Content is king, again: Amazon's transition from retail outlet to media company

Every four years since 2004 Amazon has produced a modest-looking graphic that it brands an “Election Heat Map.” The new one just came out. The Heat Map—a popular digital artifact known as a “data visualization”—is just one more example of how Amazon, which is still styled as a retailer of dry goods, has quietly become something quite different: a media company.

But first the Heat Map. A mostly cinnamon-tinted rendering of the fifty states, the map is meant to show what kind of books people are reading—or at least ordering from Amazon—by state. To keep things excitingly polar, Amazon’s editorial board has designated the books “red” or “blue,” depending on ideological content. For reference: Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed,” the 2001 exposé about horrible negligible-wage jobs, is blue. Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” the 1957 novel about how governments thwart the genius superpeople who make the world go round, is red.

Except for Rand, novels don’t count, so no one mentions the fact that everyone in every state is really reading nothing but the S&M romp “Fifty Shades of Gray.”

Actually, the washy cinnamon color that dominates Amazon’s Heat Map is so reddish that you’d be forgiven, on first glance, for thinking that American readers were devouring only the free-market-boosterism (Rand, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek) along with Obama-suckism (“The Amateur,” “The Communist,” “The Roots of Obama’s Rage”) that Amazon associates with Republicans.

But look closer: The cinnamon is a red-blue combo. In states of that hue the books being ordered are only marginally more red than blue (Red books are slightly more popular in those states.) Plenty of people, then, are ordering co-authored blue downers like “The Betrayal of the American Dream,” by Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele; “That Used to Be Us,” by Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum; and “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein. A few are also buying the “Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics,” by Vice President Joe Biden.

In the end, 44 percent of the books ideologically classified and sold by Amazon in the last 30 days are blue and 56 percent are red. This information might be pertinent to the election. . .or it might not. I wouldn’t even want to attempt to contextualize the numbers. Possibly red-types, or maybe bluies, buy deeper into the ideological backlist, straying from the bestsellers that Amazon classified. (The site only uses the color divide for bestsellers.) That way, their purchases, however politically-flavored—Edmund Burke? John Locke?—wouldn’t register. Another possibility is that books have been misclassified. (Is Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” really blue? I thought all those Ayn Randians and Hayek economists were atheists, too.) But let’s just say the Heat Map’s interesting anyway.

The Heat Map comes with an elegantly worded caveat: “Election day is November 6, 2012. We hope this map will provide you with a novel way to follow the political conversation this election season. Just remember, books aren’t votes, so a map of book purchases may reflect curiosity as much as commitment.”

In other words, the Heat Map is to spark conversation, pique curiosity and interest readers in their fellows. It works like content—like something Yahoo News would produce—and it works well. It also underscores the fact that Amazon, at heart, is now a thoroughgoing content provider and media producer.

Just skim the site: it’s not a virtual bookstore anymore. Instead, it’s an immersive online media experience—the kind that or endeavors, less successfully, to provide to users. To viewers. To readers.

At Amazon, where readers have always gathered, there’s the extensive and proprietary code that undergirds the whole enterprise. There are the original and distinctive graphics and design, display scaffolding and navigation apparatus. And, most visible of all, there’s the user-generated reviews, rankings, lists, photos and video that comprise the extraordinary Web site, which appears to publish more words than Random House or The Boston Globe. Amazon also seems to show as much video as the TV networks broadcast in primetime.

Even if Amazon weren’t publishing now reams upon reams of e-ink-stained Kindle books, the multimedia extravaganza of the site would be enough to get it designated a media company. And with the Heat Map it’s doing what media companies now all do: mining its data to create infographics to inform, entertain, provoke.

Years ago, at the dawn of the Web, John Perry Barlow, the online libertarian and onetime Grateful Dead lyricist, said that Internet content should be free. Content providers should, he believed, follow the lead of the Dead, who freely allowed concert-goers to record their shows, and then charged them substantially for t-shirts and other band-branded paraphernalia.

Often when I’m cruising around Amazon these days—studying the Heat Map and editor’s choices of new books; reading comical and enlightening user reviews; and doing “research” on something like flashlights or Ian McKewan novels—I feel like I’m at a Dead show. Amazon has become my entertainment, my outdoor concert, my Sunday Book Review, my media. And then—oops—I’ve bought a couple of flashlights and a few novels on Amazon Prime. I’ve “merchandised” the experience of media, as the saying goes. To my conscience—and to an online superstore’s evolving idea of itself—that is much different from shopping. Look for Amazon to make more media, more explicitly, and show the Internet again how a robust online business adapts.