Doesn’t Amazon want to get naked?

Feel a chill in the air? That’s because Shel Israel and Robert “The Scobleizer” Scoble – authors of the blogging book Naked Conversations – got the cold shoulder from during a recent show-and-tell about blogs at the online bookseller’s HQ in Seattle. To be specific, they apparently got a frosty response from Amazon’s chief technology officer, Werner Vogels (hat tip to Toronto VC blogger Rick Segal).

Apparently, Vogels was pretty skeptical about the benefits of blogging and challenged the star bloggers to prove that it was worthwhile for a company like Amazon, and didn’t like the answers he got. Here’s what he says on his blog:

“Welcome to life at Amazon, we set a very high bar for our own works and we expect anyone that comes to sell us an approach to actually be prepared to really defend their ideas. Just because blogs are cool and everybody is doing them does not automatically mean that we should institutionalize them at Amazon.”

He also says that:

“I wanted them abandon their fuzzy group hug approach, and counter me with hard arguments why they were right and I was wrong. Instead they appeared shell-shocked that anyone actually had the guts to challenge the golden wonder boys of blogging and not accept their religion instantly.”

Perhaps all Vogels did was challenge them, but from Robert and Shel’s descriptions of it, my impression is that it was a bit more than that. Shel – who is one of the nicest guys around – says it was a very rude way to treat someone who had been invited to Amazon to talk, like asking someone into your home and then shouting at them about their taste in music. Shel says:

“Werner, if you want to have a public debate on how Amazon could improve its customer relationships with more employee blogs or corporate blogs, please name the time and place–as well as the neutral referee. I require only two rules. (1) Let me have my say next time, without you interrupting, and (2) Let’s both agree to the same agenda before we go public with it.”

It’s fine to challenge orthodox thinking, and obviously Vogels believes that is good enough at getting feedback that it doesn’t need blogs. Fair enough. But it sounds like he was rude, and just doesn’t want to admit it. And as Rick Segal hints in his post, it doesn’t help that the photo Vogels uses on his blog is an unsmiling portrait that looks like something they might post on The Smoking Gun. Sounds like he has a chip on his shoulder.


There’s been plenty of blog posts – and lot of comments on posts, including this one – from both sides of this issue, including opinions from people such as Seth Finkelstein (who comments below) that Shel and Scoble should be able to take this kind of thing because it’s all part of “the conversation.”

As I responded to Seth, that’s all well and good, but it’s another thing to be sandbagged and shouted down (if that’s what happened) when you’ve been invited to speak to about something.

As for it all being part of the conversation, who says we shouldn’t apply normal standards of behaviour to online conversations as we do to offline ones? If we were at a party and someone was drunk and shouting or being belligerent (not accusing Werner of this, just an example), then I would have word with him, and I would hope other party-goers would too.

Scoble has posted a response to Werner here, and Werner has posted something akin to an apology here. In other news, he appears to at least be seeing the humour in what’s been going on, since he uploaded a nice mugshot to Flickr for us all to use 🙂

13 thoughts on “Doesn’t Amazon want to get naked?

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  4. Wow. Thanks a lot, Trey — that was a really insightful comment. Really. I’m speechless.

  5. Y’know, I’m a far cry from Miss Manners, and I intensely dislike any bullying by the strong of the weak – but I marvel at the thin-skinned nature of some A-listers and blog evangelists. They praise “Naked Conversation”, which seems to mean in general that *they* get to rant, flame, and abuse anyone else. But let someone give them a little rudeness – and wow, they whine to high heaven. Oh-me-oh-my, where are the smelling-salts, someone was *rude* to pushers of personal exhibitionism – I do declare, can you image that?

    I think that would be quite convincing proof of the skepticism – they can’t “eat their own dog food”. If someone gets a bit naked, metaphorically, in terms of emotion – ie. saying it’s bullshit (which, frankly, ought to be a response advocates of openness should be able to take in stride) – they can’t handle it, other than by reacting with personal hurt. First test, and they fail! One might even speculate that they’re used to gushing praise (from attention-seekers), and unused to being challenged.

    Again, let me be direct. Let’s assume Vogel *was* rude. It wouldn’t be the first time someone failed to express harsh skepticism of suspected huckerism in a diplomatic way, that’s a very difficult task. If The Experts then do the equivalent of “Mommmy (or Blogggggies), he’s so *mean* to me! (He’s not begging me for a link! He’s not trying to get invited to my party! He doesn’t want in on my start-up!)” – then I think that’s pretty much proved the skeptic’s point. Not because rudeness is nice – it *isn’t*. But being “naked” has to deal with people’s warts and blemishes, not air-brushed fantasy.

  6. There is no excuse for being rude, especially if you a re the one inviting the speakers. Want to show of and double or triple your blogs traffic and/or name recognition? Fine, but I’m not convinced this is the way…

    the Amazon guy’s point is valid, though. But I think you can say the same with a great big smile and being nice…

  7. Seth: you are WAY overplaying our reaction here. I was VERY nice to Amazon in all my online conversations. That said, I thought I was going to a book reading. I’ve been to dozens in my life. Yes, hard questions get asked but usually the questioner is polite and asks a question and then sits down and listens to the answer. If the answer isn’t very good then someone might ask it again, a little differently. But here my answers were continually interrupted and challenged. Now, I don’t mind that kind of aggressive questioning if it’s an executive review (which I guess he thought it was) but it seemed out of place. Several employees afterward told me they felt uncomfortable, which told me it wasn’t a normal thing.

    But, one nice thing about blogging is it lets you fix when you screw up. Here’s my answers to Werner’s questions:

  8. Thanks for posting that, Robert. I was just about to say something similar to Seth myself. What we’re talking about has very little to do with whether or not you and Shel are open to criticism or not. For me, it has more to do with being sandbagged when you’re expecting a civilized conversation, which is my (admittedly second hand) impression of what happened. And being open to ‘the conversation’ doesn’t have to mean, or shouldn’t mean, having to put up with that kind of attack. Seth, I think you’re just plain wrong on this one.

    Incidentally, if there are any amazonites who were there for this event and want to give their impressions of what happened, my comments section is open. Anonymous comments are fine if you’re concerned about your job.

  9. I think my main point is being missed, since I’m not claiming he wasn’t rude. In fact, I’m willing to *stipulate* that many people *thought* he was rude. And it’s also clear that he thought he was being tough but fair.

    My point is this: BLOG EVANGELISM SHOULD BE ABLE TO HANDLE SUCH A CONFLICT! It’s “openness”. It’s “being naked”. It’s “authentic”. (all of which is consistent with “not nice”).

    This is a *slight*, *minor* culture-clash. Well-understood, completely predictable. If such a small thing can’t be handled, being an emotional flasher cannot be taken seriously.

    And it’s not valid to take the question to a meta-level, to say, look, we’re having a “conversation” about it. That answer works for anything.

    Look, Z-listers are expected to put up with potentially far, far worse as just the price of being in “the conversation”. An irritated A-lister always has the option of writing a personal attack on the Z-lister, where a huge number of people will see the attack and almost nobody will see the reply (this vast inequality is my fundamental view as to why blogging is arguable worse for power relationships, but I’ve discussed that elsewhere). So again, if a tiny and inevitable difference over acceptable discourse causes such a tizzy, how can imbalances which are orders of magnitude worse ever be addressed?

    I don’t mean the following in a rude way (see, worked example, I know this can be taken badly), but I’m having a hard time conveying how much this all seems to validate the charges that all that’s being pushed is narcissism and echo-chambering.

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