When the tube from Walmart.com arrived at my door, I rushed inside, popped off the lid, and unfurled my inspirational poster. On it, a quote from the science-fiction author and journalist Annalee Newitz hovered in a curly font over a photograph of a pier reaching into a tropical ocean.
“When I was a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, I became obsessed with end user license agreements.”
I am a huge fan of Newitz, but you wouldn’t say she’s famous-famous, and I’m not sure this is a notable-enough statement by anyone to hang on a wall. So why was it for sale on Walmart.com?
The poster is not being sold by Walmart itself, but by a smaller e-commerce outfit that sells through the platform, as well as on Amazon. Walmart.com has 20,000 of these sellers; Amazon, which has a less hands-on approval process for sellers, says it has 1 million in the United States, although only 140,000 had sales of over $100,000.
The design of these massive platforms, however, makes the actual company you’re buying from irrelevant. Where’d you get it? Amazon. Was it a from third-party seller or from Amazon itself? Uhh… Most people have no reason to consider that there is a difference—which is to Amazon or Walmart’s advantage, as they can offer everything without actually having to offer everything. But in building these vast warehouses, they have created wholly new ways for wholly new actors to make money. And some of them are very, very weird.
Take the company that made the Newitz poster, Home Comforts. Its Walmart.com profile does not inspire confidence. “Thank you for vising out store. Please buy with confidence,” it reads. “We are 100% old school in terms of ‘ the customer is always right’ - if you do not like something we will always take care of you. Your satisfactions is our number 1 Priority.”
Home Comforts lists its corporate address as a modest home in the Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles. My poster was sent from an office in Koreatown, close to or sharing space with a wholesale wig shop. It has a California business license that lists Aron Yakovlev as CEO and Dmitrijs Jakolevs as the former CEO of the company. (I’ve tried to contact Home Comforts through their seller profiles, several phone numbers, two email addresses, and LinkedIn, to no avail.)
The company’s “inventory”—on Amazon and Walmart.com—is enormous: more than 200,000 products on Amazon and more than 1 million on Walmart.com. Almost none of those have any reviews. Only three seem to be regularly purchased: a cast-iron coat hook, a two-pack of corn starch, and a faux-vintage laundry sign. (I contacted both Walmart and Amazon to ask if they vetted products, especially when they were uploaded in such tremendous volumes. Amazon declined to comment, and Walmart did not get back to me.)
While the company carries many different dollar-store-like products, the vast majority of what it “sells,” or at least offers for sale, is a never-ending assortment of posters, some image-only, many others featuring “famous quotes” like Newitz’s. While some are attributed to celebrities — Gandhi or Audrey Hepburn—many are from far-less-famous people, like the Maine politician Margaret Chase Smith or British paleontologist Mary Leakey.
There is a very reasonable explanation. Imagine you’re going to generate hundreds of thousands of posters with quotes on them: You need a quote database. Newitz’s quote (which appears in a decade-old online bio) is basically nowhere on the internet anymore. In fact, it exists only in three places: the bio page where it originated, a bunch of quote sites, which appear to trace their text back to brainyquote.com, and a certain poster sold by Home Comforts on Walmart.com. Though I cannot claim to have checked the hundreds of thousands of posters, every time I spot-checked a quote, I found it on brainyquote.com.
Meanwhile, all the photos I checked appeared to originate on Pixabay, which claims to provide royalty-free imagery as uploaded by its users. It would be very easy to scrape both sites, associate images with quotes, and bulk upload them as proto-posters to Amazon and Walmart, which the marketplaces allow. If a poster sells, you can print it on demand and mail it out, pocketing a decent chunk of the $21.68 price (with shipping and handling). If it doesn’t, you do ... nothing. Home Comforts has hundreds of thousands of lures in the water, just waiting for a bite. It recalls a similar case of software-generated phone cases offered by another vendor.
One could think about Home Comforts as an example of a kind of search spam, said Juozas Kaziukėnas, founder of the e-commerce analysis firm, Marketplace Pulse. When you have as much search volume as Amazon does, people will try to monetize any tiny slice of it, the way content farms (like quote sites!) did very successfully in years past (remember Demand Media?). “Amazon is going through the same things Google went through 10 years ago. Their search is not as good as Google is now at discovering high-quality, relevant content,” Kaziukėnas told me. “Keyword stuffing and all sorts of things that don’t work on Google still work on Amazon.”
These posters are a probe for Our Weird Times. What happens when it takes the same effort to make 200,000 posters that each sell once as it does to manufacture one poster that sells 200,000 times? Perhaps actual people have always had an infinity of different desires, but it was never possible to satisfy each and every one. Now, though, under certain circumstances, Walmart.com or Amazon can host hundreds of thousands of products, each designed to ensnare ... well ... maybe just one customer. And some company in a faceless office in Los Angeles can make some money creating things that will almost certainly never sell more than a single copy.
And maybe that’s OK? Newitz is fine with it. “When I first saw the posters, I thought it was hilarious that I'd been online long enough to become basically birdcage liner for bots,” she told me. “Also, I'm glad that my work is being canonized by bots, because they're the tastemakers of tomorrow.”
And is this not the fullest, most delightful fulfillment of the theory former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson advanced in his book, The Long Tail? “In fact, as these companies [like Amazon] offered more and more (simply because they could), they found that demand actually followed supply,” Anderson wrote. “The act of vastly increasing choice seemed to unlock demand for that choice.”
And in this case, I am the tiny atom of demand happily matching with my piece of the nearly infinite supply. I’ll finish mounting the poster in my office this week.