Managing reputation in the age of infinity

Amazon sells junk.

More junk every day. And they know this.

They sell junk that would never, ever be sold at a Wal-Mart store. That’s because in order to get into a store, a buyer, a human being with a reputation, has to allocate shelf space. The easiest way to lose your job as a buyer is to put brand-destroying lousy products on a valuable shelf.

Amazon, on the other hand, has infinite shelves. And no buyers. As a result, they’re relying on an algorithm that rewards low prices and high ratings. But the best way to lower prices is to make junk. And the best way to high ratings is to fake them.

There’s no cost, zero, for yet another hustler to bring yet another unknown logo and brand name to the site, to try to manipulate ratings, to sell junk. If they get caught, they can just try again. It’s a race to the bottom.

And so, the solar lanterns you might want to install on your lawn for the dark winter months are completely worthless, but you don’t discover that until after you’ve installed them. Of course, you can return them, but now you trust Amazon, the company that sold them to you, a bit less.

And so, the books on the Kindle (many of which have never been read by an editor, a publisher or a book buyer) may or may not be worth reading, at any price.

The good news is that infinite shelves lead to open doors, to fewer gatekeepers, to a chance to be found. That’s how the Martian became a bestseller.

The bad news is that by offloading product review from middlemen (publishers, buyers, Good Housekeeping, The Wirecutter, etc.) to the customers themselves, you transform the filtering process, wasting time, money and goodwill. It’s entirely possible that customers don’t actually want to volunteer to test the things they buy, regardless of how straightforward the return policy might be. The uncertainty that comes with not knowing if it’s what you hoped for adds cost and tension for everyone.

Of course, it’s not just Amazon. it’s the ads you see on Facebook (unvetted, unlike the ads you see on network TV). It’s the worst 5% of the hotels in any given franchise, one that’s in a hurry to get big fast. It’s the latest unregulated quack remedy that’s sure to cure your chronic disease…

And it’s going to show up everywhere that an individual or an organization thinks that scale is more important than trust.

“Buyer beware” has never been a good way to build attention, trust or a brand with value. It’s not a good way to create a community or forward motion either.