No one has it easy during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Amazon has it particularly hard. Google, Facebook, and Netflix all deliver their services over the internet, and a healthy amount of that work can be done from home. Amazon, by contrast, has taken on the job of delivering physical goods to our homes. At a time when tens of millions of Americans are isolated in their homes, Amazon has become a critical lifeline delivering food and supplies. But over the past several days, Amazon has begun to struggle under the weight.
The most significant news so far came Sunday night, when Jason Del Rey broke the news that Amazon’s famous two-day shipping for Prime members would now be delayed up to a month for “non-essential” items. Del Rey writes:
An Amazon spokesperson confirmed to Recode on Sunday evening that the new April 21 delivery dates are not the result of a technical bug or error; they accurately reflect Amazon’s current reality.
“To serve our customers in need while also helping to ensure the safety of our associates, we’ve changed our logistics, transportation, supply chain, purchasing, and third-party seller processes to prioritize stocking and delivering items that are a higher priority for our customers,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “This has resulted in some of our delivery promises being longer than usual.”
At least Americans can still get non-essential items. (Which is to say, items outside the following departments: baby products; health and household items; beauty and personal care; groceries; and industrial, scientific, and pet supplies.) That’s not true in France or Italy any more, Krystal Hu reported at Reuters. The company has temporarily stopped taking orders for non-essential items that are shipped through its fulfillment service while it focuses on getting more important items to customers.
The company also suspended Prime Pantry, a service for getting rapid delivery of discounted grocery and household items, amid a surge in demand. And — at the request of local governments — it downgraded the quality of streaming on Prime Video in Europe in an effort to reduce the strain on the internet.
To be clear, Amazon has nothing to be ashamed of here. The company is navigating an extremely difficult period fraught with unpleasant trade-offs, and for the most part its supply chain has held up. The crisis has also spurred the company to (finally) recognize the everyday heroism of the workers in its distribution and delivery networks, who continue to put themselves at risk to keep America stocked up with necessities. As of Saturday, the company increased wages by $2 an hour — and is offering double pay to workers who spend more than 40 hours on the job each week. And on Monday, the company finally agreed to provide paid time off for tens of thousands of warehouse employees.
Amazon has also said it will hire 100,000 new workers to help with increased demand amid the crisis, offering an equally important lifeline to a nation staring down the barrel of double-digit unemployment for the first time in recent memory.
In a memo to employees made public on Saturday, CEO Jeff Bezos said he is fully committed to addressing the COVID-19 challenge:
My own time and thinking is now wholly focused on COVID-19 and on how Amazon can best play its role. I want you to know Amazon will continue to do its part, and we won’t stop looking for new opportunities to help.
One thing that could be helpful in this time is for Amazon to regularly brief the public on the health of its distribution networks and its expectations for any service interruptions in the immediate future. The company has historically worked to keep the media at greater than arm’s length, communicating primarily by press release.
But the current crisis is changing the company’s service so frequently, and with such high stakes, that a different approach is needed. One model Amazon might consider is that of Facebook, which over the past couple years began hosting regular briefings on subjects in the news. (There have been a lot about Russia, misinformation, and election security, for example.) Last week, the company held a briefing on its coronavirus response, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg took questions from the press.
If it undertook similar measures, Amazon could build confidence in its services. The alternative — a torturous drip of news about service disruptions, delivered at odds hours across various news outlets who manage to get a response back from the company’s public relations team — has made for a grim status quo. It is not an approach that bears the hallmarks of customer obsession.
If you pay for Amazon Web Services, the company sells you guaranteed uptime — if the service fails more than 0.01 percent of the time, you get a discount on future service. Already, some are speculating that Amazon will offer similar discounts to those affected by the understandable disruptions caused by COVID-19.
But there’s something else the company could do, and it has the virtue of being basically free. It could regularly tell all its customers what’s happening today, and what to expect tomorrow. If Bezos is right that “things are going to get worse before they get better,” as he told his employees, then his customers could use as much time as possible to begin contemplating their alternatives.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
⬆️Trending up: Apple is donating millions of masks to health care organizations. The move comes amid a critical shortage of supplies needed to respond to the global coronavirus pandemic.
⬆️Trending up: Yelp is committing $25 million to local restaurants due to the novel coronavirus. The money will take the form of free advertising. (Anthony Ha / TechCrunch)
⬇️ Trending down: Google is still showing ads for masks next to coronavirus stories after promising to take them down. In a letter to the FTC, lawmakers complained that the company is contributing to the medical mask shortage.
Big Tech could emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever. While the industry faced a growing backlash prior to the coronavirus outbreak, people are now more dependent on the big tech platforms. (Daisuke Wakabayashi, Jack Nicas, Steve Lohr and Mike Isaac / The New York Times)
Related: Over the past few weeks, Facebook has launched a series of initiatives to help governments, emergency response organizations, small businesses, and its own employees and users with the coronavirus pandemic. The company’s quick response could go a long way in restoring its reputation. (Salvador Rodriguez / CNBC)
Facebook plans to downgrade video streaming quality on its platform and on Instagram in Europe. It’s the latest US tech giant to do so after EU industry chief Thierry Breton urged streaming platforms to free up bandwidth for healthcare workers and remote learners. (Foo Yun Chee / Reuters)
It took a global pandemic to make us forget about our privacy concerns and start using Facebook with abandon again, this piece notes. (Joanna Stern / The Wall Street Journal)
Facebook Messenger partnered with developers to provide free services to government health organizations and UN health agencies. The goal is to help them use the messaging platform to scale their response to the COVID-19 crisis. (Messenger)
The World Health Organization is partnering with WhatsApp to give people trustworthy information about the coronavirus pandemic. When you text “hi” to +41 79 893 1892 over WhatsApp, you’ll receive back a text from the WHO that includes a variety of menu items for the latest information, like novel coronavirus infection rates around the world, travel advisories, and misinformation that should be debunked. (Lily Hay Newman / Wired)
People are organizing coronavirus aid on Google docs and through Facebook groups. So many groups have popped up in the past five days that there are now master spreadsheets circulating on Twitter, Nextdoor and Facebook to try and track them. (April Glaser / NBC)
Google’s coronavirus website launched. The company also rolled out enhanced search results for people who look for terms related to the coronavirus. These include information tabs for symptoms, prevention, global statics, and locally relevant information. (Dieter Bohn / The Verge)
Google Maps now displays a warning for people searching for doctors, telling them to call ahead if they think they are infected with the novel coronavirus. Tapping through on the warning brings up the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella sent an email to employees, calling the coronavirus pandemic “uncharted territory.” He said he shares their personal anxieties about the virus. (Geoff Baker / The Seattle Times)
Apple pulled an app that allowed Chinese users to bypass censorship of coronavirus information from the Chinese version of its App Store. “Boom the Encryption Keyboard” is an app that encrypts text into emojis that can only be decoded by the receiver’s device. (Adam Smith / PCMag)
On Twitter, a @coronavirus account has existed since 2009. It’s only tweeted four times — always about computer operating systems. But as the COVID-19 pandemic grew this week, people began finding it and fighting with it. (Scott Lucas / BuzzFeed)
Telegram has become a refuge for WeChat users during the coronavirus outbreak. The app has features like channel broadcasts and optional chat encryption that have helped people stay up to date amid heavy censorship on WeChat. (Xinmei Shen / Abacus)
As regular people struggle to get tested for COVID-19, the rich and powerful are jumping to the front of the line. This is a very old story playing out in a new way. (Max Abelson, Scott Soshnick, and Emma Court / Bloomberg)
Dating under social distancing is complicated. But staying indoors is making many people crave partnership, and dating apps are responding by adding new video chatting features. (Georgia Wells / The Wall Street Journal)
Fashion influencers are rethinking their curated aesthetics because they can’t leave their houses. Their accounts might never be the same after the pandemic ends. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)
As people are stuck indoors, a wave of dance parties hosted on Instagram and Zoom staves off coronavirus anxiety. (Zoe Schiffer / The Verge)
Derrick Jones, a.k.a. DJ D-Nice is hosting Club Quarantine, a virtual dance party for thousands of people stuck at home. Mark Zuckerberg stopped by a recent set. (Jelani Cobb / The New Yorker)
Internet service providers are scrambling to add more capacity as they cope with unprecedented usage amid the coronavirus outbreak. (Nick Bastone / The Information)
Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty house is shutting down temporarily due to the coronavirus pandemic. Five TikTok stars were staying there and making videos. (Amanda Perelli / Business Insider)
As coronavirus surges across the US, people are using Nextdoor to offer help and provide services no longer available through businesses. It’s turning the network into a decent place to be. (Alex Kantrowitz / BuzzFeed)
Total cases in the United States: 33,404
Total deaths in the United States: 400
Cases reported in California: 1,709
Cases reported in Washington: 1,996
Cases reported in New York: 15,168
⭐Despite a series of decisive victories in Florida, Illinois, and Arizona, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is struggling to move forward. Campaigning online and staying relevant during the coronavirus pandemic are two major hurdles. Here’s Marc Caputo at Politico:
Stuck at home because of coronavirus precautions, Biden also can’t meet with donors at fundraisers — which, in turn, may become less lucrative with an economy that’s sinking into recession or perhaps worse.
“It’s a tough position,” said Matt Littman, who’s hosting a virtual fundraiser for Biden next month that the candidate and donors will attend through tele-conferencing software.
“It’s harder to raise money when there’s no face-to-face meeting and personal contact,” Littman said. “And some of the normal people I have to raise money from I can’t count on. They have their own concerns. They have to keep their houses. The universe of people who will donate money will be smaller.”
Facebook is close to reaching a settlement with a group of content moderators who developed post-traumatic stress disorder while working to remove disturbing content from the social network. In a court filing this week, lawyers for the plaintiffs said the parties had reached a tentative agreement with Facebook on February 7th. (Casey Newton / The Verge)
⭐Instagram has prototyped an unreleased ephemeral messaging feature that clears the chat thread whenever you leave it. It looks a lot like Snapchat’s most popular feature. Josh Constine at TechCrunch has the scoop:
Instagram Stories caused Snapchat to start shrinking at one point, but now it’s growing healthily again. That may signaled that Instagram still had more work to do to steal Snap’s thunder. But Instagram’s existing version of ephemeral messaging that is clunkier, Facebook scrapped a trial of a similar feature, and WhatsApp’s take that started testing in October hasn’t rolled out yet.
That’s left teens to stick with Snapchat for fast-paced communication they don’t have to worry about coming back to haunt them. If Instagram successfully copies this feature too, it could reduce the need for people to stay on Snapchat while making Instagram Direct more appealing to a critical audience. Every reply and subsequent alert draws users deeper into Facebook’s web.
Instagram is facing a wave of hackers breaking into accounts to then extort their owners. Some victims are turning to white hat hackers to help. (Joseph Cox / Vice)
Snap has seen a 10-fold surge in downloads for its tool that allows people to use augmented-reality filters on Zoom calls and Google Hangouts, since the beginning of the month. (Sarah Frier / Bloomberg)
Twitch has become an increasingly valuable way for electronic musicians to connect with their fans. It’s yet another sign that the streaming platform has moved well beyond gaming. (Cherie Hu / DJ Mag)
Discord banned 5.2 million accounts between April and December last year, according to the company’s second transparency report. The most common reasons for account bans were spam and exploitative content. (Jon Porter / The Verge)
Things to do
Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.
Instagram also has a full slate of programming this week, and posted a story promising free upcoming live shows from the Bon Apetit crew, Miley Cyrus, and Diplo, among others.
Coronavirus can cause a hacking cough. As a software engineer, I know a thing or two about hacking. In this Medium post I will be— Matt Casey (@mattcasey) March 22, 2020