Ha, banishment! be merciful, say ‘death;’
For exile hath more terror in his look,
Much more than death: do not say ‘banishment.’
– Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene III
What if one day you heard from some nameless representative at Microsoft, and they told you that you were no longer allowed to use any of their products or services? No more Office, no more Windows, and for that matter no Xbox or Minecraft. Or what if Google forbade you from using any of its services? It gets tougher, doesn’t it? Not only would you have to use a different search engine, but no more Gmail, no YouTube, no Google Maps, no Hangouts, oh, and don’t plan on buying an Android phone.
Even taking this out of the realm of the purely-digital, you can imagine how many walls you’d run into if, say, you were prohibited from using products made by Proctor & Gamble, or consuming anything made by Kraft or the Coca-Cola company. You’d find yourself constantly having to rejigger your thinking, and rule out items and services you’d never had to give a second thought to. Kraft foods, Google services, and all the rest, they were always just there.
Over the past few months, readers of this blog (all seven of you) will know that I’ve been experimenting with smartphones, on a long and emotional quest to find The Perfect Device for me. I would buy a phone, try it out for a bit, and if it didn’t suit, send it on its way. Sometimes this meant selling again on eBay or Swappa or some such. But quite often, it involved buying devices from Amazon (either new, direct from Amazon itself, or from third party sellers on the site). And as you probably know, Amazon has a lenient and simple return policy – one of the many reasons I’ve been a delightedly happy Amazon customer since its beginnings in the 1990s – and I made liberal use of it. I would buy a phone off Amazon, give it a go, and when it didn’t work out, neatly send it back within the allotted return window for my refund.
I did this several times.
And you know that when you have a new phone, you want to protect it, right? Especially if you might return it. So I’d often buy cases for my trial devices, sometimes more than one in order to try a couple out and see what suited me. The ones I didn’t use, I’d return. If I returned the phone for which the cases were purchased, well, of course the cases would go back too.
Again, I would always return things in the condition I got them, and always within Amazon’s return window. No lines were being crossed that I knew of. Though I used to joke, “I bet the folks at Amazon’s returns department have a picture of me hanging up with a bullseye on it.” Ha ha.
A couple of months ago, I got an email from Amazon customer service telling me that they were closing my account, that I would no longer be able to make purchases from the site or purchase digital content. The reason: excessive returns. I had been exiled from Amazon.
It was dizzying at first. There was the internal flagellation I put myself through (Why couldn’t you just pick one phone and be done with it???), and the embarrassment I felt (My wife will leave me over this). But the most striking feeling was that of alienation, of feeling lost.
I buy everything off of Amazon. Since it first came into being, I found excuses to buy from them over any other outlet. The reasons should be obvious: price, selection, customer service, speed and price of shipping, etc. Over the years those things have only gotten spectacularly better, from having the most books of anyone to having the most of everything of anyone. My wife and I have a Prime account, of course, because why wouldn’t we? My Amazon wishlist is a sacred space for me, where I keep a carefully curated list of the things for which I pine.
I am also a Kindle aficionado. I have had just about every model since the second generation, and even owned the first Kindle Fire, and I kind of liked it! I own a glut of Kindle books that I’ve yet to even begin reading, and at the time of my exile, I had just gotten a Kindle Voyage.
But now, I can’t shop on Amazon, not for phones, books, movies, music, gifts for my family, anything. I can’t get free two-day shipping. I can’t get hassle-free returns. I can’t maintain my special little wishlist. I can’t buy Kindle books, and I can’t buy Amazon MP3s (which are usually priced better than Google Play or iTunes, of course). I can’t stream Prime movies or shows. A powerful, robust hub of not just my online life, but my life, was now inaccessible. Like I said, it was dizzying.
I tried to make my case to anyone at Amazon who would listen: I’d promise not to return any more items, I’d agree to have my account specially monitored, I’d go on a temporary probationary period so they could see me on my best behavior. I wrote emails to countless Amazon addresses, I called on the phone, I chatted online with representatives, and I even emailed Jeff Bezos himself.
Here’s part of the response I got to that email. I’m removing the person’s name:
I’m […] of Amazon.com’s Executive Customer Relations team. Jeff Bezos received your e-mail and asked me to respond on his behalf. [ … ] The decision to close your account is a final decision, and won’t be considering further requests to reinstate it.
I realize you’re upset, and I regret we’ve been unable to address your concerns to your satisfaction. However, we’ll not be able to offer any additional insight or action on these matters, and any further inquiries on this matter won’t receive a response.
We appreciate your understanding.
And so there it is. I am exiled from the Everything Store.
In the grand scheme of problems one could have, this is certainly no crisis. But Amazon is one of those companies, like Google or Kraft, that entwines itself into your life to such a degree that you rely on it like it was a utility, like it was air. It’s one thing to decide to wean oneself off of a given company’s service, like deciding to avoid using Google or Facebook if you don’t like their stances on privacy, for example. But to be kicked out, to have the door slammed in your face, is quite another.
Now, to be clear, Amazon hasn’t taken anything from me. The Kindle books I own, for example, I continue to have access to. The same goes for music and movie content I’ve bought through them. Their system is smart enough, I suppose, to allow me the use of the things I rightfully own without allowing me to do literally anything else. But given the fact that I (finally) settled on a big-screened Nexus 6 for my phone, and given that I could never again purchase a new Kindle book, I quickly sold my Kindle Voyage. Why bother keeping it?
There are countless alternatives to what Amazon offers. Stuff can be bought anywhere. Alas, it means looking in lots of different places for stuff instead of defaulting to one site, and no shopping site is nearly as easy to use or as, well, familiar with me. But I adjust.
I buy books over Google Play, for now anyway. I’m looking at the latest e-reader offerings from Kobo with some interest, but it’s a very grudging interest. (I could consider a Nook…kidding! I’m kidding. That’s ridiculous.) The selection will be lower, the price will be higher, the long-term viability will be questionable. But once again, I’m not really wanting for anything. It’s not really that big a deal.
But I can’t help it. As stupid as it sounds, my feelings are hurt. This seemingly-benign juggernaut of the digital age has shunned me for an infraction I wasn’t even aware I’d committed. The rest of the world will go about their online lives, breathing the air of Amazon, taking for granted that it will always be there. As they should, as it is supposed to be. But I’ll be that one guy at the party who’s allergic to everything he’s offered. No, thank you, but I’m not allowed to have any. (Come to think of it, I often am literally that guy.) Whatever services or products Amazon might offer up, I’ll be that one guy who doesn’t get to play. And it feels crappy.
But it’s also fine. It is disorienting, certainly, and I’m still working on getting all my digital bearings. I try to remember what Friar Laurence says to Romeo as the young lover panics and tantrums over his banishment from Verona.
Be patient, for the world is broad and wide.
And so it is. Goodbye, Amazon. I’ll be moving on, now. Jeff, if you change your mind, you know how to contact me.
And hey, Kobo folks, I’d love to take a look at a review unit. I promise I’ll return it.
UPDATE May 9: I’ve got a new post with some clarified points and a little tiny itty bitty smidge of decent news.
UPDATE: Lee Cutrone’s artistic rendition of me outside Amazon HQ:
Original unmodified header image from Foter.com