Resisting Amazonification

From Library Babel Fish, July 15, 2014

Joshua Kim raised a question yesterday that helped me build the bridge I was trying to construct between two stimulating blog posts that seemed connected, though I wasn’t sure how. One, a Gigaom post by Laura Hazard Owen, describes the ways some writers are framing the Hachette-Amazon dispute in terms that echo Tea Party rhetoric: we’re scrappy independents standing up for freedom against the elites and the snobs! That kind of framing appears in all sorts of tech-disruption rhetoric, which positions the individual entrepreneur as the vital change-agent fighting bravely against the power of established businesses – using the platform of an emerging megacorporation. The new (in this case, represented by one giant Internet business) and the old (represented by five giant publishing corporations) are pitted against one another in a death match, and only the new offers freedom from tyranny. Either that, or its a rapacious, bullying destroyer of culture, depending on your point of view.

The other blog post that grabbed my attention was a really excellent provocation by Nick Montfort, The Facepalm at the End of the Mind, in which he assembles a set of bullet points in response to the ways people have reacted to the Facebook manipulation study published in PNAS. Each statement, starting with “do you want your money back?” leads to another, cumulatively indicting our own carelessness in allowing the Web to be privatized. The final bullet point is the clincher:

Why did people who communicate and learn together, people who had the world, leave it, en masse, for a shopping mall?

I think the reason is partly that a whole lot of people didn’t really have the Web in the first place. They might have used Prodigy for a while, or Compuserve, or AOL. They might have dabbled in USENET or Yahoo Groups. They might have set up a blog, once Blogger made it exceptionally easy to publish to the Web (before it got swallowed up by Google). They might have even used an RSS feed reader like Google Reader (before Google killed it). But it wasn’t until Facebook combined simplicity with size that we had one platform to rule them all. (Remember MySpace and Friendster? Yeah.) This giant-sized network effect is the monopoly of the 21st century. Google and Amazon are also in that category. Nobody can compete with anything that attracts nearly everyone, and that massive amount of attention gives them enormous power. It’s so big people seem to feel they can’t not be there. (Actually, there is life without Facebook, and it’s fine.)

There is an alternative to this kind of corporate data-sucking dominance, and it scales, but it’s not without barriers. Yochai Benkler calls it “commons-based peer production.” To participate you need to have some skills, some free time, and some connection to the common project – because it won’t be linked from everywhere as Facebook is and it’s doubtful all of your relatives and friends and your ninth grade English teacher are already there urging you to connect. Instead of handing over personal information to fund the platform, you contribute time and some work, and you trust that the piece you work on will become integrated with the whole, which requires a stable and transparent governance system of some sort. Wikipedia is a great example of a massive peer production project, but its platform isn’t as intuitive as it could be, its governance culture is unwelcoming to many, and its rules can be labyrinthine. OpenStreetMap is a collaborative peer project to share and build on map data; OpenLibrary aims to create a web page for every book ever published – but neither is as well-known as Google Maps or Amazon. Yet they do demonstrate that we don’t have to surrender our lives and attention to mega-corporations to do cool and useful things together online.

Libraries are a local instance of this kind of peer production platform that sometimes has had trouble articulating its identity, even though libraries are massively popular. Because they are local and only loosely linked, they can’t have the network effect that Facebook or Google or Amazon have. Worldcat only became free to all after Amazon became the go-to source for book information, and discovery layers that are intended to make the search experience more like Google require lots of local work and money and have complicated padlocks to keep outsiders out. When it comes to being a social platform to rival Facebook, a shopping platform to rival Amazon, or a search platform to rival Google, libraries – local and little – can’t complete, just as a community college offering a math course can’t compete with a free Khan Academy video.

But that whole competition narrative is screwy. Some things aren’t for profit. Some things need to be small and personalized. Some things are great even if they don’t command a vast audience. As Kelly Jensen reminds us at Book Riot, libraries are not a Netflix for books. They are more than that. They have value even when they’re closed. And we librarians could do more to help people understand  the importance of public goods and of private lives. I guess the thing that connects my reading of those two blog posts is that we can choose a different narrative that isn’t about which big thing is going to rule the world. We can connect and share without relying on private platforms with secrets to trade, that turn our lives into trade secrets. We might have to help each other out a little, and make sure the technical barriers are as low as possible, but it can be done.

Now I’m going to go off and read the autobiography of Zoia Horn, a librarian who I didn’t know but wish I had. She died this week after showing us the kind of courageous commitment to intellectual freedom we should all aspire to.

I could buy a used copy from Amazon for $68.87 and shipping and get it in a few days. I could borrow it from a library through interlibrary loan and get it in few days without paying anything. Or I could download it right now from the Internet Archive. Soemtimes Amazon, big as it is, just can’t compete.