Jeff Bezos’ & Amazon’s Big “Tell”

(Why do I single out Bezos here?  Because responsibility goes to the top and Bezos is the Founder, Chairman, CEO, and President of Amazon.)

2009-7-23 UPDATE: See bottom of this post.

I wasn’t going to comment on the recnt (and ironic) Jeff Bezos debacle, but yesterday a commenter on Cringly’s blog said: “Amazon has destroyed their business in one careless stroke. Once you lose the public trust, you never get it back.”

Although I think “destroyed” and “never” are too strong words, I share the sentiment, especially the part about violating trust (for example, violate my trust once and you’re out, with little chance of reinstatement).

Why is “destroyed” too strong a word?

Because, probably enough of Amazon’s customers don’t know or care about Bezos’ Orwellian, jack-booted thug maneuver or are not thoughtful enough to understand why it’s such a big deal.

Most of the people who do care might somehow punish Amazon a little, such as by going on a temporary buyer’s strike or writing a negative blog post (like this one), but they will probably come back to big bro Bezos and his website that knows more about you than you may know yourself.  The more you use Amazon, the more it learns about you, of course.  It’s the same, with Google, NetFlix, your credit/debit card purchases, mobile phone and location data, RFID chipped cards and passports, but all that’s another story. Reminds me, though, see this interesting Wired UK article: “The new hidden persuaders.”

So, why is this debacle so interesting?

Because, it’s a window into the fundamental principals driving the minds of Bezos and the rest of Amazon’s board and management.  Their actions *tell* us that he and they care more about money than ethics.

Why is this “tell” reliable?  Because, this is not poker, where we give fake tells in an effort to bluff (feign strength when we are weak or weakness when we are strong).  Bezos and Amazon were not bluffing.  There was nothing to gain by “pretending” to disregard customer trust for personal gain and/or the approval of a privileged few.  I’m sure Bezos will come out with an apology and Amazon an explanation, but you can’t take back a violation of trust or shift the accountability. This tell is the truth.

All this reminds me of the periodic Facebook debacles (see my rant from 2007), and some others. It almost seems like the same rudderless people are involved in all these stories. Unfortunately, they have learned that there are no consequences besides the occasional and brief media/blogger shit storm (and maybe a small and temporary customer and/or advertiser blip).

Taking it up a notch, this reminds me of American politics, at least during the tragic Bush era, when unethical people were able to lie, cheat, spin, and manipulate their way to the top and then stay there (for a while). The election of Obama was a referendum on that, but Joe Sixpack is angry, and he’ll be back, after all, he is a “real American,” and he won’t tolerate those educated and godless, baby-killing liberals (see Paul Krugman’s NYT article, “The Big Hate“).

PS: Bezos used to be a role model of mine.  Now, not so much.  He had a chance to stand up for principals and he didn’t.  Of course there would have been a cost (to Bezos) for standing up for those principals, there is always a cost to stand up for principals.  If it was free, it wouldn’t be called “standing up for principals,” would it?

BTW, I see Bezos listed prominently on 37signal’s “About Us” page.  In fact, he’s the only adviser listed on the whole page.  I wonder what they’ll do/say.  My bet is nothing or come out with a supportive blog post that lets them retain him.

2009-7-23 UPDATE:

See Jeff Bezos’ personal apology, below.  Not that he had a choice in the matter, but I’m glad he did it, albeit late.  That lateness actually gives valuable information, however.  No time to give details now, but you can figure it out.  Just run an example from your personal experience of: (A) someone trying to get away with something (or making a “mistake”), (B) then, after a shitstorm hits, issue an apology taking the bad behavior to the extreme, so that (C) you actually come out and defend them, and say “there, there, what you did wasn’t *that* bad, we accept your apology”.  Anyway, good job, JB, you machiavellian.  Do better next time, you’re a role model, you’re in a position to lead by example. Do it.:

From TechCrunch: “Amazon’s Bezos Apologizes For The “Stupid” And “Thoughtless” Kindle Incident“:

Amazon quickly admitted that the move was a mistake to the press with a bland statement, but that wasn’t enough. So today, right before the company announced its earnings, CEO Jeff Bezos personally apologized for the incident as follows:

This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our “solution” to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we’ve received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.

With deep apology to our customers,

Jeff Bezos
Founder & CEO

2009-9-4 UPDATE:

From today’s New York Times: “ Offers to Replace Copies of Orwell Book.”

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3 thoughts on “Jeff Bezos’ & Amazon’s Big “Tell”

  1. Well done Chris. I did my main commenting on your TechCrunch update, but I wanted to give you a *high-5* here as well for telling it like it is.

    Trust is the #1 commodity of social media and Amazon’s account just went to zero. The kindle is a joke IMHO, but that’s another story all together.

    Thanks again for being a strong voice,


  2. Thanks, John. At least according to some — see this tweet from John Darrow, Principal Software Engineer at — I did take an extreme position in this post, but the middle of the road is boring.


    A) I fell strongly about ethics, and

    B) I put a lot of trust in “body language,” which is generally less subject to manipulation and acting than less spontaneous forms of communication, such as Bezos’ original action (proposed and approved inside Amazon) and now apology (proposed, written, rewritten, approved, delivered).

    I don’t doubt the sincerity of JB’s apology, but it in no way negates what we learned from his tell.

    Additionally, the apology shows manipulative characteristics (maybe it was/is “impossible” not to):

    It takes the bad behavior to the extreme, thus encouraging you/us to come out and defend him, and say “there, there, Jeff, what you did wasn’t *that* bad, we accept your apology.”

    It appears to have worked.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go spend some money on and run down to the dumpster to try to save my Jeff Bezos shrine (JB posters, articles, dolls, schwag, and flair)!

  3. A decline in “public trust” and “ethics” is evident. After naively touting Amazon, we have come to the sad conclusion that the company is just as derelict in its duty to customers as Target and some of the other retail giants. Their selfish greed wil be their undoing. I am befuddled about whether the Sherman Anti-Trust Act is viable and if the FTC, etc. have true oversight of illegal and unethical business practices. We have not purchased from Amazon in about two months and have removed all payment and telephone contact information from the account. I would not be surprised if the access to comment on the Kindle case via your Amazon account is a veiled Big Brotherish, cowardly tactic to enable Jeff and company to close accounts of those who complain. What is needed is a few amicus curiae briefs to Judge Denny Chin (allso a Princeton alumnus like Bezos), so that the CEO does not try to use that connection for more sympathy, e.g., court extensions.

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