The Failure of #amazonfail

In 1987, a teenage girl in suburban New York was discovered dazed and wrapped in a garbage bag, smeared with feces, with racial epithets scrawled on her torso. She had been attacked by half a dozen white men, then left in that state on the grounds of an apartment building. As the court case against her accused assailants proceeded, it became clear that she’d actually faked the attack, in order not to be punished for running away from home. Though the event initially triggered enormous moral outrage, evidence that it didn’t actually happen didn’t quell that outrage. 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 rationale disappear. Call it ‘conservation of outrage.’

A lot of us behaved like that this week, in our fury at Amazon. After an enormous number of books relating to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered (LGBT) themes lost their Amazon sales rank, and therefore their visibility in certain Amazon list and search functions, we participated in a public campaign, largely coordinated via the Twitter keyword #amazonfail (a form of labeling called a hashtag) because of a perceived injustice at the hands of that company, an injustice that didn’t actually occur.

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.

When trying to explain one’s actions, hindsight is always 20/400. With that caveat, I will say that the emotional pleasure of using the #amazonfail hashtag was intoxicating. There is no civil rights struggle in the US that matters more to me than the extension of equal rights without regard for sexual orientation. Here was a chance to strike a public blow for that cause, and I didn’t even have to write a check or get up from my chair to do it! I went so far as to publicly suggest a link between the Amazon de-listing and the anti-gay backlash following the legalization of gay marriage in Iowa and Vermont. My friend Nelson Minar called bullshit on my completely worthless speculation, which was the beginning of my realizing how much I’d been seduced by righteousness, and how stupid it had made me.

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. Examples are legion; one recent one was the top positions enjoyed by issues related to the legalization of marijuana on the site. (Though I am in favor of the legalization of marijuana, I also recognize that the results were an outcome no representative poll of the American people would have returned.) 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.

Here’s how stupid that belief made me. I have been thinking about the internet as hard as I can for the better part of two decades, and for the latter half of that time, I’ve been thinking about the problems of categorization systems, and it never occurred to me that the possible explanation for systemic bias might be something having to do with a technological system instead of a human one, that a changed classification in the Amazon database could trigger the change in status of tens of thousands of books.

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.

Many people I love and respect disagree with me on this point; Mary Hodder in particular has written a very thoughtful case for why we should still regard Amazon as culpable and as a target for outrage. I don’t disagree with her interpretations of what Amazon did wrong (and I am using her as a particularly eloquent spokeswoman for a whole class of post-#amazonfail arguments) but I do disagree with her conclusion.

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. If you hit me with your car and kill me, the effect on you could be anything from grief counseling to being convicted of murder, and that range of outcomes would rest on a judgment about your intentions, even given the same actual event.

So it is here. Whatever stupidities Amazon is guilty of, none of them are hanging offenses. The problems they have with labeling and handling contested categories is a problem with all categorization systems since the world began. Metadata is worldview; sorting is a political act. Amazon would love to avoid those problems if they could – who needs the tsouris? — but they can’t. No one gets cataloging “right” in any perfect sense, and no algorithm returns the “correct” results. We know that, because we see it every day, in every large-scale system we use. No set of labels or algorithms solves anything once and for all; any working system for showing data to the user is a bag of optimizations and tradeoffs that are a lot worse than some Platonic ideal, but a lot better than nothing.

We know all that, but we’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.

We’re used to the future turning out differently than we expected; it happens all the time. When the past turns out differently, though, it can get really upsetting, and because people don’t like that kind of upset, we’re at risk of finding new reasons to believe false things, rather than revising our sense of what actually happened.

We shouldn’t let that happen here; conservation of outrage is the wrong answer. We can apologize to Amazon while not losing sight of the fact that homophobic bias is wrong and we have to fight it everywhere it exists. What we can’t do, can’t afford to do if we want to think of ourselves as people who care about injustice, is to fight it in places it doesn’t exist.

291 Responses to “The Failure of #amazonfail”

  1. The Thoughtlessness of Internet Lynch Mobs Says:

    [...] to myself “he’s an order of magnitude smarter than everybody else in the room”. Today’s blog post, on the fallout of the #AmazonFail business, is just the latest example: Here’s how stupid that [...]

  2. Jeff C. Says:

    What a great article! I’m happy to read that someone else who isn’t dismissive of gay rights also thought this was way overblown. Given no track record for bias against the gay and lesbian community I was disappointed at the response and lack of perspective (from everyone except Mark Probst, ironically enough). I half expected to see Al Sharpton send a tweet to #amazonfail :-P

    That having been said, I do agree that the PR response from Amazon was not helpful at all.

  3. In The Form Of A Question Says:

    [...] 15, 2009 by kristina b On the Amazon issue: an excellent treatise for critical thought from Clay Shirky, although I have not yet seen the evidence one way or the other that Amazon’s issue was [...]

  4. The Failure of #amazonfail : Seminare: consentiment Says:

    [...] Shirky zumindest formuliert Zweifel an ihrer eigenen Beteiligung an diesem Phänomen: A lot of us behaved like that this week, in our [...]

  5. Lisa Spangenberg Says:

    There are several reasons that I still think Amazon has failed, badly. First, the desire to restrict searches without telling users/customers, and providing a way to opt-out. Secondly, in addition to polluting their own data stream, the assumption that books tagged with metadata gay and lesbian, and several other strings discussed here are “adult” is a metadata Freudian slip, possibly even a petticoat. Thirdly, the “France” explanation is not an official Amazon explanation, and it rings very very false to me in terms of basic data principles. Fourthly, if Amazon is that stupid about UI and access, and data propagation, I really don’t want to trust them with my credit card.

    Finally though, it’s the first reason that has convinced me I don’t want to be an Amazon customer; they’re being disingenuous in modifying searching but still carrying the items for sale–and the fact that they didn’t have Playboy’s centerfold books tagged as adult or erotic–even though the CIP data for those books does–is a little odd.

  6. Ann Says:

    Thanks Jane, for highlighting my underlying worry: the search “results” are filtered, and we don’t know on what or how.

    I didn’t know that sales data was factored in–I’ve learned a lot about what else might be going on besides keyword matching, and it is good that we be aware of how our tools work.

    However, even the technical glitch explanation lessens my trust. I can’t myself see or choose these filters. My best-case spin at the end of the day is to remember that Amazon is in the business of selling books, and I’ve been treating them like they’re in the service of providing information.

  7. Chris Lombardi Says:

    p.s. The search mentioned above was conducted about 10 minutes ago.

  8. Vicki Says:

    Summarizing from some of the comments above the things that matter to me here:
    * it was an accident
    * the accident happened to hit a very sensitive category of books
    * when authors brought the problem to Amazon’s attention, they were not given
    a helpful response
    * it took a storm on Twitter for things to be “resolved”
    * a lot of people still believe the resolution is incomplete. Why is Amazon removing sales ranks on ANY books?

    While I agree “Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity” is at work here, I think things would have been Very Different had not Twitter existed.

    There was a problem. People tried to fix it. Amazon hemmed, hawed, excused, and explained. THEN people began yelling in Twitter. Yes, we may have had the specifics wrong but ask yourself: what would have happened if the twitterstorm had not been launched?

  9. Chris Lombardi Says:

    All of which would be more persuasive had a simple search on for “homosexual” not given me pages and pages of homophobic literature. As technical glitches go, this is one with potential real-life consequences.

    I do think some of the hubbub also points to unease about a company that has taken on for itself the role of your-content-provider and de facto Books in Print.

  10. chris forster » Blog Archive » #amazonfail and #british-home-secretary-fail: Obscenity and Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness Says:

    [...] a nice instance of both the benefits and hazards of self-organizing mass protest. In a recent blog post, Clay Shirky suggests that #amazonfail was largely overreaction. I am inclined to agree. The more [...]

  11. Nobilis Says:

    I’m sorry, you’re wrong.

    The root of the problem is that Amazon had a means in place to make certain books disappear from visibility on the site.

    The fact that a mistake caused this system to actually become visible to people is immaterial.

  12. R. O'Quinn Says:

    Actually, there are two reasons I no longer trust Amazon.

    The first is that I have learned that they have been using a filtering system on their search results that they didn’t bother to tell me about. I don’t like information being hidden from me for somebody else’s “own good”, or “for the children” or for the prudes or for anyone.

    If I’m looking for an item to buy, I expect to be able to find it without jumping through hoops. Companies that are set up to cause people to jump through hoops in order to give them money do not get my money, period.

    So, yes, the bad thing *I* think they did, they did, in fact, do. The fact that it happened to most affect gay and women’s literature made me angry, because, yeah, isn’t that always the way it works?…but what continues to stew me is that instead of introducing safe search options for children and prudes, they took my options away.

    The second reason that I remain angry is that the company has yet to apologize. Sure, they’re calling it “ham-fisted error”, and many headlines call this an apology, but I have not seen a single quote from any Amazon representative saying “We’re sorry this happened.”

    Until that happens, Amazon is dead to me.

  13. Says:

    Amazon – they still don’t get it…

    That the Twitterati might have jumped to the wrong conclusion on #amazon fail is regrettable. Regardless of the merits of the situation, Amazon’s handling of the situation is indefensible. They are being outclassed by a Pizza chain.

  14. Anil Says:

    I’m really happy you wrote this, because you were who I was thinking of when I noticed I was still annoyed at the overreaction to the Amazon rumors.

    I might be more sensitive to this because I’ve been on the wrong end of web shitstorms a few times, and there comes a point when there’s *no* winning against a perception, even if it’s not a perception grounded in the facts. I think we as a community should identify the people who start misleading ideas, knowing they’ll be 1. inflammatory and 2. successful in drawing attention to themselves, and there *should* be a standard of condemnation for causing these situations.

    I’m not advocating for a witchhunt, I’m merely saying that we have the tools and technologies to identify those who are the first to say something unproven or misleading — we should apply the same standard of fact-checking and accountability to our peers who start memes as we do to the traditional media outlets we’re so fond of examining.

  15. One last AmazonFail post Says:

    [...] Shirky apologizes abjectly for jumping on the #amazonfail Twitter bandwagon and apparently forgives Amazon completely (saying [...]

  16. rick Says:

    And the lesson is a pretty basic one – think before you open your mouth. All of you who flew off the handle at Amazon didn’t.

    It was far more likely that either someone inside did this in an unauthorized fashion, that it was a technical glitch or a combination of the two. That you all jumped to the ‘evil corporation hates gays’ conspiracy theory says something about you – would you have been as quick to damn Amazon if the filtered books had been right wing religious books? No? Then how much do your principles really mean?

    Think about it – virtually none of the commentary was “Amazon is wrong to filter books AT ALL.” It was all “Amazon is filtering books on something we sympathize with.”

  17. Lined & Unlined » Blog Archive » » 577 Says:

    [...] especially when you make judgements for a living. The effortlessly brilliant technologist/critic Clay Shirky recently admitted to a mistake in his judgement of the #amazonfail incident. I think he did a marvelous job explaining how he was wrong, and why, and what his mistake means [...]

  18. Edward G. Talbot Says:

    Hmm, I agree with the main gist of your post, Clay, that #amazonfail was an overreaction. I posted a blog post shortly after it hit twitter suggesting the problem was likely the combination of two poor decisions – the fact that they were censoring at all and some sort of technical shortcut they took to achieve censorship. Now it appears that it was no shortcut, merely a mistake, though still a technical problem.

    But as several others have commented, the problem is the censorship itself. Why do they feel the need to default to censorship? And why does censorship possibly require deranking – I am not clear on whether some books are still going to be deranked based on being truly “adult” titles.

    It was always unlikely that Amazon was singling out GLBT on purpose. This is Amazon, not Disney or even Walmart, and they wouldn’t make a conscious business decision that stupid. Pure self-interest. But they are censoring things, and that is problematic unless it is completely transparent. Which is far from the case at the moment.

  19. Emery C. Martin Says:

    The specificity of this amazon instance aside I think one very interesting aspect of the essay is the potential embedded reactionary nature of things like Twitter and what it means for activism. The framework of twitter is built to provide an outlet for instant communication to a large mass of people on any errant thought. You have to do this in 140 characters or less so you are likely not going to be filling your tweet with every nuance or potential detail that maybe needed to really address the topic or thought at hand. This framework can hence close down conversations that need to be had before we all begin pounding out another 140 characters on our keyboards of activism that will hopefully assail a stunning blow to the “them.” So, is Twitter simply a tool for short sighted reactionary positions? No not necessarily but it sure can be conducive to them. Do we need to place warnings such as “Tweet Responsibly,” “Think Before You Tweet,” or maybe “Don’t Drink and Tweet.” Not sure, but the idea that the designed limitations of a communication system can be directly conducive to uninformed reactionary thought is interesting to say the least. At least to me that is.

  20. anon Says:

    Stuff like this doesn’t happen to straight people. For a straight person to tell us to shut up because it only took Amazon a month to fix their fuckup is a sad joke.

  21. Catherine Devlin Says:

    I don’t think many people suspected premeditated intent in the first place. However, slapping in an “adult materials policy” sloppily, without careful review of its effects, then ignoring complaints until they became a news-making storm, is the cause of complaint. It’s the sort of negligence that produces the same effects that bad intent would. Forgivable – if it’s followed by genuine and real efforts to improve, not just to patch the misstep but to handle it less negligently in the future.

    A little pseudo-censorship may sometimes be necessary, but it should always be handled like the dangerous thing it is. Amazon is far from the only place where it’s been a problem – webfiltering at public libraries comes to mind – but this incident could be and should be a time for our whole society to recognize that a lot of censorship can sneak in if we handle restrictions on “adult content” cavalierly.

  22. Amazon’s semifinalists in novel contest: Hmm. Any LGBT-related titles? Probably | TeleRead: Bring the E-Books Home Says:

    [...] detail: Clay Shirkey wonders if Amazon was knocked unfairly on Twitter. Digg us! Slashdot us! Share the [...]

  23. Paul Balcerak Says:

    Kudos for owning up to a mistake. People should be honest like this more often (especially with online interactions).

    I wonder if the #amazonfail meme is one of those Twitter/Internet-at-large growing pains that will become less and less prominent as more people start blogging and interacting online. Some of this stuff is so new that people don’t really know how to use it yet. When TVs first became available, it was in most cases a few years before people had one of their own, so there was a period of adjustment. Not so with Twitter (and I suspect future competitors).

    Twitter—or at least its rapid-fire form of communication—will become part of the public consciousness and culture eventually, at which point people will have learned how to be skeptical and let information digest.

    We’re all commentators and journalists now, even though a lot of us were never trained how to filter information. So in a sense we’re working backwards—we’re being given the tools and learning how to use them, not the other way around.

  24. nozza Says:

    Admire your honesty and humility. Two gifts always to be sought and admired. My only criticism would be the absence of any evaluation of how twitter as a platform failed in this case. Perhaps it’s time to take the social web rose tinted spectacles off? This time it was a large web based retailer who can respond and recover. What about next time when it’s an individual or smaller organization thrown to the twitter lions? How about a clayshirkyrapist hashtag? Very chilling if you have something to loose but little more than a game for those who don’t.
    Lots of warm words and vacuous promises made about the social web. I think this case is actually closer to the reality we are headed for. A tyranny of the technically literate but uninformed. There’s nothing wrong with the technology or concept. It’s just being massively oversold for the benefit of a few and certainly not the many, despite the libertarian sweet talk.
    Again, much kudos for the quality of the post, your honesty and humility.

  25. Neal Says:

    I get your argument… but isn’t the mere fact that they are censoring books anyway enough of a problem?

    And worse – they haven’t fixed the problem. They know what the problem is. All they have to do is turn off the filter, or select all Gay/Lesbian tagged books and un-adult them. If it was easy to do going one way (by accident, reportedly), it’s just as easy to undo — and they haven’t. A search at 1PM EDT Wednesday still has all the queer-friendly books de-listed.

  26. Dan Sinker Says:

    Clay, it takes a brave person to admit their mistakes and a smart one to admit them so eloquently and completely.

  27. cj Says:

    While the response may have been disproportionate, it’s still not as small as your article would have us believe either. So, perhaps it’s in the middle.

  28. dan klyn Says:

    The honesty you’ve embedded in these meditations on #amazonfail and the acknowledgment of your built-in biases is pretty awesome. Hat-tip to you for owning your actions and attitudes w/r/t all this.

    I wonder why nobody that I’ve been following on the #amazonfail situation has linked this recent snafu to the WalMart/Black History Month problem from a few years ago:

    And have people been talking about #amazonfail in light of the abortion/adoption search results kerfuffle from back in the day?

    Both the #walmartfail and the #amazonabortionadoptionfail reinforce for me the truth in what you say above: “Metadata is worldview; sorting is a political act.”

  29. Sarah Currier Says:

    I won’t be apologising to Amazon. If my community hadn’t caught them, they’d still be letting it slide. It doesn’t matter how it happened, it caused people real problems, it caused offence, and it added to the sum total of homophobic bullshit I have to live with every day. Jeff Bezos should step up and apologise, and also sort out the little problem with all the Christian “cure-my-gayness” stuff that is rising to the top of the American Amazon site under a search for “homosexuality” this very day.

    And, in fact, the kind of systemic problem you describe is exactly how institutional homophobia/racism/misogyny/whatever is perpetuated. You say it yourself: “Metadata is worldview; sorting is a political act.” Therefore, yes, they ARE responsible. “We didn’t mean it” is no defence. All day, every day, people let things slide that they shouldn’t. I’m no exception. It’s incumbent on all of us to stop, listen, learn, challenge ourselves and our organisations, and apologise (and CHANGE) where we’ve contributed to someone else’s pain, humiliation or disadvantage. The blind spots people (and companies) have to their privilege and power need to be called out.

    And few have more power and privilege than these mega-corporations. People are right not to trust them, and right not to cut them slack. Nobody’s getting hanged here. A vast corporation is getting called out on something important. Spare me the violins. And yay for Web2.0.

  30. My reply to Clay Shirky on #amazonfail « Liminal states Says:

    [...] reply to Clay Shirky on #amazonfail I left this as a comment on Clay’s post The failure of #amazonfail … it’s currently awaiting [...]

  31. Ann Says:

    I believe that for many of us, it was the fact that two authors had received responses from Amazon about their works which made this appear to be a deliberate action. The letter which was sent to Craig Seymour in February was for me more telling than the one Mark Probst received, as it took several weeks and several people before he received the answer, which suggests that some thought went into the process. Amazon’s lack of comment on how this glitch fit in with the letters has made it difficult to accept the explanation of the glitch.

    I’m a programmer, and I can envision how easily this particular problem could occur, but because of the letters, I question the veracity of Amazon’s statement. It would not be the first time that a company has done something and then hidden behind the ‘technical failure’ excuse–I’ve witnessed people doing that very thing despite their earlier explicit instructions to the IT department (and our warnings ‘are you sure that’s a good idea?’). I would like Amazon to explain how the letters fit into the picture, and then I will assess whether I believe the explanation or whether it sounds like an excuse.

    Perhaps in your eyes this makes me a stupid person, because I am still waiting to be convinced that my earlier impression was wrong. But I’ve defined the information which is necessary for me to reconsider Amazon, and I like to think that when that information arrives I’ll be able to assess it carefully and, if the situation warrants it, admit my earlier impression was mistaken.

  32. jon Says:

    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.

    Nonsense. These kinds of stupidities are normalized in society and I rarely see them discussed. How often are their posts like Mary’s on TechCrunch?

    Intention is what we were reacting to

    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. Many are reacting to the shocking fact that Amazon doesn’t appear to have any defenses against intentional manipulation (whether or not that happened in this case). Many are reacting to the impact of market dominance in ways that hadn’t quite struck home before. And so on.

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

    I’m proud to have been a small part of #amazonfail, and grateful to those who put far more time and energy in than I did. I’m disappointed that somebody like you who’s championed social networks’ ability to lower the bar for organizing doesn’t see it that way.


  33. RB Says:

    I love your spelling of “tsouris.” What, do you think it’s Greek?

  34. Cathy Davidson Says:

    Hi, Clay, this is really a wonderful piece. I’m going to bring it to my “This is Your Brain on the Internet” class where we’re talking about the power of generalizations to mislead. I love the way you break down the issues.

    However, fell prey to their own mistakes when THEY (not others, but they themselves) sent out notices of a “policy change” before they realized it was a glitch. Now, who “they” is/are at is another major issue. I don’t think we need to apologize to Amazon. We just need to be more cautious the next time. The ire is probably a very good thing to have experienced, expressed, and to have penetrated to whomever the “they” was who sent out that first form “policy” letter. “Think before you act” applies to as much as it does to all the Twitter radicals.

    By the way, I believe entirely in the “conservation of outrage.” I have plenty of other places to expend my outrage these days. Thanks so much for writing this, Clay. Off to class now!

  35. Steven Black Says:


    On the upside: the problem got fixed a lot faster than it otherwise would-have. It’s not hard to imagine the whole process taking several more days, or even weeks, before being fixed.

    As a non-American, on the outside looking-in, the xenophobic patterns of political and social polarity from some quarters of American society are unmistakable, even dare-I-say prominent on some popular mainstream media.

    Therefore the assumption of malfeasance is both understandable and never entirely out-of-the-question, even now.

    The ‘glitch’ excuse seems too facile to be completely accepted without suspicion given many other prevailing patterns. Can you think of a softer option for Amazon to proffer? It may be true, but cannot come without doubt.

  36. Rebecca Ore Says:

    All the problems my GBLT book had have been reversed except for its rank among my other books (should be fourth or fifth place).

    My guess is that Amazon wants to sell Bibles and butt plugs without getting involved in the culture wars and would like to have the more explicit books, straight or gay, be less visible, though not so invisible as to have people looking for them by title not find them.

    If they fix the rankings listing for my books that they sell, even this observation is based on a glitch. For over a month, they weren’t listing my small press slashy book (with a blurb from Samuel R. Delany) among my Tor and Harper Collins books even though the publisher’s information said I’d written those other books.

    Amazon appears to have wanted to catch explicit erotic fiction — that GBTL was caught was the glitch. My publisher said the only metadata she’d given Amazon was SF and GBTL.

  37. cate swannell Says:

    beautifully put, clay … for me the homophobia lay in their response to the outcry … the PR-ese and the dismissal – this has, after all, been going on since february. it took a large and outraged voice to get things done. otherwise the mistake may never have been brought to their, or our, attention. it is disappointing that it was the threat to their public image and not the mistake itself that forced their hand. but no, i don’t think they were intentionally homophobic. just incompetent. great post.

  38. Mary Hodder Says:

    Hi Clay,
    Great addition to the discussion on #AmazonFail.

    I agree that Amazon’s problems aren’t hanging offenses and I certainly don’t hate them for screwing up. I didn’t suggest that in my post on Techcrunch. But I do think that because of the problems classification + algorithms have, and the implicit, buried points of view they carry around can be quite harmful (two months delisted and unfindable in search can cause economic harm to authors and publishers.. as at least one author experienced), that companies like Amazon should consider opening pieces of their systems publicly.

    Call if Open Algorithm (not exposing the whole thing.. just some parts that matter around how the classification system is applied) and Open Classification (about how the classification list is structured at sensitive points).

    I think we should ask for (or direct our energy toward) participation into systems that are particularly powerful economically and/or intellectually.


  39. simon hb Says:

    Strong points, but the point of Amazon’s weakness was in the responses that they were sending out to authors who wanted to know why their books had disappeared, telling them that it was a policy – and you’d have to suspect that without the twitstorm/shitstorm over the last weekend, that would still be the official line.

    Amazon had had the problem flagged to them, and rather than investigating it properly, had patted the complaints on the head and told them that was the way the world was – there seems to have at least been some sort of assumption that, well, you’ve written a book about the gays so it must be an adult title.

    Let’s take Amazon’s corporate word that this was a hamfisted mistake – and one that, when investigated, was both easy to spot and to fix. So why did it take people coming out on Twitter before Amazon acted? Or even investigated?

    I don’t think Amazon are homophobic – and, indeed, that the books were available in the first place would suggest they’re not. But their actions treated a large number of authors unfairly, and you have to wonder if it had been mainly cookery writers, or crime thriller writers, if the complainants would have been sent a form letter and told ‘it’s the way it is, tough on you.’

    There’s a spectrum of prejudice, and this wasn’t the heinous end. But Amazon failed. I don’t think anyone needs to apologise for pointing that out to them vocally. But equally, Amazon have fixed themselves, and it would be equally churlish not to thank them for doing so.

  40. David Lauri Says:

    I don’t think we need to get too mea culpa-ish here.

    Sure, the de-ranking gay and lesbian books was probably a mistake and not an intentional slight towards the LGBT community.

    However, Amazon has done an absolutely shitty job of communicating. No acknowledgment or explanation of the problem on And the words “sorry” and “apology” don’t appear in the statement (if one can call it a statement, given that it’s not on about the “ham-fisted cataloging error.”

    And they haven’t addressed the issues of why books deemed to be “adult” are being de-ranked in the first place, why their customers aren’t allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to see adult books in sales rankings or searches, or why certain LGBT books were classified as adult as far back as February (not due to a glitch but due to human intervention).

    Is it too much to ask that Amazon communicates better and treats customers as adults instead of children needing a net nanny?

  41. Midweek Miscellany, April 15th, 2009 | The Casual Optimist Says:

    [...] (UPDATE: Clay Shirky has written perhaps the most thoughtful post on #amazonfail I’ve read to date: The Failure of #amazonfail) [...]

  42. Coturnix Says:

    Have you read an ethicist’s analysis?

  43. Jeff Eaton Says:

    Clay, thanks for this insightful and honest post. The only thing that kept me from diving into the fray over the weekend was some recent experience mucking with Amazon metadata myself. Were it not for some fresh nerd-memories of the messy metadata issue, I would have been waving a pitchfork myself.

    This question of how we respond to changing information, and how we respond to rapidly spreading outrage in highly connected networks, is a difficult one that’s important to grapple with. Kudos.

  44. Jon Says:

    When this whole thing was bubbling up it seemed obvious to me that it was a technical glitch. Now, I spend a lot of my day worrying about classifying content in ways that often seem capricious and arbitrary, but are often the best options that are available to us. Anyone who’s spent time fooling around on the back end of a large database has probably experienced how one small change in architecture can cause a massive shift in the way things are organized on the front end. If anything, I guess I’m more surprised that something like this hasn’t happened on Amazon sooner. Perhaps it has and there just wasn’t the emotional spark you describe to set passions off.

    At the end of the day, Amazon embraces the long-tail, so it seemed to me at the time like a profoundly poor business decision to create this situation, if it was in fact a decision. This of course led me back to my first assumption. I only wish others who have reacted so forcefully would turn that energy, as you have, on introspection, or onto more viable targets for our scorn.

  45. Nelson Minar Says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful essay, Clay. I think you’ve highlighted a really interesting problem, that the disproportionate misplaced anger at Amazon will far outlive the event itself. Amazon still hasn’t made the ritual of seeking absolution for its sins; a well made public gesture would probably defuse some of the upset.

    It was astonishing to me how quickly Twitter could be used as a rabble-rousing medium. There’s something terrible about a 140 character post being used for political discourse, there’s really no room for rational discourse. The Amazon debacle is relatively small and inconsequential, but what happens in something like the Yeltsin standoff in Russia in 1993 or the Orange Revolution? Twitter will be there to spread the message, and it will be effective, but will it be for the good?

  46. Beerzie Says:

    Taking responsibility for your errors is as important as getting it right. Well done, sir.

  47. Landon Bryce Says:

    If Amazon had issued an apology, this would make sense.

    They have not done so. They, deliberately or not, harmed the GLBT community and others, and have not acted as though they cared about the real people they hurt.

    No one should back off from Amazon until they issue an apology that indicates they take seriously what they did.

    No one should be writing apologist garbage like this, either.

  48. Alanna Says:

    Amazonfail reminds me of #motrinmoms. There is a lot of emotional satisfaction in speaking out – loudly – on a topic you care about. Both topics certainly pushed my buttons hard, and I clearly not alone.

    One minor quibble – I think you mean the site, not has no link to Obama.

  49. Jane Says:

    I think we are losing the forest for the trees. The tree in this case is that Amazon accidentally filtered out gay and lesbian content. This is simply not true. Gay, lesbian, transgender, sex, erotic, erotica content was filtered out. The forest is that Amazon uses filters in the past, is currently using filters, and will in the future for adult content.

    Everyone who buys from Amazon, according to the terms of service, must be 18. Amazon should not be using filters to a) filter content according to some self imposed adult label without being transparent and b) should not be unevenly applying the adult label.

    Too often sex and violence are treated unevenly and that is certainly the case here.

    Let’s go beyond the idea that this was a technological failure. The fact is that Amazon has some policy of filtering content that is not simply based on trying to present the best upsell suggestions. Paternalism by a company can be as offensive as homophobia. We, as consumers, shouldn’t promote paternalism in a company attempting to achieve (and possibly well on its way to achieving) market monopoly. Why is it acceptable, in any way, for a company to decide that adults need to be protected from certain literature?

  50. Ed Webb Says:

    One interesting question to me is why we still want to blame Amazon (and I still do, and I find you very persuasive and yet still remain concerned about the various reps talking to authors and publishers about ‘protecting’ customers from adult content etc, and I’m still very unsettled about the whole thing). Yes, we don’t want to have been wrong. But I think also we remain suspicious because Amazon has done things to erode our trust, or else not to build it sufficiently high in the first place. Famously crappy customer service is part of it. Sheer size/monopoly power is part of it. The inevitable comparisons to Walmart, and similar union-busting etc are part of it.

    I wonder if it is possible, even with a more agile PR performance than we saw over the past couple of days, for any megacorporation to sustain trust. And trust is the key currency of the networked world. Your thoughts?

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