Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 4: March 2004


The Way We’re Wired

Amazon, NetFlix and Hypocrisy

Mark Stover (San Diego State) sent thoughtful feedback on the December 2003 Trends & Quick Takes item, “Amazonia Gone Wild.” His second comment deserves more attention than it would get in Feedback, so I’m running the whole thing here.

In your article “Amazonia gone wild” in the December 2003 issue of Cites & Insights you discuss the “Search Inside the Book” feature at amazon.com. I’ve had my own share of strange search results when using this feature, and I’m always skeptical of the utility of full text searching, but I did have one noteworthy success that I wanted to share with you. A student was looking for information on “forced ranking systems.” I suggested the usual suspects (management encyclopedias, library catalog search, business databases, google, etc.), but we weren’t really finding much until I searched Amazon. A handful of references found using Amazon’s “search inside the book” gave the student more leads and the actual text from several relevant books. So while I’m not ready to make sweeping generalizations about search inside the book, I do think that it definitely has value, especially if Amazon continues to expand their database of full text books.

On a related note, you mentioned in the same article that you believe that Amazon “harms local booksellers.” Obviously you think this is a “bad thing.” But on other occasions you’ve sung the praises of NetFlix, which probably harms local video rental stores in much the same way that Amazon ostensibly harms local bookstores. While Amazon sells and NetFlix rents, I still think that there is a direct analogy here. So isn’t it at best inconsistent and at worst hypocritical to criticize Amazon but support NetFlix?

Notwithstanding my minor nitpicking tirade, I still think that you are doing a better job than anyone else at providing technology updates for librarians and others in your very readable and very affordable webzine.

Thanks for the compliment. I agree that “Search inside the book” can be enormously useful as an extra, as long as it doesn’t swamp known-item results. My sense is that Amazon has tweaked its sorting algorithms so that words in titles show up first, but I still believe Sitb makes more sense as an advanced-search option.

Amazon and NetFlix

I haven’t said this in quite a while, and perhaps never in a sufficiently straightforward manner.:

Ø    If you have a locally owned video/DVD store in your neighborhood that stocks the movies you want to rent, and you find that store an agreeable place to do business, you should certainly favor that store over NetFlix.

Ø    Conversely, if there are no locally owned bookstores in your area, or you are repelled by the local bookstores, then you should evaluate chain stores and internet bookstores to see which ones suit you best.

I like NetFlix because it seems to use an honest collaborative recommendation engine, because it stocks almost everything and has done much to increase the visibility of foreign and independent films, because we’ve had excellent service—and because it’s an interesting example of a “physical” business that can only work effectively because of the internet.

For us, the choice was easy. I’d had a six-month trial NetFlix membership (thanks to one of my columns), but we were renting most of our DVDs at a good local video/DVD store. About the time the NetFlix freebie was going to expire, the local store disappeared, thanks to rent gouging by the mall owner. That left two choices: local Blockbuster franchises or NetFlix. I don’t care for Blockbuster, for a variety of reasons. I like NetFlix.

That’s my situation. Yours may differ. For some people, a combination makes most sense: A good local store for mainstream DVDs, a minimum-level subscription to NetFlix for the stuff the local store doesn’t handle. There’s the library too, to be sure.

As for Amazon…well, I have some bad experiences with Amazon regarding one of my books. Maybe they’re experiences that wouldn’t happen again, but they left a bad taste. And there are good locally owned bookstores around here.

I believe that local video stores have disappeared to a much larger extent than local bookstores. I believe—without much proof—that Barnes & Noble and Borders, while certainly not as “local” as good independent stores, are reasonable alternatives when no good local store is available, where I have no such belief when it comes to Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. But yes, maybe I am inconsistent, possibly even hypocritical.

The General Case and the Way We’re Wired

This mea culpa appears under the “Way We’re Wired” flag because it’s an example of legitimate differences in preferences and habits.

Set aside for the moment local tax revenue issues. Those can be solved (although it won’t happen any time soon, I suspect). Fact is, some people simply don’t want to deal with certain businesses and have preferred ways of buying that send them to the internet, or to chain stores, or wherever.

I don’t have a problem with that. If that’s your preference, that’s the way it is.

For some of us, maybe most, it depends on the kind of product and the nature of the local stores. For example, I’ve almost given up on retail record stores because they’re physically unpleasant. The volume and variety of music seem calculated to drive away anyone older than 25. I find it punishing to be in the stores.

There are local bookstores that drive away customers. I’ve read a science fiction/fantasy magazine editor’s comments on being informed that her local bookstore didn’t sell “that kind of book” and wouldn’t special order such trash. There’s nothing wrong with a store’s stock reflecting the owner’s preferences and with the staff revealing their tastes—but there’s also nothing wrong with customers going elsewhere, be it Amazon, barnesandnoble.com, powell.com, or what have you, when local booksellers put down the customer’s taste.

Problems arise when you do your browsing and sampling at the retail store, then buy on the internet to save a buck or two. The extreme case comes with goods such as high-end audio, where you may be using a significant amount of staff time to explore choices. I think there’s an ethical issue involved here, and it’s a direct way to undermine local business. I don’t expect anyone to pay a huge premium to keep a badly run local business alive—but if you’re using the facilities of the local business, it’s reasonable to pay some premium, or at least talk it over with the local business before buying remotely.

I hope Amazon doesn’t become the only game in town. For that matter, I hope NetFlix doesn’t become the only game in town. I don’t think either one is likely. Diversity in the marketplace is almost always a good thing.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 4, Whole Issue 47, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced at least monthly by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to wcc@notes.rlg.org. Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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