Those of you on Twitter yesterday probably noticed the explosion of tweets with the hashtag #amazonfail. For those who were otherwise occupied carving up chocolate bunnies or whatnot, the news spread to the blogs, Facebook, and the traditional media outlets. The short version is that on Easter Sunday, a critical mass of people noticed that many, many books that Amazon sells had their Amazon sales rank stripped, and that these books stopped coming up in searches on Amazon that were not searches on the book titles (or, presumably, authors).
What fanned the flames of the frenzy were certain consistencies in what kind of book was getting deranked. Many were books with LGBT subject matter. Some were classic books (like Lady Chatterly’s Lover) or more recent titles with what might be classified as adult themes. Some were books about disability and sexuality. A partial list of the deranked titles can be found here.
The effect of the derankings angered lots of people, indignant that a search on “homosexuality” on the behemoth etailer’s website brought up as top results guidebooks to curing your child’s homosexuality but omitted titles aimed at helping prevent suicide in gay teens. The question to which people wanted an answer was whether these changes reflected concerted policy on Amazon’s part, and whether the problem (as seen by the angry Twitterfolk) was going to be addressed.
As I write this post, the response from Amazon has been anemic to non-existent. The news outlets are reporting that Amazon blames a “glitch” for the derankings. Publisher Weekly reports:
On Sunday evening, however, an Amazon spokesperson said that a glitch had occurred in its sales ranking feature that was in the process of being fixed. The spokesperson added that there was no new adult policy.
The Associated Press was also told by Amazon that it was a glitch, but they note that the problem dates back much farther than this past weekend:
Craig Seymour, author of the gay memoir “All I Could Bare,” wrote on his blog Sunday that his sales rank was dropped in February, then restored nearly four weeks later, after he was told by Amazon that his book had been “classified as an Adult product.”
On Amazon.com two days ago, mysteriously, the sales rankings disappeared from two newly-released high profile gay romance books: “Transgressions” by Erastes and “False Colors” by Alex Beecroft. Everybody was perplexed. Was it a glitch of some sort? The very next day HUNDREDS of gay and lesbian books simultaneously lost their sales rankings, including my book “The Filly.” There was buzz, What’s going on? Does Amazon have some sort of campaign to suppress the visibility of gay books? Is it just a major glitch in the system? Many of us decided to write to Amazon questioning why our rankings had disappeared. Most received evasive replies from customer service reps not versed in what was happening. As I am a publisher and have an Amazon Advantage account through which I supply Amazon with my books, I had a special way to contact them. 24 hours later I had a response:
In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.
Hence, if you have further questions, kindly write back to us.
It should be noted (and was, widely), that if the deranking was the result of an “adult” material policy, it rested on a very odd definition, one that flagged the children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies as adult but left books of nude pictures of Playboy centerfolds as all-ages.
On the LA Times blog “Jacket Copy”, Carolyn Kellogg pressed for a bit more explanation:
I asked Patty Smith [Amazon Director of Corporate Communications] this:
From a layperson’s perspective, this glitch does seem to have affected certain types of books more heavily than others. In fact, only one of the top 10 books in your Gay & Lesbian section continues to have a sales ranking (the Kindle version of “The Picture of Dorian Gray”). No other section is similarly affected. Can you comment on that?
Unfortunately, I’m not able to comment further. We’re working to resolve the issue, but I don’t have any further information.
While Amazon was having trouble getting out in front on the situation (or even getting out a consistent story about what was going on), netizens placed calls to Amazon customer service, drafted open letters, signed online petitions, and did some Google bombing to update the meaning of Amazon rank in common parlance.
In short, Amazon has a little bit of a situation on its hands.
In following the thousands of #amazonfail tweets last night, I noticed some questions of an ethical nature that kept coming up. Having slept on them, here are my thoughts:
Can’t Amazon do what it wants as far as listing the items it sells? Aren’t the charges of “censorship” overblown?
It’s true that Amazon is a private company, not a government. As such, Amazon has every right to decide what books and products to sell, what products to display in results to customer search queries, and so forth. Deranking books probably doesn’t rise to the level of censorship — goodness knows, I get madder at decisions made at public libraries to restrict access to certain books, or to keep them out of the collections altogether.
However, Amazon does not own its customers. Consumers are entitled to view Amazon’s deranking of books as appalling. They are entitled to share information about Amazon’s behavior with other customers, entitled to voice their anger to Amazon, and entitled to organize efforts to shift business from Amazon to vendors with less appalling behavior. As it happens, Web 2.0 tools like Twitter and Facebook make this communication and coordination remarkably efficient, even on an Easter Sunday. You’d think a company that grew up with the internet might have anticipated that.
No one knows what happened here, and whether Amazon is to blame. Shouldn’t people refrain from voicing their anger and/or taking their business elsewhere until Amazon has a chance to explain its policy and/or fix the problem?
Surely, there are different theories floating around as to what happened to cause so many books to be deranked. Amazon cites a technical glitch. Probst got an email from Amazon citing a policy change. Some suggest that the “glitchy” algorithm may have implemented the deranking on the basis of category metadata (which is generated by Amazon users). And some have raised the possibility that the deranking may have resulted from a conscious effort to exploit weaknesses in Amazon’s community-based features (like tagging) either to accomplish their will (by removing “offensive” books from Amazon search results) or to hurt Amazon by whipping up an angry mob.
Now, in terms of the nuts-and-bolts question of how Amazon fixes the problem and prevents such problems in the future, it may matter quite a lot which of these scenarios actually played out. However, in each of these scenarios Amazon bears at least part of the responsibility and needs to own up to a failure — either a bad policy, or a bad algorithm (which some human being designed and implemented), or exploitable loopholes in tagging and meta-data, or rogue employees (whether customer service or tech folks) substituting their own will for official company policy. Whatever the official corporate intentions, Amazon gets to deal with the effects of what happened. And taking note of how many regular customers expressed outrage might be a smart business move.
Even if you argue that customers have an obligation to view Amazon as innocent until proven guilty, customers are well within their rights to take their business elsewhere while the jury is still out — and even afterwards, if they are not swayed by the sincerity of Amazon’s apologies, nor convinced of the robustness of Amazon’s technical side. Amazon is not the only book store in the world — not even the only book store on the internet. Customer discomfort with how Amazon runs its business (whether through conscious policy, technical mishap, employees acting beyond Amazon’s control, or community actions that affect Amazon’s listings and search results), is a perfectly legitimate reason for customers to take their business elsewhere. It’s up to Amazon to overcome that discomfort.
Here again, its worth noticing the power of the internets in making information easier to share. This means that honesty and transparency will do more to restore customer confidence than ass-covering. Either there was a new policy about “adult material” implemented or there wasn’t. Either the algorithm that generates search results behaved as it was intended to, or it didn’t. Getting clear on the facts — even if they are accompanied by the admission , “We blew it!” — is probably better for business than getting caught in lies.
It can’t be fair to blame Amazon for the actions of its community of users, can it?
Amazon can decide to set up a business where certain key decisions (like tagging and the generation of category metadata) are put in the hands of the community. But I’m guessing that in the course of its history Amazon has had occasion to notice that the online community consists of many distinct factions with clashing opinions and interests. Deciding to cede control to the community (or to whichever factions of the community are most mobilized to use that control to achieve their own ends) is dangerous, so Amazon needs to own that choice. If the result is that part of the community feels itself targeted or excluded and takes its business elsewhere (and otherwise tries to make things really hard for your company), well, that’s what shifting responsibility from yourself to the community can get you.
Won’t someone think of the children? Shouldn’t someone protect vulnerable eyeballs from distasteful search results?
Thanks, but I don’t need Amazon to protect my kids from objectionable material on the internet. That’s my job.
Moreover, judgments about what is “adult” or “objectionable” vary wildly, making for some weird incongruities in which books were deranked and which kept their ranks (a biography of Ellen Degeneres deranked, one of porn star Ron Jeremy ranked; The Joy of Sex deranked, The Anarchist’s Cookbook ranked; Heather Has Two Mommies deranked, picture books of nude Playboy centerfolds ranked). If Amazon wants to be the world’s book store, why would they imagine that one such set of judgments would fit all? (Seriously, hasn’t Walmart already filled the “family friendly” censorious niche?)
If Amazon wants to offer its customers help that they actually want, they might use community feedback to help develop filters customized to customer search preferences. That would send the message that Amazon doesn’t value just one set of sensitivities. Of course, in the even that Amazon does value just one set of sensitivities, they shouldn’t be surprised if people with different sensitivities take their valuable money elsewhere.
And personally, until I see Amazon take real responsibility for this mess, and for fixing it, I’ll be taking my business elsewhere. Either this will help me curb my book-buying habit, or some other book sellers are going to benefit significantly from Amazon’s evasive maneuvers.