Adventures in Ethics and Science

A bunch of people (including Bora) have pointed me to Clay Shirky’s take on #amazonfail. While I’m not in agreement with Shirky’s analysis that Twitter users mobilized an angry mob on the basis of a false theory (and now that mob is having a hard time backing down), there are some interesting ideas in his post that I think merit consideration. So, let’s consider them.

Shirky starts by considering how sentiments were running on the Twittersphere Sunday evening, when Amazon still hadn’t put out a statement about what was going on, and how those sentiments didn’t ratchet down much by the time Amazon was releasing information on the situation on Monday. He writes:

Moral judgment is harder to reverse than other, less emotional forms; when an event precipitates the cleansing anger of righteousness, admitting you were mistaken feels dirty. As a result, there can be an enormous premium put on finding rationales for continuing to feel aggrieved, should the initial one disappear. Call it ‘conservation of outrage.’

Are moral judgments really a matter of moral outrage and righteous anger? Really?

That has not been my experience. Rather, good moral reasoning seems to involve stepping back from one’s own emotions and interests and taking account of the emotions and interests of others.

I have to wonder if out there in the world there are a lot of people labeling as “moral judgment” what is actually “getting high on anger that feels justified”. Maybe this points to a need for better communication about what good moral reasoning looks like. (No, I’m not arguing for requiring more ethics coursework … at least, not in this post.)

Shirky’s idea of “conservation of outrage” is intriguing to me, though. Maybe it’s because I’m at a place in my life where I’m slow to outrage and fairly quick to diffuse it when I have it. Quite possibly this is something strange (or even defective) about me as a human being and/or a user of social media.

This is not to say that I didn’t have an emotional reaction to the flow of #amazonfail tweets on Sunday. Mostly, it was a feeling of being overwhelmed by that flow. I wanted to understand the situation — what exactly had changed about the sales ranks and search results at Amazon, how customers were reacting to those changes, how Amazon was responding to consumers’ reactions, what the source or sources (if they could be identified) of the changes really were, how the rapid sharing of information (or frustration at the lack of reliable information) seemed to shift the relationship between consumer and vendor.

For myself, I decided I was more likely to understand the situation by unplugging from the constant flow of tweets and sleeping on it. That’s what I did, writing my initial post on the situation the next morning.

Now, the point of filling you in on my emotional state, and what I did with it, is not to pat myself on the back for keeping a cool head and trying to maintain a rational perspective. Rather, it’s to say that I find it quite likely that others following the situation, including some number of those who were tweeting and retweeting information on Sunday, were also being driven by something other than outrage. Surely some were propelled by outrage — Shirky identifies himself as having been in this camp on Sunday — but this does not make everyone who used Twitter to express concerns about the situation on Amazon part of an angry, torch-wielding mob.

Here, there may well be an argument to be made that Twitter, Facebook, and other such social networking tools are prone to the development of a high proportion of torch-wielding relative to rational argumentation. Indeed, research mentioned in this article in the Daily Mail may suggest that the rapidity of Twitter exchanges cuts out some of the time necessary for reflection and for “processing of social emotions such as admiration and compassion, which are critical for developing a sense of morality.” I haven’t seen the actual scientific report in question (it’s to be published in the most recent issue of PNAS), but the researchers seem to share my view that good moral reasoning requires stepping back from one’s own position and trying to be objective. Presumably, other people may be trying to step back in this way, the fire hose of Twitter notwithstanding.

Beyond characterizing #amazonfail as the creation of an angry mob mobilized to hurt Amazon, Shirky argues that the mob’s fury was based on false premises:

Though the #amazonfail event is important for several reasons, I can’t write about it dispassionately, because I was an enthusiastic participant in its use on Sunday. I was wrong, because I believed things that weren’t true. As bad as that was, though, far worse is the retrofitting of alternate rationales to continue to view Amazon with suspicion, rationales that would not have provoked the outrage we felt had they been all we were asked to react to in the first place. …

I was easily seduced in part because the actual, undisputed event — the change in status of LGBT-themed work on Amazon, while heterosexual material and anti-gay tracts kept their metadata intact — fit a template I know well, that of the factional use of a system open to public access. … Seeing the change in status of LGBT books, I believed, vaguely, that Amazon was hosting and therefore complicit in a systemic attempt to remove such material from public discussion. …

I assumed (again, vaguely) that Amazon themselves had not adopted an anti-gay posture, and I recognized the possibility that this might be a trolling attack, but the idea that this was an event of mainly technological propagation, rather than a coordinated bit of anti-gay bias, simply escaped me. This isn’t because I am a generally stupid person; it was because I was, on Sunday, a specifically stupid person. When a lifetime of intellectual labor and study came up against a moment of emotional engagement, emotion won, in a rout. …

If we wanted to deny Amazon all benefit of the doubt, and to construct the maximum case against them, it would go something like this: it was stupid to have a categorization system that would allow LGBT-themed books to be de-ranked en masse; it was stupid to have a technological system that would allow that to happen easily and globally; it was stupid to remove sales rank from sexually explicit works, rather than adding “Safe Search” options; it was stupid to speak in PR-ese to the public about something that really matters; it was stupid to take as long as they did to dribble an explanation out.

Stupid stupid stupid stupid, yes, all true. If it had been a critique of those stupidities that circulated over the weekend, without the intentional mass de-listing, it would have kicked off a long, thoughtful conversation about metadata, system design, and public relations. Those are good conversations to have, we need to have them, but they are not conversations that would enrage thousands of people in the space of a few hours and kick off calls for boycotts and worse.

Intention is what we were reacting to, and the perception of intention matters, a lot.

In other words, Shirky is saying that his outrage on Sunday was about Amazon’s intentions as he perceived them. And I take it his use of “we” here indicates that he thinks most of the anger in the Twittersphere was anger about Amazon’s intentions. But just as it’s a dangerous move to extrapolate from the fact that you feel outrage to the conclusion that everyone else in an exchange feels outrage, it’s dangerous to infer from your own anger about intentions that others who are angry are also primarily concerned with intentions.

Intentions matter to us, but effects matter, too. Much of the concern I saw expressed Sunday night was focused on the effects regardless of whether they were intentional.

Indeed, in some ways the intentions that came to the foreground were those people read in Amazon’s response (or, for a significant stretch of time, lack of response) to the concerns about effects that people were voicing. Telling Amazon about the bad effects (whatever their source) and getting no response can feel a lot like Amazon doesn’t care terribly much about the effects. Being mad about that, or hurt by that, is understandable.

Now, maybe, on account of the slowness of corporations compared to netizens and the smallness of an individual customer compared to the entire customer base, it’s not practical to expect a big retailer to feel concern or to express concern about how their glitch/policy/ham-fisted whatever hurts you or your community. But then, by the same token, maybe it’s not realistic for a retailer, upon being informed of concerns on a significant scale and then responding to them in a way that doesn’t take account of the real hurt that was felt at the effect (regardless of the intention) to expect the people who felt this hurt to stick around and keep spending their money with the retailer.

In any case, there’s not an objective fact of the matter about whether Amazon’s response was quick enough, transparent enough, or abject enough. People disagree about this. Inconvenient as it may be, consumers come equipped with different emotional responses and different levels of comfort that must be met before they’ll hand over their money. Denying that effects are worth caring about, even if they were not intended, is a good way to lose the consumers who care about those effects.

[W]e’re no longer willing to cut Amazon any slack, because we don’t trust them, and we don’t trust them because we feel like they did something bad, even though we now know, intellectually, that they didn’t actually do the bad thing we’ve come to hate them for. They didn’t intend to silence gay-themed work, and they didn’t provide the means for groups of anti-gay bigots to do so either. Even if the employee currently blamed for the change in the database turned out to be a virulent homophobe, the problem is in not having checks and balances for making changes to the database, not widespread bias.

Given what Amazon has said at this point and what Amazon hasn’t said, I reckon not everyone agrees with Shirky’s “mystery solved” assessment here. Consequently, his analysis of whether consumers should trust Amazon in the light of facts now in evidence just won’t be persuasive to consumers whose trust Amazon lost for other reasons.

It’s likely the case that some people stopped trusting Amazon because they latched onto an attractive conspiracy theory. However, others may distrust Amazon because official responses so far have not addressed specific pieces of information communicated to authors and publishers by Amazon. For others, it may be that Amazon’s responses have not dealt with their main concern (e.g., that sales rankings and inclusion in search results attach to some, but not all, items on the basis of judgments made by someone other than the user performing the search).

It’s one thing to say, “Certain theories floated to explain what happened don’t look credible at this point.” But not everyone concerned with #amazonfail was acting on the basis of having bought in to one of those theories. While Amazon may have put some theories to rest, not everyone has had their questions answered to their satisfaction.

Also, it’s worth noting in passing that stupidity outrages a good many consumers, and even accepting Amazon’s official explanation as gospel truth, this contingent seems to have pretty good grounds for not cutting Amazon extra slack.

Even providing complete answers to what happened does not give Amazon a legitimate claim to the business of people unhappy that it did happen.

Is Amazon entitled to be upset at some of the theories that were batted around — including ones positing ill-intent on Amazon’s part? Sure. But Amazon might have prevented the swirl of theories by getting out front quicker. Even saying, “We hear your concerns, we’re getting to the bottom of it as quickly as we can, and we’ll tell you what’s going on when we’ve figured it out,” would have made Amazon part of the discussion. In turn, this might have encouraged people to hold tight for good information rather than filling the vacuum with speculation.

Perhaps Amazon’s big blunder was in misjudging its relationship with its customers. These customers felt taken for granted because they were. Otherwise, Amazon could have used its website to tell them, “The effects on you matter to us, and we want to make this right.” Web 2.0 tools may have let customer anger build up, but Web 1.0 tools could have been used to respond to the anger and to start to diffuse it. Amazon just didn’t do that, and no angry mob prevented it.


  1. #1 Landon Bryce
    April 15, 2009

    Thank you– This is an eloquent and rational summation of things I have been feeling. I feel less alone having read it, as goofy as that is to say.

  2. #2 eNeMeE
    April 15, 2009

    Also, it’s worth noting in passing that stupidity outrages a good many consumers, and even accepting Amazon’s official explanation as gospel truth, this contingent seems to have pretty good grounds for not cutting Amazon extra slack.

    Oh, heck yes.

    Excellent post, thanks.

  3. #3 John
    April 16, 2009

    This is the best piece on #amazonfail I have seen so far.

  4. #4 jon
    April 16, 2009

    Thanks, Janet, for an excellent post. In my comment on Clay’s blog I said

    Speak for yourself. Many of the people I talked to are reacting to yet another example of silencing the voices of LGBTs, feminists, and people with disabilities (who you don’t even bother to mention in your post). Many are reacting to Amazon’s dismissiveness in calling it a “glitch”. Many are reacting to Amazon’s ongoing lack of a real apology or executive involvement. Many are reacting to the revelation that Amazon has been manipulating their best-seller information….

    Maybe none of those things matter to you. And maybe *you* assumed intentionality. Don’t project your beliefs on others.

    Like you I was pretty shocked on Sunday — and puzzled, because it wasn’t at all clear what would happen and why. I didn’t jump to judgment; I concentrated on getting the word out, evaluating different theories, passing around the blog posts I thought were most interesting, and discussing the situation. Most of the people I talked to were doing much the same.


  5. #5 Avi Rappoport
    April 16, 2009

    Thank you, I was trying to figure out why I was uncomfortable with Clay Shirkey’s analysis.

    He certainly has a lot of insightful things to say about the political issues regarding metadata and labeling. Those are powerful without being about the issues of conscious intent.


  6. #6 Chris MacDonald
    April 20, 2009

    Re the Daily Mail article “about” twitter, see this blog posting, which suggests (based on having talked to the authors) that the scholarly paper cited by the Daily Mail does not, in fact, mention Twitter at all:

    …though I don’t think that undercuts your point about speed of judgment, etc.