Friday, March 2, 2012

Stop abusing the word “censorship”

Seth Godin has been “censored!”

Except, he hasn’t. Apple has declined to carry his book in their iBook store—a move that seems obtuse on Apple’s part (if for no other reason than they’re handing a PR moment and a news cycle to Godin and, by extension, Amazon). But vastly more disturbing than Apple's policy (which is entirely unsurprising in the context of Apple decision-making) is Godin's gross abuse of the word “censorship.”

Look, when you have your own imprint at the dominant ebook retailer, you have not been censored when a competing retailer refuses to carry your “manifesto” and even tells you why. That is not censorship. (And he doesn’t even need to use the word. The business/philosophical story here is no less interesting without misappropriating the word "censorship.")

Hell, I’m not even sure he’s been meaningfully wronged in this. Look at his argument:
There’s been a long history of ubiquity at the bookstore. With a few extreme exceptions, just about every book is available at every bookstore if you’re willing to order it. Universal availability feels like part of the contract we make with bookstores–we expect them to sell everything. In the digital world, this goes triple, because there’s no issue of shelf space to deal with.
Even leaving aside the cojones it takes for an Amazon employee to wrap himself in the mantle of traditional bookselling, this seems a very shaky argument. The analogy doesn’t hold up. He’s saying that it wouldn’t be “censorship” (or even something worth protesting?) if a brick and mortar store didn’t shelve his book as long as it could order it. This is, apparently, “universal availability.”

Fine. Let’s look at the actual implication of his book not being on iBooks (a platform that only works on three devices, mind you) in those terms. A customer opens the iBooks store and searches for Godin’s book. He finds nothing. Now, here’s where things get interesting. One argument—Godin’s argument--says that this is forced obscurity—essentially, he asked at the counter and the clerk looked in the computer and found nothing. A potential customer cannot see that the book exists and therefore it doesn’t and thus a sale is lost and harm is done. Another argument—my argument—says that the act of searching an individual ebook-store is not analogous to placing a special order; it’s analogous to browsing the shelves. A potential customer doesn’t see the book, so he clicks to Google or to another store (perhaps, I don’t know, the one owned by the company that Godin works for?).  In much less than  the time it takes for a brick-and-mortar browser to order a book he didn’t find on the shelf, an ebook customer who doesn’t find a book in a particular store can find the book on the web or buy the book from another store. I’d argue that this is how the vast majority of people shop on the web.

“Universal availability” is your contract with the web, not with any website. In no way is that principle being violated here (as Godin admits). It seems to me like Godin is being willfully dense not to see this distinction. A decade of digital commerce has conditioned people to shop this way. In fact, I would wager that a great many customers for Seth Godin books would check Amazon even if they found the book in the iBook store.* It’s basic comparison shopping.

Censorship is real. Real censorship causes real harm. Seth Godin, however, has not been censored, and when he uses the word this way, our understanding of the gravity of actual censorship is diminished.

*And this “manifesto” isn’t on Amazon either as far as I can tell, but maybe Amazon doesn’t sell his manifestos? I can’t keep track.