta Braves and the one imprint that says it all, Looney Tunes (partial list).
Perhaps we're inured to this kind of explosive corporate growth and have given up trying to evade the grasp or even keep track of the concentration of power in our own industry when it comes to, say, Bertelsmann, Pearson, Viacom, Murdoch, Holtzbrink and others.
But it's important to note that when a global company like Bertelsmann buys a good chunk of Barnesandnoble.com (as it did in '98) and Rupert Murdoch buys Gemstar TV Guide and AOL Time Warner joins forces with Amazon in a "strategic alliance," there's always an intention behind the deal, and it ain't healthy for you and me.
There is always a push, a pressure, an influence, a force that comes sneaking over the airwaves or plopping onto your computer screen. It insists that every one of us stop being a part of distinctive small audiences. Every sales box and pitch and ad and yes, every journalistic puff-piece is telling us to merge into one blockbuster market, one homogenous demographic, one big manipulative block of unquestioning customers.
It's hard if not impossible to evade that message when we shop, browse or read, but thanks to the Internet and independent neighborhood stores, one can still step outside this Orwellian madness and function in peace.
I think that in part, that's what riots in Genoa and Seattle are about - to protest just as feverishly - granted, almost blindly - globalization of commercial interests that press for conformity of thought, action and purchasing power. To me, the AOL Time Warner/Amazon alliance is right there in the forefront of that demonic intention.
A HIERARCHY OF NEWSPAPERS
I don't usually run stuff that's floating around the Internet but this unattributed little list, "A Hierarchy of Newspapers," in which major newspapers throughout the country are ranked by the perceptions of people who read them, is not only very telling, it gets funnier (and truer) as you go along.
Who reads what?
UPCOMING: I'm late responding to this, but boy, that attack on Oprah Winfrey in the Wall Street Journal is really the lowest of the low. Commentary about it to come on Tuesday.
NOTE TO READERS:
So many people wrote about the profile of "Jack" at KBOO Radio on Portland, Oregon (see #252), that I thought I'd run a brief synopsis of quotes here. I put this together because Jack herself wrote in her inimitable fashion to say 8 people had sent her the column and she worried that "I come off sounding like some cynical foul-mouthed abrasive motherf-----. Geez..there goes my image as the soft cuddly warm bear that I am." I wrote back to say "the column was a LOVE LETTER YOU A-----," and sent the following to prove other readers thought so, too.
>From a bookseller: I've loved reading the tour notes over the past few months, especially this one about Jack. There's something exciting and a little absurd about touring...we of course get the suggested questions (and answers!). I always throw them away, too.
>From a radio host and writer in the East: Loved, and I mean loved, your piece on Interviewer Jack on KBOO. It brought me right back to my own limited book tour experience.
>From a poet: Just wanted to say that I enjoyed the KBOO description, having been in those rooms earlier this spring--you caught it exactly. (I was spared the joys of Jack however!)
>From a Portland resident: Since you found KBOO, you dipped into Portland at its best. Growth, gentrification, and good weather have changed us, but not altogether.
>From a Lezbo couple: We both so loved this column about the s-kicking Jack and KBOO. We laughed and laughed - great reportage - and yay for Jack.
>From an author: This was an un-f---ing-believable column! (and i know that radio station in Portland!! you got it dead on. sorry i never met jack. she'd have been positively retching over my stuff!)
>From an author: this is SO funny! i remember being interviewed by KBOO too--much the same way! thanks for writing!
>From a PR consultant: This is a wonderful piece on "Jack." Remind me never to send anybody less 'with it' than Terry to KBOO.
>From an FOJ: As a friend of Jack's (FOJ) I am a bit biased, but what an accurate, warm and funny description of who she is and how she conducts (I suppose now we have to say conducted) her interviews. Thank you for spreading the word about Jack and about KBOO.
And here's an official letter to the column:
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Let it be known that the hallmark of KBOO's author interviews is, usually, a full half-hour (28 or 29 minutes, anyway), an interviewer who has read the book, and insightful discussion. We pride ourselves in respect for the author, even if the book is not "literature," and an intelligent audience. Touring authors want to be interviewed here because of that. Often, they have just come from a 6-minute TV gig where the first question is, "So, what's your book about?" Jack's style is, of course, unique.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I don't object to BookScan. I would love to see what truly is the top selling book in any given week, whether it be a Bible or cookbook or Britney's new on-the-edge-of-your-seat-thriller (wait, I got carried away). As a representative for small publishers, whose books often don't receive much notice from lists, this method could prove to be somewhat interesting. I suppose BookScan could seperate the new books from the backlist, much like SoundScan does for "catalog" albums.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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