Thursday, September 24, 2009

Amazon, Big Brother, and the Kindle

My latest book, New New Media, was published by Penguin Academics on September 5, 2009.  As I point out on the first page, the book is about media so new that some of them - such as Twitter and YouTube - did not even exist five years ago.   I wrote the book as close to the bone of current events as possible.   The use of Twitter by protestors in Iran in June 2009, for example, is prominently included in the book's Twitter chapter.

But I turned the book's final revisions into the publisher in July, and the pace of important developments in the world of media has of course not slackened in the slightest.   This blog post is the first of a running series I will be posting here, there, and everywhere about these newest of new developments.

One of the most significant of such developments occurred in mid-July, when Amazon abruptly reached into the Kindles of every Kindle owner and removed George Orwell's 1984, which Amazon said it discovered it did not have the legal right to sell.   Kindle owners and the online world at large were furious, especially because annotations which Kindle owners had made on their purchased copies of 1984 were removed with the book.   If Amazon had wanted to demonstrate that the Big Brother information control in 1984 was alive and kicking in our digital age, it could not have put forth a better example.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos soon apologized, calling its solution to the copyright problem "stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles."  Amazon offered to either refund the $30 which the Kindle edition cost, or re-delver the copy of 1984, along with any absconded annotations.

But this series of events provides an instructive example of the difference between new media and new new media, which I discuss throughout the book.  "New" media exist on the Web, alongside of new new media.   But "new" media often operate in accordance with older, top-down principles of information control.   In the case of a newspaper online, such as The New York Times, the older approach is manifest in the selection of stories by editors.   In true new new media, stories are selected and even written by readers - that is the case in any personal blog.   In the case of iTunes and Amazon, consumers are charged for the content.  In new new media such as Twitter and YouTube, the content is free.

Amazon took a huge step into the past by not only charging for its Kindle books, but removing one of them after it had been purchased.   Its apology was certainly welcome.   But the lesson endures that there is a very big difference between older ways of doing business on the web, and the newer more liberated ways of new new media.
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