The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire afin
d'être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.

Posts about things that annoy me

SSRN and the 15-Step Login

This is what I have to do to read an article on SSRN from my iPad:

  1. Tap on the link to the SSRN page in my RSS reader.
  2. Tap on the “Open this page in Safari” icon.
  3. Wait a couple of seconds, then cancel the page load.
  4. Tap on “Open PDF in Browser.”
  5. Wait a couple of seconds, then cancel the page load.
  6. Tap “Sign in and Download”
  7. Wait a couple of seconds, then cancel the page load.
  8. Tap on the “Email Address” field. 9 Tap on the Safari button to fill in my stored username and password.
  9. Put my finger on the home button to authenticate myself using TouchID.
  10. Tap on “Sign in”
  11. Wait a couple of seconds, then cancel the page load.
  12. Tap the browser’s Back button.
  13. Tap the browser’s Back button.
  14. Tap on “Open PDF in Browser.”

As best I can tell, there are three separate issues. First, SSRN pages have something on them that loads so slowly as to block the entire page from displaying, hence the need to cancel page loads in steps 3, 5, 7, and 12. Second, SSRN logins time out incredibly quickly, so that I have to go through steps 6 through 15 frequently. And third, SSRN loses track of what it was doing during the sign in process, so that rather than just showing me the article when I complete the login process, I have to manually go back to the article page in steps 13 through 15.

The whole thing is enough of a hurdle that it makes me think twice before trying to read anything. It’s also flakier and more annoying than the login process for anything else I read online. I have been saying for years that the steps SSRN takes to generate its download counts substantially reduce the actual readership for scholarship, and it is quite frustrating to have become an example of this pattern.

An Open Letter to Jeff Bezos

Seventeen years ago, I had a uniquely, memorably bad customer service experience with Barnes & Noble. I received a gift card, purchased in a physical store, as a present, and I tried to use it at This was impossible – I understand now because of how they had set up the website as a separate business unit – but no one I spoke to on the phone or in a store could understand why or what to do about it. At one point they suggested I postal-mail the gift card to their office in Secaucus, New Jersey, to the attention of “Lynn,” and their accounting department would find a way to reissue it properly. They couldn’t seem to understand why I was unsatisfied with this “solution” to their self-created problem.

The experience soured me, permanently, on It wasn’t just that I couldn’t get my books (eventually, I did). It was that their bureaucracy and IT were so fundamentally disorganized, and their customer support team so disempowered, that I knew I couldn’t trust Barnes and Noble as an organization to come through when it mattered. This was not a company I wanted to trust with my money, or to deliver an item when I really, seriously needed it. Instead, I took my book business (and, over time, many other kinds of online business) far more to Amazon. The experience wasn’t perfect, I knew I could trust Amazon’s systems when it mattered.

I had another bad customer service experience this weekend, one that reminded me of my old run-in with Barnes & Noble. Only this time, it was Amazon that dug itself into a hole and couldn’t stop digging.

Wednesday : Our dishwasher is broken. We need a new thermal fuse. I found one on Amazon, ships from and sold by Amazon, available on Prime for two-day delivery. So I put it in my cart and hit “order.” Delivery was scheduled for Friday.

Friday : It went out for delivery, but was never actually delivered. I called Amazon customer service, and the person I spoke to apologized and promised to have it redelivered on Saturday.

Saturday : It wasn’t delivered. I called Amazon customer service again, and this time I got passed off to someone in Amazon Logistics. He told me two disheartening things. First, the first person I’d spoken to had marked the order as a “reschedule,” which he shouldn’t have done because it that changes would irrevocably foul up the delivery in some way that could not now be undone. Second, although he’d ask the designated liaison at the local delivery office to get in touch with me, h couldn’t call this person up, and neither could I. It had to be done via a form. But I’d be contacted by this person either Saturday night or first thing Sunday.

Sunday : Around noon, the local delivery liaison called me to say that the package had been located and it would go out for delivery later in the day. Again, it wasn’t delivered.

Monday : Early in the morning, I received an automated email from Amazon customer service saying that the package had been returned as undeliverable because it was “damaged or contains a hazardous item.” The order has been cancelled.

Obviously, there is a great deal wrong with this story, including the repeated broken promises of delivery the next day, the alleged incompetence of the first person I spoke to, the inability to realize before today that the problem was that the package was damaged (if indeed it is), and simply cancelling the order rather than asking me whether I wanted it cancelled or repeated.

At this point, it isn’t about the fuse. I’ll get one somewhere else. If I’d know what would happen, I’d have ordered it somewhere else in the first place. And I am done with Amazon for parts.

No, I’m writing because Amazon has a systemic problem, and it’s the same sort of a systemic problem I observed inside of Barnes & Noble when their poor customer service drove me to Amazon back in the day. The Amazon shipping operation is stovepiped in a way that prevented anyone inside the company from taking responsibility for the package. Amazon’s systems couldn’t keep track of the package, where it was, and what was actually wrong with it. And even once I had specific promises to fix things, with detailed claims about what would happen next, from multiple people, every single one of those promises turned out to be mistaken.

This is, needless to say, not what I expected from Amazon, whose entire play as a company is getting the back-end logistics and systems right so that the customer experience is simple and painless. Instead, it’s exactly the kind of Balkanized chaos I associate with older pre-Internet companies that never really got e-commerce and have to go lie down in a corner when things get too stressful.

Congratulations, Amazon. Take a good look in the mirror. You’re turning into your parents.