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Apr 16, 2009

This week has provided a fascinating view into the dynamics of online community activism, and in particular the new Wild West called Twitter.   Controversy erupted on Sunday, when an author discovered that his book, The Filly, had been delisted from Amazon sales rankings.  The book, a romance featuring gay characters, had been classified as “adult” and thus removed from the “family friendly” search results (which are key to generating increased sales).  Other gay-oriented books had been removed as well.  Meanwhile, books containing heterosexual content (including Playboy centerfolds), and hateful and violent story lines were still searchable.

Twitter exploded with indignation.  A petition on Care2’s petitionsite quickly grew from a few thousand signatures Sunday evening, to 10,000 Monday morning, to 20,000 by Monday night.   People tweeting about the issue included what’s called a hashtag, #amazonfail, in their messages, so all of the related posts could be seen together on twitter search results.  The amazonfail feed showed thousands of posts coming in per hour.    

For a while there was much talk of someone who claimed he had hacked Amazon’s system to bias the results.  Then there was word from Amazon that it was caused by a glitch in their system..but that conflicted with earlier messaging from Amazon support that said the books were intentionally removed because they were "adult".  Later the company explained that the cause was actually a French programmer working for Amazon who had misunderstood how the term “adult” was used in Amazon’s classification system.  There were many criticizing Amazon for not moving fast enough (apparently the problem had started showing up  over a month ago), others simply wanted Amazon to apologize, and many believed the company was not telling the truth.  A successful google bomb was created for the term "Amazon Rank", logos and a song were created for the protest and many talked of boycotting Amazon.

By yesterday morning the Twitterstorm was dying down, and the mood was rapidly shifting as defenders of Amazon jumped on the bandwagon, criticizing those who fomented the outcry.  Some characterized the initial response as a lynch mob and others spread widely a mea culpa post by Clay Shirky, "The Failure of #amazonfail".  In response, a slew of posts pounded Amazon for not truly apologizing, and pointed out how Domino’s did a somewhat better job handling a disgusting video uploaded by two of its employees. Back and forth it continues to go.

Whether or not the delistings were intentional is debatable.  The story of the French programmer is plausible, but I also certainly wouldn’t have expected Amazon to admit to deliberately offending millions, so who knows....  But that’s not the point, and I hope Amazon and others learn more from this than to think the problem was just a simple programming mistake and too slow a PR response.

What the delistings revealed were underlying anti-gay assumptions - and I suspect that probably says more about our society than it does about Amazon’s corporate mission.

We still live in a world where too many people believe being gay is somehow connected to sexual deviancy, pedophilia, and immoral behavior from which we must protect children.  We probably shouldn’t be surprised when that bias ends up in Amazon’s classification system.   Classification systems are incredibly difficult to create and are inherently biased.  But they can also be incredibly powerful, shaping our behavior without us even realizing their influence.  When an event like this exposes those underlying prejudices in ways that go against our moral standards people are going to get upset.  Combine that with the power of social media, and the brevity of Twitter (140 characters… say goodbye to nuance!) and you have an explosive result.

The penalty may seem harsh to Amazon shareholders, but the court of public opinion (particularly among early adopters such as many users of Twitter) imposes big "punitive damages" when companies do not meet its standards for fairness, equality and open-mindedness.  Collectively, this powerful community has sent a strong message to all corporations:   “we expect higher standards.”   

So, was Amazonfail a failure or success?  The answer depends on one’s perspective, but I do think it was a milestone of sorts for online activism and social responsibility and provides important lessons for the future:

  1. It got results – fast.   Amazon didn’t act fast enough for the crowds, but the delisted books are once again being listed.  Whether it fixed the underlying anti-gay assumptions is unclear.
  2. It once again showed the power of social media, and tools like Twitter and ThePetitionSite (and how these can drive stories onto mainstream media sites such as the WSJ and NPR.
  3. It got a lot of people talking about LGBTQ issues, and society’s double-standards with how we tend to think about sexuality, violence and hate.
  4. It revealed the power of classification systems (and the companies that control them), and hopefully made more people aware how these impact our decisions.
  5. It hurt Amazon’s reputation, which may or may not be fair, depending on your perspective, but clearly raises the bar for Corporate Social Responsibility and transparency, which are good things.
  6. It drives home the point to companies that conversations are going to happen about their brands. Information/disinformation will spread like wildfire, and if you’re not part of the conversation at the table, you’re going to be part of the menu.

 

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Posted: Apr 16, 2009 11:25am

 

 
 
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Randy Paynter
, 1
Hillsborough, CA, USA
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