Does Amazon know what it sells?

This post is by Benedict Evans from Essays – Benedict Evans

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Of Amazon’s top 50 best-sellers in “Children’s Vaccination & Immunisation”, close to 20 are by anti-vaccine polemicists and 5 are novels about fictional pandemics. This poses two questions. First, how much content moderation should a universal bookshop do? Second, does Amazon really know what it sells?

The content moderation questions here are closely related to those that applied when Facebook and Twitter banned the US president. A single newspaper or a bookshop has no obligation to give you a platform, but there are other newspapers and other bookshops – what does it mean if there are only three newspapers (or only three with significant reach) and they all ban you? Should they allow you to be on the platform, but not ‘amplify’ you either with an ‘algorithm’ or something as mechanical as a best-seller list (and of course being in the list will increase your sales, so that’s also a moderation choice). What books, exactly, do we want Amazon to ban, or to ‘down-rank’? Who decides? What if Amazon put those books in ‘conspiracy theories’ instead? I don’t think we have a settled consensus.

More interesting to me in this case, though, is the fact that five of the top 50 are not about “Children’s Vaccination & Immunisation” at all – they’re novels! This is a much more general problem, that I think that reflects a pretty fundamental aspect of Amazon as a retailer – it does not, in important ways, actually know what it sells, and that has (Read more…)