this is if only [dot] org

of links and non-links

_As I was walking down the stair

I met a man who wasn’t there;

He wasn’t there again today—

I wish that man would go away!_

I’ve always had a nagging disquiet about Amazon’s venture into the search business, and the OpenSearch thing at Etech only added to that. Until now, I hadn’t been able to quantify my doubts, but here goes: an Amazon link is a link to something that isn’t there.

In a web sense, that is. You know the feeling when you’re following a discussion, mouse over a link to a cross-reference, and an Amazon URL appears in the status bar: it’s saying ‘next stop, everybody out.’ Go one step further, and you’ll essentially be leaving the web, like those hoary old corporate disclaimers noting that you’re leaving their legally-screened domains. Not to mention having to fish into your wallet.

There are very few URLs that signify such finality. In one sense, that’s reassuring: when a textual source is cross-referenced by a link to Amazon, you can be more or less certain that you won’t find it on the web in that particular form. (There may be unofficial channels, but they extend from a different set of practices.) You’ve found what you were looking for, by going to where it canonically is not.

So Amazon links mark commercial fulfillment through a lack of online fulfillment; and an Amazon wishlist is an admission of unfulfilled desire, no less than those hilarious ‘me toos’ on pr0n-login trading boards that are immediately harvested by spammers. It’s a DMZ, rather than a TAZ: the border-territory between the world-placed-online and the elsewhere. You can stick an Amazon link in your wishlist, or on your blog, or go ahead and buy the damn book. Rien à faire.

Now, you could get all Lacanian about this, and talk about deferral, or chains of signification, or signifiers of absence, but the incongruity is visceral enough: Amazon offering search is a bit like a life insurance salesman setting up a stall on the near bank of the Styx.

To make A9 work (without detaching it from the Amazon brand) requires a fundamental shift in what an Amazon link means. Offering a π/2 discount on purchases is all very well, but it reinforces the site’s role as broker between the web and the world of things-for-money. Now, if you could reward loyalty to A9 by eliminating that online-offline border control, and giving users access to electronic texts with the option to pay for a hard copy…

For the moment though, Amazon links are terminal. They link to things that are not there. We meet them every day. And as much as we embrace their familiarity, we wish — oh, how we wish — they’d go away.