Climbing Down the Tower of Babel

Six weeks ago, Amazon contacted me, asking for my feedback on how to improve their services. Their email read the exact following:

Your comments and suggestions will help us improve our store and offer better service to our customers. We are concerned about the activity on your account. We want to do all that we can to prevent you from having to make frequent returns of items from Amazon.de.

I have repeatedly tried and failed to respond to Amazon. Every time I tried to write back, I ended up writing long replies to what originally was a very brief communication. The platform is politely asking me to be aware of my frequent returns. Yet, they’re requesting “comments” and “suggestions”. I’ve ultimately decided to write a blog, which I think is appropriate in order to both respond to Amazon, as well as involve the community of users who trade there.

There is no doubt that frequently returning Amazon items is not a good thing. Every time we return something, someone must fetch it somewhere, and other people must unpack, examine and restore it. This burdens Amazon’s operation, from which we all benefit. Most clearly, however, it will, in the long run, also hurt the users’ interests.

It is a lose-lose situation.

Most people take Amazon for granted. I don’t. I grew up in Damascus and only came to Europe in 2015. Back home, we never had online shopping. Whether we wanted to buy clothes or light bulbs, we shopped at small family stores mostly operated by the owners. The shop owners conversed with us to find out what we were looking for. They would then unpack and present a few products which could be of our interest. They expected us to develop an idea, and then go check our options at other small shops. Once we settled on a store and a product, we negotiated the price.

That type of trade was certainly interesting but also exhausting and stressful. It demanded time, effort and a good degree of negotiation skills. I was quite good at negotiating prices, but I hated doing so. It also took a great deal of patience and tolerance on part of the shop owners. They had to unpack and display various items to every customer, knowing that they might end up not selling. They always had to end the encounter with a big smile, regardless of whether a deal was made or not. Sometimes the customers weren’t satisfied with any of the available options. However, after having taken so much of the sellers’ time, they often were too embarrassed not to buy at least something.

When I came to Europe, things were different. Up till 2015, globalization had been a vague concept to me. In Europe, it was a reality. I was introduced to the supermarket and big mall culture. The only encounter I now had was a friendly greeting to the cashier. Shortly after that, I learned about online shopping. That allowed me to even avoid the cashier encounter. I could now obtain virtually anything that fit my budget, and I didn’t even need to say ‘pretty please’.

Amazon has largely liberated me from the restrictions of locality. Personally, accessing the platform has been one of the most empowering aspects of living in Europe. I can now access markets and technologies that are nowhere to be found in the small city where I reside. Most of what I order is quickly delivered. Unsatisfactory items are easily returned. I can bring the whole world to me with a click of a mouse-button. If I don’t like it, I can send it back with another click. This is time-space compression at its best. Yet, every form of compression comes with a degree of information loss.

I have recently found myself being distanced from the people whom I depend on. I am now more vulnerable to being self-centered and inconsiderate. I can only see my needs. I don’t get to see the efforts other people dedicate to satisfy those needs. Equally, the people who are out there trying to serve me are not even aware of who I am. They’re unaware of the long hours I spend behind my screen going through YouTube reviews, trying to find a product that fits my workflow. They’re unaware of how emotionally devastating it can be to save up for months only to realize that an item of my choice fails to meet the minimum expectations. I take no pleasure in returning a thing, but there is a significant amount of low-quality and overpriced products out there. I do hard labor. I earn my living with cutting and burning my fingers. Sometimes it’s just fair to do a return.

Amazon provides excellent services to a community of sellers, buyers and associates. I have always been able to easily communicate with the platform to deal with any of my concerns or problems. The staff is wonderfully helpful, and they always take the time to listen to their members. What Amazon suffers from, however, is low-quality-user practices. This is our collective failure, whether we are the buyers, the sellers, or the associates. This is also partly on Amazon in terms of not delivering clear community standards.

The problem I’m addressing here is not exclusive to the company of Amazon – not even to the 21st century. It began long time ago with the industrial revolution. Assembly lines and mass production both lifted and devastated the world. We’re now halfway through the information revolution, yet our crises from the industrial era remain unsolved. I see Amazon as part of the future, yet, it troubles me how the past is imposing on this platform. Not many people understand the true value of Amazon; it provides us with tools not just to obtain what we need, but also to produce what others need. In principle, every one of us can develop a unique product and offer it on Amazon. It’s a paradise for small businesses and independent individuals who wish to live a meaningful and productive life. The general practice, however, is that so much of what is listed there is mass production. Often, you’ll find the exact same product in countless brand names. Once you receive it, it doesn’t fit the belt.

Of course, you return it.

When I searched how to become a seller on Amazon, one of the first entries that popped up was a YouTube tutorial that shows how to locate cheap brandless products from other platforms, put a logo on it, and resell it on Amazon for a higher price. These kinds of practices not only distance the seller from the buyer, but also from the product itself. This is wrong!

Sample of low-quality user culture on Amazon

We must develop some user ethics that prevent these sorts of practices. Amazon isn’t made just for some people acting as a middleman and making easy money. Amazon is the middleman here. The buyers should buy what they truly need. The sellers should properly understand what the buyers need. People who trade on Amazon need to understand one another. After all, it’s a cyberspace project, based on end-to-end communication. It’s not meant to be an alternative to those who work meaningless jobs the whole week, just to reward themselves by mindlessly touring the mall on the weekend.

I am not at all sceptic of the modern ways of our living. I don’t miss a bit the small store, the small city, or small country experience. I am grateful that Amazon reached out to me. I wasn’t truly aware of how frequent my returns were. Ever since I received Amazon’s communication, I’ve been more careful about what to buy in order to reduce and prevent returns.

Sometimes I feel that Amazon is trapped in an outdated consumer culture, though. It’s stuck with the false notion that the customer is always right. I’m not a customer; I am an Amazon user. I am certainly not always right. Amazon should be confident to tell me when I’m wrong. Yet, for that to happen, Amazon needs to know me first. I need to know the staff and other users too. We need to look after one another.

Many people think of Amazon as merely an online-shopping platform. I don’t. Amazon is a society, in which I see myself as a member. I only wonder whether Amazon is aware of the dimensions of its social mission.

This is globalization at its best – and worst. It is tough, but so is freedom. Our world is a bird that has just been uncaged. It feels very dangerous at times, and sometimes it really hurts. There is no going back to the cage, though. Those who’ve tried the taste of freedom will never settle for anything less. Yet, we’re not free from things; we’re free to do things.

The question is, how do we best do Amazon?

Let’s not treat it like a mall, but a space where we belong.

Let’s talk about that for a start.

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