The Unfolding #amazonfail Controversy

My open letter got Amazon’s boilerplate response to the #amazonfail controversy:

This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.

It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles – in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.

Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future. on 14 April 2009 08:24:48 GMT-04:00

Controversies in the Web 2.0 age start out more like lynchings than fair trials.  It’s too easy to respond with a comment or a Tweet before emotion burns itself out and a more rational response can be crafted.  Such an act can lead to a kind of remorse almost as irrational, but it can also lead to a better-researched and better reasoned follow-up when wanting to correct the record. You can see both perspectives in Mary Hodder’s Why Amazon Didn’t Just Have a Glitch and Clay Shirky’s The Failure of #amazonfail.  Both take a good hard look at the aftermath of the #amazonfail frenzy and come to different conclusions.

It’s also brought its share of exploitation.  Beyond spamming the hash tag, there is an e-Bay auction to buy the domain  I could do without the sideshow antics; it’s another unsavory fact of Web 2.0 life.

Hodder’s argument resonates with my experience in information systems.  Trying to fit everything into a single, hierarchical classification system (taxonomy) is fraught with dangers.  Excluding content based on a single tag, especially one as broadly-cut as gay, is bound to exclude far more than it should.  A retailer like Amazon is probably more comfortable with excluding too much instead of including the wrong thing to avoid offending and losing customers.  It’s hard to get outraged about not finding things you didn’t know were even there.

However, there is a deep-rooted homophobia in saying “all things gay should be excluded”.  This metadata shove back into the closet offends me on both personal and professional grounds.  It does make Amazon’s glitch argument seem more believeable.  That single action, a change in a taxonomy file, could result in delisting tens of thousands of books as quickly as that change could replicate across Amazon’s servers.  If that’s the case here, it’s just as easy to fix, but there’s no evidence Amazon’s made that little tweak yet.

What looks worse for Amazon is reports that such problems have existed for months, especially around the Kindle store.  In Amazon’s “Glitch” Myth Debunked, a lesbian author levels some serious accusations about the scope, duration, and casual indifference around Amazon’s homophobic filtering.  The #amazonfail controversy erupted because of some tipping point–technological or social or both–but now has focused plenty of eyes on uncovering the truth.  While I might prefer a more dispassionate investigation from the beginning, I’m glad to watch the truth unfold.  The real test of course is when Amazon either fixes the problem or suffers the consequences.

See Also: Crowd Forms Against an Alogirthm – The New York Times

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