May 22, 2003
The Education of Mike Daisey
It wasn't the first time that Jeff Bezos had appeared on national television, but it was the first time that he wore a cowboy hat, brandished a Milwaukee power drill, and embraced an enormous Pikachu doll before the multitudes. It was November of 1999, the year of Amazon's greatest expansion, and Bezos' antics visually symbolized what was going on in the background of what had up until that time merely been Earth's Greatest Bookstore - the transition of Amazon from category-killing purveyor of books to maniacal hawker of every consumer good under the sun.
"Why are we extending our selection to home improvement?", asked Bezos rhetorically.
"Because if you walk into a store and play with five drills, you won't know which one is best". "But on Amazon.com, you're going to know" because our customers will tell you which is best for you". As he moved delightedly from category to category, running the gamut from lawn furniture to pet supplies to Pokeman cards to virtual auctions, Bezos effused an enthusiasm that seemed natural - like a kid whose dream of finally occupying the candy store had come true. "It's going to be a Web Christmas", said Bezos, a maniacal smile on his lips. "Any questions?"
An analyst asked Bezos why Amazon had lost more than $1 billion in the previous year. "Not to invest at this time would be insane", said Bezos, moving onto the next question.
Three thousand miles away, in Seattle, where Amazon.com was based and where its thousands of workers toiled away each day in customer service, order fulfillment, and in mind-numbing number-crunching exercises at its looming headquarters (dubbed "The Fortress of Solitude" by weary employees), Mike Daisey, in pajamas, had just flipped on CNN in the hope of hearing something about Seattle's weather, which was about to enter its 16th day of unbroken rain. In Daisey's mind, the dominant emotion wasn't enthusiasm, but fear - the kind of fear you feel when an uncoming truck suddenly lurches so that at least two of its massive tires are directly in your lane..
Daisey, who at the time of Bezos' broadcast worked in Amazon's business development department, was more or less aware that Amazon was branching out to these other crazy categories, but he'd only heard about a few of them, and never seen them all assembled at once on a great stage - a gift store, a home improvement store, electronics, video games and more! Bezos, jumping from store to store with a ten-gallon hat perched on his head, suddenly seemed dangerous - a man running amok. This impression was so striking that Daisey couldn't tear himself away from the TV, even though it meant that it would mean he'd be at least 10 minutes late for work. At long last, the segment ended, and Daisey dressed, wolfed down some cold coffee, put on his Macintosh, and headed out into Seattle's unrelenting rain, which was now traveling at a 45 degree angle to the ground.
IN THE BEGINNING
Daisey had come to Seattle in 1998 from Maine, where he'd gone to college, studied drama, and briefly worked at a slaughterhouse. By the end of that year, his money was running low, and worse - the temp jobs he did to stay alive weren't paying enough for him to afford health insurance. Mike - in his early 30's - wasn't much concerned that his body was going to spontaneously self-destruct, but his girlfriend evidently was, and by late August, he found himself poring over the classified section of the Seattle newspaper, trying to find a gig with something more to offer than just another dead-end typist job. On this particular day, he did:
Amazon.com is seeking bright, articulate, detail-oriented customer service representatives for entry-level positions to service Amazon.com's growing, global customer base. The positions involve challenging front-line interaction with the public via telephone and e-mail. Ideal candidates will be computer-literate and flexible, with excellent verbal and written communication skills and the ability to type 30 words per minute. Applicants should be proactive, personable, and able to respond positively to the challenges of a dynamic work environment. A college degree is preferred. Internet experience is highly desirable. Compensation includes benefits and stock options. Please send your résumé to email@example.com.
"Hell, I could do this", said Daisey, and sent off his resume from his home computer.
By the end of the day, he had gotten an e-mail back from Amazon requesting him to forward his resume, along with his SAT scores, back to Amazon via postal mail. It took a couple of weeks to round these documents up (Daisey didn't even know where his SAT score results were gathering dust and had to ask his parents to look for them), but when they arrived in Seattle, he dutifully sent them off, and waited. One morning in early October, Daisey got a callback directing him to show up at Amazon's Central Training Facility. It wasn't completely clear whether the e-mail indicated that his application had actually been accepted, or whether he was simply going to an informational session. But after calling his temp agent to cancel the week's assignments, and putting on his best and only suit and tie, Mike showed up at the low, undistinguished building at 8 AM.
The low-ceilinged, flourescently-lit room was windowless, with enough room for about 30 people. Daisey had gotten a printed nametag that simply said "Mike D", along with a short, stubby pencil and a blank pad of paper adorned with Amazon's corporate logo. The chairs were the kind often seen in public Middle Schools or Junior Colleges - the kind that seem to be built from some kind of space-age plastic. At the front of the room, there was a lectern with whiteboards on either side of it. Each whiteboard had a cover sheet with Amazon's logo on it.
At 9:00 AM sharp, a wire-thin woman with a folder under her arm approached the lecturn. Her name was Jeanette - and she wore a nametag just like Mike did.
"I want to welcome you all to the first day of Amazon training. You might already know quite a bit about our company and what we're doing here in Seattle, and also what we hope to do throughout the world. So what are we looking for in our employees? Well, let me give you a clue here - our motto is "Work hard, have fun, make history".
She went to the whiteboard that was to the left of the lectern and pulled its cover sheet up and over the frame, revealing an accurately-drawn map of America. She pointed to the right hand side of the map - toward the part that held New England and New York.
"Amazon's story begins here", Jeanette said. In 1994, Jeff Bezos - our founder - was in New York, and he found out a very interesting thing. Jeff noticed that Web usage was increasing by 2300 percent per year, and he thought that this was a very interesting thing. Who out there uses the Web right now?"
A couple of hands went up, including Mike's.
"Now what Jeff did is probably something that many other people in the same position wouldn't have done, even today. He left his very good job at an investment company, got into his car with his laptop, and started driving across the country". She then drew a big arrow that ran from right to left, from New York to Seattle.
"Jeff didn't know where he was going, but he knew that he was going to do something big - build something great that had never existed before anywhere. He took a big risk, and it paid off and that's why you're here today."
Jeanette flipped the page up so that it revealed a second page, which read simply, DAY ONE. "Does anyone know what this means?", Jeannette asked, moving to the right-hand whiteboard. A young woman with purple hair in the front raised her hand. "It means it's the beginning", she said in a husky voice, as Jeannete wrote what she said down on the board. A bald guy in front was called on - "does it mean we're pioneers?", he asked. "You tell me", Jeannette shot back. "OK - we're pioneers", he said, and again, she wrote down PIONEERS on the board. After jotting down a few more synonyms, she flipped the page up to reveal a page that said: WE'RE A STARTUP.
"What is a startup?", Jeannete asked the group. "You, in the back", she said, pointing at Mike.
"Uh, something that's just beginning?", Mike asked.
"Are you asking me or telling me?", asked Jeanette.
"I'm telling you", said Mike.
"And what do startups do?", asked Jeannette.
"They uh, they grow."
"Grow what?", asked Jeanette
"They uh, they grow customers?"
"That's RIGHT", said Jeanette, returning to the right-hand lecturn, writing STARTUPS GROW CUSTOMERS on the big board.
"Amazon is a startup that creates customers - in fact, we're creating them faster than anyone else on the planet. In 1994, when Jeff began this company in his basement, he only had 300 customers - mostly family and friends - to test out whether his idea would work. By the time the site was officially launched, he had 22,000 customers - right now, Amazon has over eighteen million, all over the world. But before I talk more about our customers, I want to ask you something. She moved over to the left-hand lecturn again and wrote: WHAT DO CUSTOMERS WANT? Already, about half the people in the room had raised their hands, but Jeanette waved them back down.
"Hold on. I want to show you something", she said, returning to the right-hand lecturn, and pulling up another blank page. She drew a big circle in the middle and lettered it "C" and a small circle at the edge of the page, labeled "B".
"Any of you study astronomy in college?" The purple-headed woman raised her hand. "Name Copernicus ring a bell?" She nodded. "What did Copernicus do?".
"He proved that the earth moves around the sun", she said.
"That's right. What else?"
'Uh, he upset the Catholic Church and was put in jail".
"That was Galileo - but you're on the right track", Jeannette said. "Copernicus forever changed the way we look at the universe. Up until the time Copernicus came along, everybody believed that the sun went around the earth; that the world was a fixed point in the heavens around which everything revolved. But Copernicus saw that the exact opposite situation was true - the earth, and all the other planets, moved around the sun."
She pointed to the large object in on the page that was labeled "B". "Up until the time that Jeff Bezos came along, businessmen thought that business was the center of the universe and the customers, like satellites, revolved around them." She crossed out the letter "B" and put in "C". Jeff saw that it was exactly the opposite - that customers are the center of the universe. Businesses revolve around them." She flipped up the page again. It read:
AMAZON: EARTH'S MOST CUSTOMER-CENTRIC COMPANY
"Who here knows what a paradigm shift is?", Jeanette asked, her eyes now alive with a fire that Mike had never seen blaze so brightly in any face he'd ever seen.
It went on like this every day - for about 20 days. The morning session was devoted to telling the group all about how Jeff was as great a revolutionary figure as Copernicus, Galileo, and Johannes Kepler; the afternoon was devoted to detailed information supplied by Michelle - a less charismatic version of Jeanette who knew all about the psychographics of Amazon's customers, the shape of Amazon's organizational and physical infrastructure, and so on. By the time Mike entered the fourth week of training, Jeanette's Socaratic method had begun wearing on him, and Michelle's had repeatedly bored him to tears, but he hung on, because he had never seen anyone who had their acts as "together" as these two women clearly did.
Others in the class dropped out - either they had had enough of this strange, sing-song Socratic Bootcamp, or they were pulled aside at the end of a session and given a good talking to by Jeannette, who told them that they "didn't really fit". Mike had noticed that people who didn't raise their hands often enough, or ask the right question in the right tone of voice when they did, often didn't return the next day. By the time the fourth week had rolled around, only about 15 people remained from a group that had originally numbered 25.
Mike felt sympathy for Amazon's non-survivors, but even at this early date, sympathized more with Jeff Bezos, who wanted, needed, and demanded that only the best people be allowed on board. By the end of the training, he was feeling very close to Bezos, and could almost name every town that Bezos had passed through on his magical quest to find the perfect city to launch the perfect New Economy company in. He was also feeling, with a feeling of slightly guilty pride, that he had survived the selection process only because he himself was clearly Amazon material - a kind of person the training referred to as "An Everything Person - a person who "challenged himself, was smart, intense, dynamic, and committed" to changing the world.
Flushed with his own success, and feeling tough and ready to take on the immense challenges of Changing The World While Having Fun, Mike entered Amazon's front lines in early November, just before 1998's Great Christmas Rush - a yearly event that other Amazon.com workers have dubbed "The Great Monsoon".
He was shown his workplace on the Fourth Floor of Amazon's Decatur Street facility - where its team of 200 customer service representatives fought a never-ending battle to keep legions of Amazon's customers - now numbering in the millions - happy. Entering this noisy, intensive world for the first time, Mike's ears were filled by the sound of a hundred hands whose fingers busily tapped at keyboards, mixed with a humming, buzzing, conversational chorus of voices saying "Hello Amazon", "We apologize", and "yes Ma'm - your book should be there tomorrow - thank you for shopping at Amazon".
His desk consisted of a solid-core unfinished pine door placed on sawhorses, and Mike instantly recognized it as an exact duplicate of the one that Jeff Bezos had set up in his basement. Resting upon it was a 15-inch monitor, supported by two phone books. There was also a metal chair - not the Aeron kind, but the kind so often seen in government offices - stiff, Spartan, and unyielding - a punishing chair. There were no walls or cubicle dividers separating Mike from the others in the hanger-like space.
Before Mike had turned on his computer and logged in, a harried, somewhat frazzled 40ish face entered his peripheral vision - it was Everett, his Quad Leader - the defacto leader of Amazon's Platoon-level organizational unit: The Quad. He spoke in a rapidfire manner that suggested the obvious - that there was no time to waste here with a green recruit like Daisey in the middle of a battle to save humanity.
"Okay - you know from the training that we get about 20,000 customer e-mails every day here. That's most of it - the phone may ring but most of our customers just blast us by e-mail when things go wrong. If the phone rings, the script in your manual tells you what to say. But the priority is the e-mail queue. Got it?"
"Yes sir, said Daisey".
"When the stuff comes in it basically backs up until we can clear it. The hot queue is the complaint queue - we've got to clear it - preferably keep it below 100 outstanding complaints. You don't have a quota but if the queue's not clear by the end of business, Jeff is going to see it. And if Jeff sees it, it's not good."
Everett showed Mike how Amazon's customer service queue worked. Most customer messages fall into just a few categories, and Mike soon learned how to select from among 1,400 canned (boilerplate) responses, adding enough personalitzation so that the recipient would think that a human being had answered it.
Many of these messages were straight-ahead, emotionless pleas for order information. But many others were rage-filled, angry tirades whose shrillness was just short of a personal death threat. They were instantly recognizable from their subject headers, which usually were something like:
WHERE THE HELL IS MY F__KING BOOK?
It didn't take long before Mike had encountered his first Hate Mail, and he answered it cordially but firmly, by simply writing "your order, number 323849032090, was shipped on Wednesday, so you should get it tomorrow". A few Hate Messages later, his Quad leader came over with some gentle criticism.
"These are OK, but they're kind of cold. Can you be a little more heartfelt about it?"
"What do you mean?"
"Try to put yourself in the customer's shoes. Try to empathize with his rage - come up with something.. personable … that will cool him off."
So Mike would add at the bottom: I'm personally very sorry that your copy of Harry Potter arrived with water damage. Did you know that it's raining in Seattle? Hard rain, that makes the trucks skid wide over the death-yellow centerline, spraying hard, curling fountains over cars rushing past the fire-breathing birds of Boeing, there, almost hidden, in that big valley to the Southeast. So yes, it's likely that our weather situation had something to do with your book cover damage.. I promise to do everything in my power to make sure that this situation is rectified at the earliest possible moment. We can even send you another book if you please - we've got plenty of them. Please stay warm and dry - I intend to!
"That's better", said Dave. "But don't overdo it - use fewer keystrokes to convey the same message - you've still got to make your quota."
Mike didn't actually have a quota - nobody did. On a slow day it might only be 200 or 300 messages, but on a busy one, 500 or more. Keeping the queue clear was a responsibility that everyone in Customer Service shared, and clearing it became Mike's single obsession in the weeks and months ahead. On a good day, Mike could clear 45 to 50 e-mail messages an hour, even though he could only type about 45 words per minute. Fortunately, there really wasn't much typing involved - assembling a "personalized" message was more artful cutting and pasting than actual literature.
BASHING THE QUEUE
By Thanksgiving, the beginning of Amazon's peak Holiday season, the queue was starting to swell beyond belief, as UPS, the U.S. postal service, and Amazon's ability to fulfill orders were all stressed to the point of cosmic kniptions.
Mike did a lot of overtime - or what Amazon called "Ownertime". He was glad to make it, but also knew there was no real way that he could back out of it either. He felt a subtle but very real pressure from his Quad Leader that to decline overtime was not only to mock the Almighty Customer Queue, but to insult the Creed of Bezos - which is that the customer counts more than anything else - more than your wife, more than your life, and certainly more than any downtime you'd spend catching a re-run of The Matrix.
Sometimes the sheer drudgery of the job would start to get to him, and Mike would feel himself entering a robotic state whose rhythms were "read, parse, copy, paste, send", repeated over and over in an evil, infinite loop. But Amazon did everything it could to keep esprit at a high point in the face of such netslavery. JeffRadio - an inhouse radio broadcasting system that blared Jeff Bezos' recorded speeches to every corner of the room - often kept his mind off the mind-crunchingly boring work. JeffRadio also echoed throughout Amazon's other facilities, where look-alike blue-collar drones picked, packed, and shipped items through the night.
Supplementing this internal inspirational audio network were Pizza Parties, Quad Activities, and other late-night "events" that combined after-hours queue-busting with beer and cholesterol. As a last stand against any normal human being's tendency to want to slack off after his 400th personalized e-mail response of the day, Bill Price, who managed the entire operation, would send a group e-mail with a header that read simply:
"YOU CAN SLEEP WHEN YOU'RE DEAD".
Mike would sometimes get so weary that he'd flash back to his training - especially the part about Jeff Bezos changing the Sun (the customer) with the earth (the business). But he'd see the sun exploding, nuking the earth in a terrible fireball. Things reached a fever pitch in the two weeks just prior to Christmas, but then - like a passing storm, it ended, and after Mike had restocked his brain with sleep, he settled back into the ordinary drudgery - back to this 45 or 50 messages an hour. He also began planning an escape from the brutalizing sameness of Customer Service Hell.
At Amazon, there were only two ways out of the rank and file Customer Service hell. One was to become a Quad Leader, which meant that one was stuck in the same hell, but at least was able to make a few bucks more an hour. The other was simply to burn out and be spun from the organization, a fateful step that nullified the value of one's stock options. The third and most risky path was also the most intriguing - to become a manager. So in February, he hatched a secret plan to prove to Amazon's number-crunching management that he had the right stuff to rise up from the phones to be a number cruncher himself.
It is said that the personality of any organization flows directly downward from the psyche of its founder. At Amazon, the essential values were closely aligned with Bezos, a geeky, gimmick-obsessed number cruncher who believed that the correct mathematical analysis of any problem would sooner or later yield a satisfactory answer. Like many geeks, what is endearing about them (their faith and belief in numbers) is also what's scary about them - the fact that they value numbers more than people or any other non-numerical, non-quantifiable property of existence.
So for Daisey to get out of his hell, he had to prove that he could crunch numbers with the best of them. His plan was simple, elegant, and audacious - to prove beyond any doubt that Amazon's responsiveness was better than its competitors (even though the company already knew this). His method was also surprisingly straightforward: to open up 100 fake Hotmail accounts and send phony requests to Amazon's competitors, including Barnes and Noble and other Web-based e-merchants - and measure their response time, comparing it against the mean time for a similar request at Amazon.
Using spreadsheets, bar-charts, and a set of proprietary algorithms whose logic was known only to himself, Daisey went to work and started to harvest data. Soon he boldly revealed his dazzling research project to one of Amazon's senior managers when he happened to see one after an All-Hands meeting, and thrust the folder into his hands. "This looks interesting", said the manager, thumbing through the beautiful charts and graphs that Daisey had printed out on a color inkjet. "I'll get back to you", he said.
And he did. Plucked like a gold fish from an identical sea of lookalike carp, Daisey's astonishing study, titled COMPARATIVE CUSTOMER SUPPORT RESPONSE TIME V-DELTAS, made such a hit at Amazon's headquarters on the hill that it was clear to all who tracked up-and-comers that Daisey was on the way to bigger, better, and faster things.
There was just one problem - all of the numbers in the report that underlay the elegant data were fakes - Daisey had begun the project with accurate numbers, but had given up halfway, filling in figures that made Amazon's own response times look the best. But the numbers looked so good - felt so good - and played so well that nobody in upper management was disposed to check on them.
Mike Daisey was on his way - up.
ON TOP OF THE HEAP
There are those who doubtless consider life within a beige-walled cubicle to be a corporeal rehearsal for an existence in Hell, but Mike, when he saw his for the first time - in Amazon's fresh-smelling new headquarters - immediately fell in love with it. There was a carpet on the floor and a name tag that Daisey could affix to its outer half-wall. It was also much quieter - thanks to the fact that there weren't two hundred people clicking, clacking, and talking next to him - and because JeffRadio could be turned off in Amazon's executive areas. If Mike had simply stayed in that cube, and just crunched numbers - real or otherwise, Daisey might have wound up all right - just like all the others who, even today, serve as human cogs within the great mechanism of the world's most elegant shopping machine.
But Amazon was in the midst of the first of several waves of new upper-echelon managers whose sole purpose was to "professionalize" the organization, presumably at the behest of Wall Street. These snooty, IVY-league executives regarded Daisey as a mascot - a gopher, and while they gave lip service to the fact that he had served on the front lines of Customer Service, would never consider him an officer - just a decorated sergeant with a couple of stripes. So instead of giving him responsibility in high-profile deals of the kind that Amazon was doing in 1999 - category-killing expansions into the areas of music, pet supplies, electronics, home improvement and the like - Daisey was kept on a tight leash.
Above decks, Daisey's betters were hammering out the deals that cumulatively would represent Amazon's greatest period of expansion. They included multi-million dollar investments in Pets.com, Living.com, Furniture.com, and many other e-tailing properties that, sadly would not live out the decade. Still, the idea - and every idea at Amazon seemed to sprout directly from the invisible brain of Jeff - was that these investments would form a kind of magic protective shield around the company that would prevent the Old Economy giants it had threatened - Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Barnes and Noble, etc. from directly attacking the Prince of E-Reason. Within a year, all of these bets would come up short, empty, and wrecked but back in '99, nobody, not the analysts, nor the bankers, nor the upwardly mobile crew within the Fortress was laughing at the idea of trying to make money by "shipping dirt" - dog food and cat litter through the US mail.
Perhaps if Daisey's betters - these high IQ business people -- had had enough time to think about what Amazon was doing - expanding into every conceivable category of consumer goods without regard to whether it was a good or sustainable idea- the company might have pulled back and saved itself a world of pain. But in truth, they were so kept so busy by the endless "New Idea" memos that poured fulsomely from the brain of Jeff Bezos that little time for reflection was allowed. They jumped on these memos like dollar bills thrown from the top floor - executing, always executing, never hesitating, and never questioning the orders. Thus it was that Daisey discovered the second secret rule of Amazon - that the way you got by was working hard, having fun, and keeping your big mouth shut.
Because he was considered a high-priced gopher ("Hey Mouse - come up with a trendline here - Hey kid - take these numbers and make 'em look good"), Daisey was handed second-rate assignments that somewhat perversely, he enjoyed. Because Pokeman was as big a craze as the Internet itself, much of Mike's initial work consisted of hunting down popular Pokeman sites, contacting their web masters, and trying to come to terms with their web masters.
"Hello", Mike would say, in his best biz dev voice. "Is Timmy Ryan there?". "Who's this?", and anxious-sounding parent would answer, fearing an Internet-based sexual predator was at the other end of the phone.
"It's Mike Daisey, of Amazon.com".
"Well thanks, but we buy all our books down at the local bookstore".
"No no - I want to talk to Tim about his Web site. We want it to become one of our affiliate partners".
From then on, things usually went smoothly, and maybe even fabulously. If Pokeman Monster Adventure.com had enough traffic, and enough of Amazon's banners were clicked on, Timmy might even have some healthy college money auto-transferred to his custodial account.
The other side of Mike's Biz Dev responsibilities was in the policing of affiliate relations between Amazon and hundreds of adult-oriented sites that were linking back to Amazon's site. Amazon's policies didn't forbid such linking - in fact, they encouraged it, so long as the site doing the linking wasn't actually "obscene" in terms of depicting hard core sex, bestiality, etc. So much of Mike's job entailed going to the site in question, and performing an aesthetic analysis of its content. Was it obscene or not? Well, nude bodies were OK so long as their presentation was "artistic", but once non-human mammals, sex toys, or more than one sweaty naked body entered the picture, Mike would notify the webmaster that it should stop linking to Amazon.
Mike wasn't making much money doing this kind of low-level work - $30,000 plus a few hundred options of Amazon.com that were worth a few thousand dollars. But compared to his work routine in Customer Service, dickering over Pokemon and Porn sniffing were liberating - as close to a dream job as he'd ever had.
And life at Amazon's headquarters was far less Spartan than at Decatur Street. The number-crunchers and data-miners usually stayed in their cubes, and didn't bother him. Once and a while, a dog would creep up to Daisey's cube - one of Amazon's few consessions toward the "liberating dotcom lifestyle" touted by many Net companies.
Daisey probably could have kept going at Amazon.com forever, but something was eating him and it wouldn't go away. As the year 2000 unfolded, and Amazon's stock began to sag, besieged by a wave of outraged communications from analysts on Wall Street, morale got worse among the number-crunchers.
Now, nobody at Amazon ever discussed the stock - doing this was frowned upon by Bezos, by his minions, and by everyone else. The result, of course, was that everybody was secretly obsessed by the stock, and would furtively whisper about it in secret water-cooler conversations, or watch it guiltily on their computers when roving eyes went away. Like a substitute for love or another secret passion, the stock became a subtle, but all-ruling barometer of one's life. If the stock was doing well, you were doing well. If it stuttered, or got a cold you began stuttering and got one too.
Throughout 2000, Amazon's stock was hammered - especially after a prominent Wall Street analyst said that it was accumulating a mountain of debt and could easily run out of cash if it didn't get its costs in line. Just when it seemed to be poised to rise again, it got hammered down again by some other external event. Many high-profile acquisitions were also beginning to hit the wall - Pets.com, Furniture.com - Living.com - and people were beginning to wake up to the fact that Amazon might not be the inevitable winner of the e-commerce wars (especially that its offline competitors, including Barnes and Noble and Wal-Mart) were launching vastly improved services that were giving Amazon a run for the money.
By the fall of 2000, Amazon's Customer Service Representatives had decided to unionize, weary of the mandatory overtime, Spartan conditions, and assembly-line conditions in which they labored. Angry, burned out, and feeling that they had nothing to lose, they formed a committee and started organizing. Amazon, instead of working with them, fought them every inch of the way, mongering fear, proferring threats, and attempting to cow them into submission every chance they got.
Daisey doesn't remember a single event that led him to turn against the benevolent organization in which he'd labored for almost two years, but one day in the fall, he'd decided he'd had enough. Maybe it was a response to the agony his old buds in Customer Service were feeling, as Amazon put the screws in and turned them hard. Maybe it was the prospect of going through the madness of another Christmas Season (even the lofty number-crunchers were often called to help out with the phones, or transported to Amazon's picking and packing facilities, where they'd pick and pack alongside the blue-collar types). Or maybe it was just that his two years at Amazon had translated into what he'd later call "21 Dog Years" - hard time served aboard a ship of hard-working fools.
Whatever his motivations, Mike decided to do the unthinkable - to quit, cash out, and pursue his real interest in life - stand-up comedy. But within months, he found himself back in Amazon's sinister corporate headquarters - albeit without any authorization to do so. Using an old Amazon.com name tag, he arranged a completely unauthorized "video break in" that involved sneaking himself, a friend, and a videocamera into Amazon's headquarters one Friday. It was easy enough to do - he was a well-known face there, and his friend looked geeky enough to pass for a number cruncher. So they were waved through security.
It only took an hour or two to shoot, but the videotape, entitled "Rear Entry", showed the world a few fragments of Amazon's warped internal culture. In Daisey's version of Amazon, dogs wander the empty halls, office supply stations are stocked with "confidential" stamps, and downstairs, an enormous skeleton of a prehistoric cave bear with a 12-inch pubic bone looms as a sinister, primitive symbol of late 20th Century market-penetration fantasies.
In February of 2001, Amazon fired everyone in Customer Service in Seattle, and quietly shipped these jobs to India, where salaries are lower, and people don't object to sweatshop conditions as vociferiously as they do in the USA. Daisey responded by uploading the video, and actively lobbying against one of the most intrusive provisions in Amazon's severance arrangement - a gag rule (also known as a Nondisclosure Agreement) that would muzzle Amazon's former employees from talking about working at the company for years after their departure from it.
Mike's low-budget, hacked-together video stunt became a small but virally expanding hit on the Internet, where it was downloaded by the thousandfold. Incredibly, Amazon backed down and announced that it didn't intend to enforce the provision - a small victory for free speech and a big victory for Mike. Daisey's revenge wasn't complete, however, until he got a book deal with Simon and Shuster. It wasn't getting the deal that so pleased Mike, however - it was the fact that sooner or later, the resulting text would have to wind up on Amazon.com - a form of justice that was unlikely to sway the course of world e-commerce, but would provide one man with what he most dearly wanted - for the truth to get out.
You're on the web a lot. You've seen many a dead site. You've forgotten our email address... and you don't feel like coming back here to get it.
What do you do?
The Ghost-o-Meter opens a small, movable window... if you've found a Ghost Site, fill in the blanks, fire it off, and go back to foolin' around. Its that easy.
You can also use this form:
What the ??!
Well, this is all very interesting, but what the heck is Ghost Sites anyway? Why devote a live site to Dead Sites?
If you're interested in this Ghost Sites thing, it is a project that I began in the summer of 1996 while I was working for Time-Warner's Pathfinder. Late in the evening of July 4th, while piloting a small craft across Long Island Sound, I had what only can be described as an epiphany.
From out of the depths came a cruel vision of the World Wide Web. It wasn't a friendly place - an innocent place of community, commerce and chat. It was a great and utterly pitiless electronic ocean that swallowed up sites, careers, and venture capital like a ravenous killer whale. Great sites - sites like Mecklerweb and iGuide - were going down with all hands. Great fortunes were collapsing and proud content sites lay wrecked on the bottom. No one seemed to care. The future was a vast abyss - who would record these days of New Media folly, disaster and despair?
Back on shore, but still haunted by this vision, I launched Ghost Sites as a modest attempt to document the great disappearing fleet of web sites sinking beneath the waves. This project briefly made me spectacularly famous, and then I was quickly, and completely forgotten.
By March of 1997, Ghost Sites had succumbed to the same deadly entropy that had settled over the Internet, and became a crewless wreck itself. For six cruel months, it drifted like a despised garbage barge, broke its keel in a summer squall, and finally washed up on Geocities.
On an icy November morning, Morbus boarded the wreck, inspected the damage, and offered the captain a safe harbor. The bilge pump was started, and the squealing, rusty hull lifted off the sands again. It soon arrived here - in the dark, unquiet waters of Disobey.Com.
If you have a favorite rotting site that you'd like to mention, email me at Steve_Baldwin@hotmail.com.
Ghost Sites has appeared in a number of places including Time Magazine, ZDNet, The Netly News and more. For a list of all those we know of, as well as links to online counterparts, click here. You can also take a look at the limited edition t-shirt we once offered.