Television shopping channels like QVC are busy turning their dials on the Internet: Amazon has already done much of the heavy lifting, but now mums in these cities can add FOBE, or “Facebook building out … shopping”, to the list of emotional functions of the smartphone. A report this summer published by Flurry, an app analytics company, showed that 62% of all ads on Facebook are now ecommerce-themed. This month’s New York Times deals section was deepened and inspired by Facebook ads, while this week, LinkedIn is offering £19.95 for a sofa here, £9.85 down there. Zuckerberg is on it, and so is his notional enemy Amazon.
Well, sure, maybe it’s just old-fashioned e-commerce, but the tech company, whose logo is the frowning seahorse, has been phenomenally successful in stealing market share from brick-and-mortar retailers. Britons buy more from the site than from any other retailing chain. Then there’s the “onslaught of generic, low-cost imports” – shipping and billing for goods we order online – that make up 80% of Ikea and Argos’s sales. I give up.
But let’s stop the questioning of the concept of Amazon’s frightening reach. Yes, it is relentless and relentless. Yes, it’s got a booming army of lower-paid workers, involved in what is, admittedly, a trade. And yes, like Apple before it, it’s a global corporations that is hollowing out cities and towns. Still, the social aspects of a social site don’t strike me as particularly dark or sinister, as anyone who’s tried to sell me a phone with images of flowers would tell you, or helpfully point out the solutions to my problems. Moreover, the old pieces of advertising we use haven’t even aged very well.
There are other reasons – practical and philosophical – why QVC now feels more and more like Amazon. For a start, the weather has fallen into better grime, and things have become more personal and more intimate. Interactive, edited videos you can watch yourself? An optional option – maybe it’s a reference to our own homes and personalization of services?
A world without social platforms is just a world of wall-to-wall ads. Or, without verbal amplification, which is where things might be headed: the BBC’s disappointing new version of The Apprentice echoes the uncomfortable, home-recorded hum of ads on the tube. There are marketing principles that both advertising and media are moving towards, including the sentimentality and nostalgia of posts on Facebook, the idea that how you say your ad could be used to tell a story to you.
These may not be ideas rooted in commerce or social networking, but they are ideas that we will have to deal with: YouTube wants ads that appear on your screen in the form of what it calls “rich media” – video, graphics, text that is designed to introduce your viewers to the product you’re selling.
Everyone already thinks about how privacy, control and personalisation are changing how we use media, and this can’t be separated from shopping. Since TV is in decline, what’s the solution to the former, but also the new prospect of Facebook as the map of much of the modern home? Same deal with public platforms: they’re going to make us need to think about the signifiers of our private lives. The missing piece in all this is what our relationship with these platforms are, to each other and to ourselves.
• This article was amended on 27 November 2018 to remove an error regarding QVC.