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. Tom Coates Says:

    I don’t know that I agree with this to be honest. The taking away of one’s voice, the ability of gay people to be visible *at all* — these things are pretty heady and scary things generally.

    That it was an error on Amazon’s part does not, I think, make it any less terrifying or any less irresponsible. When you’re dealing with something as important as this, and you reveal in the process that (a) you have an incredible power to make a minority group vanish and that (b) the old reasons for being able to make that group vanish is to do with the conflating of a minority with deviancy or adult material…. Well…

    Let me rephrase – this move will have scared the shit out of a lot of people, myself included, any gay author, any gay *person* who is concerned about being airbrushed out of the world. And it was done because our being has been conflated with something dirty. It’s an insult and an attack on our epistemological existence. And that it was done *accidentally*!? How much *more* nerve-wracking is that?! How much *more* troubling is that?!

    I know it’s easy to do this, but honestly, if any book that had African Americans in it, or was by a black author, or talked about race in any way suddenly disappeared from any rankings and most of the pages on Amazon, because someone or some system had clumsily decided that race issues were adults only, or unduly controversial – it would quite rightly be a national issue.

    Amazon got a kicking here because they fucked up. Enormously. Terrifyingly. Dangerously. In a way that revealed how much damage they could do, how vulnerable some of our freedoms could be to pressure and abuse from outside.

    To explore your car metaphor, if you hit me with your car and killed me and *it was as a result of negligence* then you bloody well shouldn’t get off with some grief counselling.

  2. mia Says:

    @Victor Panlilio
    Did you read the post Mary Hodder graciously linked to by the author? She may have worked “80+hour weeks on a very large software project” judging on her bio there. I’ll clip here the key passages:

    Note that Amazon came out late Monday with the explanation that this was all “a glitch” in a statement to Publisher’s Weekly, however that contradicts earlier email from them to authors stating that they were in the “adult” category simply for including positive gay and lesbian themes in their works and that’s why they lost their “Sales Rank” statistic that would keep them in search results. It was a very targeted glitch for sure. Targeted to, among other things, “positive references to sexual orientation == gay” placing them into the “adult” category, which allowed the other minor “glitch” by the programmer to be possible.

    The issue with #AmazonFail isn’t that a French Employee pressed the wrong button or could affect the system by changing “false” to “true” in filtering certain “adult” classified items, it’s that Amazon’s system has assumptions such as: sexual orientation is part of “adult”. And “gay” is part of “adult.” In other words, #AmazonFail is about the subconscious assumptions of people built into algorithms and classification that contain discriminatory ideas. When other employees use the system, whether they themselves agree with the underlying assumptions of the algorithms and classification system, or even realize the system has these point’s of view built in, they can put those assumptions into force, as the Amazon France Employee apparently did according to Amazon.

    And @turph: “Would this have been a ‘major conspiracy’ if one person inadvertently did a data error and removed 57K books on gardening? Please…”
    Let’s say somebody did ticked the wrong box and lots of books got removed. At first it’s in the hundreds, but it peaks around 1000. People (authors, in particular) notice that most of the books have to do with gardening–but wait, the organic gardening books are still there! WTF? Let’s say, after a more moderate twitterstorm (when’s the last time a gardener got killed for gardening and the killer was acquitted on the argument that he or she panicked upon discovering that the gardener was, in fact, gardening?) Amazon releases a statement through some PR flunky that says, actually, this has been misreported and it wasn’t just gardening books that were affected, but auto repair, and farming, and agriculture, and there were 57,310 of them but we won’t tell you which ones. And no mention of the organic issue, and no “sorry” or “apologize.”

    It’s only under a deeply heterosexist regime (data ontology? I’m not sure about the terminology) that something like “Heather has Two Mommies” could be flagged “adult” while “A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality” isn’t.

  3. Matthew Weymar Says:

    Cf. Iraq’s WMD….

  4. Rick Says:

    It’s interesting to see how those who at first where so eager to believe in Amazon’s evil intentions, are now just as easily convinced it was all just a technical issue, even though there is no evidence of either.

    In fact, all Amazon has given us are lies, half-truths and misdirection, no plausible explanation, and no apology. What at first seemed like amateurish PR, now looks to be a deliberate strategy of stonewalling and misinformation.

    The longer this lasts, the more I tend to believe #amazonfail wasn’t a technical “glitch” after all, but a matter of policy that got out of hand (probably not due to technical failure, but a failure to understand how the technology would handle the given parameters), and Amazon is now trying to cover up.

  5. ibidibid Says:

    Clay Shirky makes some good points about group behavior but seems to gloss over the major point of #amazonfail:: The failure of a corporation to communicate honestly and quickly with its constituency. Somewhere in Amazon a decision was made to shirk responsibility and deny an explanation.. “Glitch” was the explanation. Glitch is fluff. Fluff is no substitute for a substantive explanation.

    The suggestion we were seduced by the headiness of “the movement” – David vs Goliath – trivializes what so many saw as a stunning betrayal. The fact that some are still suspicious is not so difficult to understand.

    I thought it was improbable that Amazon would suddenly show an anti-GLBT and feminist bias. However I also think it’s possible that a large business would act in its best interests- and quietly slip in new policies when the lights are out. I recall myriad press releases about controversial corporate events that hit the “wires” often over holidays and weekends.

    As much as I’m willing to give Amazon the benefit of the doubt, to earn back my full respect they will need to demonstrate a fearless commitment to a much higher standard of communication.

  6. Interesting Reading… - The Blogs at HowStuffWorks Says:

    […] The Failure of #amazonfail – “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.’” […]

  7. DaveR Says:

    @Victor Panlilio: Your brilliance at coding and haste in chastising those of us who don’t share your occupation (eg “don’t get it, man”) is all well and good.

    But as someone who has worked in companies who have projects like the one you mention, the easiest solution to the freak human accident is one word: Sorry.

    This hasn’t happened. But your failure to think about anyone else outside your box is noted.

    @Myra: Thank you.

  8. Brent Says:

    So after decades of being repressed by neighbors and government (to the point that sexual orientation often had to be kept hidden – and, in some places, still is a necessity), it’s not understandable that a group might react to a perceived threat at once again discriminating against them?

    IMHO, the reaction was quite appropriate (no one was calling for Bezos’ head or a bloodletting), Amazon was less than forthcoming in dealing with the situation, and no one got smeared with feces.

    Was some conclusion-jumping going on? Possibly. But if Twitter and other elements of the web can react that quickly, there’s no reason that Amazon could not have been more proactive in dealing with the situation.

    While not normally a paranoid person seeing threats from every dark corner of the room, there’s a shadow to this entire incident. That shadow may only be that everyone needs to be paying attention a little bit. Still, I find the event and Amazon’s slow reaction (and conflicting answers as to what happened) to have left a slight chill.

  9. James Says:

    kinda sounds like “everyone becomes what they hate” has reared again…

  10. Victor Panlilio Says:

    Much ado about a trifle. If you’ve ever worked 80+ hour weeks on a very large software project, and then accidentally seen an entire table dropped from a database IN PRODUCTION because of one missing punctuation mark in a SQL WHERE clause, you would know that overwork and fatigue can cause human error, which can ripple across large-scale software that impacts mission-critical systems. Tens of thousands of people freezing in the dark cold? Those of us who’ve worked on systems that run the world’s critical infrastructure are not allowed to talk in detail about the potential ramifications of certain errors. So I just have to chuckle when I look at the umbrage directed at Amazon, and the utter naivete of the chattering classes.

  11. Myra Says:


    If Amazon had decided to change their policy and been above-board about it, there might have been some backlash, but no surprise. And it would have appeared as a thought-out business decision requiring no apology.

    What irks me about the whole situation is that a) is was not a hacker – even the company admits this and b) they (Amazon’s PR department) have not come forward in any way trying to make amends.

    All Amazon would have had to do is put something out there saying: We know there’s a problem, we’re working on it. Sorry this happened. We’ll get it fixed asap. That’s it. Crisis averted.

    However, they are being very quiet. And the re-rankings have not been done as promised in the alleged statement from the company. What has been stated has been from unnamed sources and low level customer service drones.

    No, I don’t think this is a conspiracy. No tin foil hat here. But I think good PR and a sense of corporate responsibility dictate that the matter be handled with more class and guts than Amazon has shown. Because of this and other strong-arm tactics of this corporation, I gladly take my business elsewhere.

    In my opinion, that’s the best way to handle the whole affair. Speak with your wallet. If every person who was bothered by #amazonfail would shop elsewhere, it would be a non-issue, because Amazon would feel the pinch.

    BTW, I’m a straight married woman, for what it’s worth.

  12. tspangler Says:

    Could meta-data tampering be a 21st century tool for disenfranchisement? Checks and balances need to evolve to keep up.

  13. Darkrose Says:

    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.

    See, but the problem is that I’m still dead.

    I’ve explained more than once recently that if you voted for Prop 8, it doesn’t matter whether you love and accept your gay child or you’re Fred Phelps–the end result, from my POV is that you took a deliberate action to hurt me, and I will hold you accountable if my marriage is declared invalid.

    I don’t believe that Amazon was being intentionally homophobic. I fully believe that it was a system error. However, Amazon’s response to date has been noticably lacking in apologies or explanations for *why* they’ve suddenly decided to treat some content differently by flagging it as “adult”.

  14. Peter Imbres » Blog Archive » Fresh From Twitter Says:

    […] take on the #amazonfail phenomenon Twitter fresh from, […]

  15. Gail Says:

    You wrote “… we don’t trust them, and we don’t trust them because we feel like they did something bad …”

    It’s possible that has been setting themselves up for something like this and that “we don’t trust them” for more reasons than are apparent in the incident you have described so well. Is it possible that “we don’t trust them” because if anything goes wrong in dealing with –which it rarely does, but WHEN it does –we can’t ‘talk’ to them in any manner that does not add much additional stress.

    I stopped reading your post at this point … so maybe you covered this possibility.

  16. Cericonversion Says:

    Mr. Shirky, I think you’re making an argument from a position of more privilege than you may realize.

    For instance: If you want to read about medical issues that may affect you, you can go search Amazon and find books about men’s health, health in general, issues associated with aging, etc., without any trouble. There are a few notorious (generally unread and misunderstood) misandrists who hate males in general, but you will find very, very few books about curing your masculinity, or why your masculinity is fundamentally defective, or how your masculinity is destroying America and this is filed as a health issue. There are books that describe problems arising from bad male socialization, excesses of certain patterns of behavior common in men, etc., but very few that treat your very existence as a personal failure and looming social horror.

    If I as a transgendered woman search for comparable advice, I find three things. #1. There’s a lot less of it in the first place. That’s no surprise, there are less of us. But #2. I find advice aimed at my well-being thoroughly mixed with attacks on my existence, allegedly scientific denials that there’s anything to me but psychosis and folly, etc. #3. Even with a vendor who isn’t committed to bigotry at all, all information about my existence and well-being can be deemed “adult” and whisked off at a moment’s notice. Ditto for lesbian and bisexual women of all kinds, gay and bisexual men, people of all orientations interested in some minority religions (pagan books were affected by this too), and a heaping handful of other groups.

    By analogy, think about toxic waste. Very few waste dumpers actually intend to harm anyone. What matters is that they don’t care enough about others to dispose of their waste safely but more expensively. I don’t think anyone with serious power at Amazon thinks the world would be better off if we forcibly “cured” all us GLBT people. But I do know that they didn’t care enough to think anything like, “Hey, maybe this whole ‘adult’ label is a load of dingo’s kidneys in the first place.” Nobody seems to have asked whether there were measures in place to prevent whole classes of customer (and citizen, and person) from being marked as abnormal and subject to special handling. The system was in place to treat us as un-persons even though nobody likely actually wanted to do that.

    This is discriminatory in action, and it doesn’t really matter to the victim whether someone intended to say, “Ceri, you’re a freak, and we don’t want anyone to read about anyone so unwholesome as you.” You don’t have to worry about that very much, because men are treated as normal and appropriate, and nobody ever goes on crusades to stamp out maleness. A responsible system has to be designed to keep these things from happening in the first place. In criminal law there’s a real, important, and true difference between depraved indifference and first degree murder. But there’s still a body, no matter how little the killer intended to do it. Nor does it matter to the people who once again find themselves being disappeared, even temporarily, how much the vendor meant it or not.

  17. Business & Finance Blogs » Blog Archive » Amazon and the hero’s journey Says:

    […] explanation for how it miscategorized thousands of gay- and lesbian-themed books may explain why opinions about the company are still raw. Silence feeds suspicion. The pervasive disappointment and anger at a company that people generally […]

  18. Mark Says:

    Bravo, I couldn’t agree more with your article.

  19. Reg Says:

    Outspoken gays and lesbians seem so much crankier and over-reactive than other nice people. They should learn to settle down and act like well-behaved, civilized individuals (if they want to be treated that way).

  20. Uva_Be Says:

    All “ranking” of books is messed with. The actual best sellers by the ISB numbers include books of crossword puzzles, business or college text books and how to books. I find the categories for sorting books sold into lists useful for demographics of readers to always be a bit weighted. I wish they wouldn’t so do, so much of the time because the actual raw data interesting.

    IF there is censoring being done ? In an industry that is already being hurt by it’s lack of transparency _ I sincerely hope Amazon makes public actual sales data, and clears up this glitch.

    Because one of the things that made Amazon a great place to shop was being about to find books by small publishing houses and niche markets. Like some philosophy, poetry and comic books. ( P.s. yes Powells is a great alternative to Amazon )

  21. Music Central News » Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded Edition (Paperback) Says:

    […] The Failure of #amazonfail « Clay Shirky […]

  22. Karlo Says:

    OK. Let me get this ‘straight’. If I hack YOUR website, and it causes YOU lost sales, and lost respect from a segment of your audience, then YOU owe that audience an apology….

    There are SO MANY stores that don’t / Won’t carry many of the titles in question. Do they owe you an apology too?

    Clay is spot on.

  23. peter nolan smith Says:

    first they come for the clowns

  24. » Looking back on #amazonfail Says:

    […] you missed it, Clay Shirky summarizes it […]

  25. Nick Says:

    This is a great allegory of how some people feel about #globalwarming. There are many good reasons to reduce waste, curb emissions, ensure clean freshwater systems, and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. I just don’t think the threat of “man-made global warming” is the best reason, and I think the debate has become more of a distraction from “real” environmental issues.

  26. turph Says:

    Would this have been a “major conspiracy” if one person inadvertently did a data error and removed 57K books on gardening? Please…

  27. boris Says:

    I’m angry with Amazon because they were not honest about what actually happened and what they were doing. Titles were being wrongly de-listed in February. There is still no explanation for this. There is no benefit of the doubt left for them because they lied.

  28. Annalie Killian Says:

    It takes a great man of moral courage to self-reflect publicly like this and I applaud you. The shame is that those looking to reinforce their prejudice of any corporation that is successful as evil and deceitful wont get to read this- they will happily continue to sow misinformation. But thank you for once again showing leadership and standing up for truth because its bloody rare!

  29. Judith Says:

    As a member of a gay and lesbian book club and a reader and buyer of glbt books, I must say that the excitement this weekend warmed the cockles of my heart.

    I was positively thrilled to have so many people care about gay and lesbian books and authors and content. It felt hugely supportive of me and my friends; and I was moved that so many people felt so strongly about the issue.

    Another benefit to the kaffufle: I’ve captured the books that were listed as de-ranked, and the authors who were complaining about being excluded, and we’re going to look at them all as possible reads for our book club.

    I agree that Amazon may not have been the villain that was originally thought, but I love that people cared enough to react, and I expect I’m not alone in this. So don’t lose how supported I felt when you worry about over-reacting. Also, I agree with those who point out that Amazon reacted far too slowly and inappropriately to the issue. Why weren’t they Twittering back? Publishing an apology on their website?

  30. Twitter Meets Mass Hysteria [Amazonfail] « All Hell Hollywood Says:

    […] gay-books Twitter storm was much ado about nothing, Clay Shirky has an insightful essay, “The Failure of #amazonfail,” about why it’s hard to let the outrage […]

  31. David Brin Says:

    Clay, this is an excellent piece, proving that you are capable of stepping back and taking perspective of the “meta” of a situation in which you already have strong momentum.

    What you say has resonance with the growing evidence that self-righteous indignation actually triggers many of the same neural-reinforcement processes that underly addiction. This was already known about rage and gambling. But since indignation poisons inter-human discourse in almost every field — poisoning our natural, pragmatic, problem negotiating skills — this “addiction” may do vastly more damage than all others, put together.

    For more see:

    Of course, this is related to the general flaw in our Web-based development across two decades. Most of the attention goes to the portions that help people to “notice stuff.” Expanding the width of our attention field. Twitter does this spectacularly well… and spectacularly awful. Remember that pot-heads “notice stuff.” But they actually get very little done! What has been virtually ignored has been focus.

    With cordial regards,

    David Brin

  32. on television, on #amazonfail « “ts’i mahnu uterna ot twan ot geifur hingts uto.” Says:

    […] the first five books that come up in a search for ‘homosexuality’ are all anti-gay. Clay Shirky has a slightly divergent opinion. (Thanks […]

  33. Shaun Says:

    well no matter the cause or effect, it seems to have spawned a cultural movement beyond twitter. major media have referred to this as #amazonfail (popularizing the twitter term) and the site is even for sale!

  34. Spontaneous Spring Break Link Dump: Go! « Dennis Cass Wants You To Be More Awesome Says:

    […] I take requests, #amazonfail (now with updated link to Clay Shirkey’s […]

  35. #Amazonfail « Bridging Two Worlds Says:

    […] to Chris Brogan (@ChrisBrogan on Twitter) for this link to a blog post by Clay Shirky. It is a thoughtful, interesting and informative post on the challenges that Amazon faced this […]

  36. Amazonfail: The Next Morning :: Nerd World - Says:

    […] to say that I find the mass introspection on display—most eloquently by gifted insta-essayist Clay Shirky—in the wake of the whole amazonfail phenomenon to be almost as interesting as the phenomenon […]

  37. linkfeedr » Blog Archive » Twitter Meets Mass Hysteria [Amazonfail] - RSS Indexer (beta) Says:

    […] gay-books Twitter storm was much ado about nothing, Clay Shirky has an insightful essay, “The Failure of #amazonfail,” about why it’s hard to let the outrage […]

  38. Stringybark and Greenhide » but what is the question? Says:

    […] of outrage is the wrong answer.” (Clay Shirky, on making up reasons to give a kick) Comments are closed, but you can leave a […]

  39. Fabio Says:

    Doctor Memory, I know how corporations are, as I also know that a bit of competition is healthy. I’ve followed the #amazonfail trend on Twitter long enough to see dozens of “where do I go for books apart from Amazon” popping up.

    It’s kind of scary that people don’t know other great stores such as Powells, for one.

  40. Doctor Memory Says:

    Fabio: if this freaks you out, you are living in happy ignorance of how most major tech companies work, even the “good” ones. By all means spend your money wherever you think is appropriate, but if you think that any other major online retailer is somehow immune to similar-scale fuckups, you are in the long run going to be hugely and repeatedly disappointed.

  41. Sonya Says:

    Alas, I’m afraid I agree with you. I, too, perceived Amazon as a huge evil giant corporation intent on squashing the rights of readers everywhere, suddenly becoming as homophobic as the National Organization for Marriage (gawd, what a disgusting joke THAT is). But after the brouhaha has settled down, I’m forced to admit that I was wrong.

    Amazon isn’t at fault. And I’m rather upset with myself for falling into the herd mentality I usually despise so much. But, as you say, it was an awesome feeling, for just a little while, to feel like I was protesting something that could have made a difference, if the sin had actually been committed.

    My mistake. Sorry, Amazon…

  42. Heidi Says:

    From the get go this had an air of human gaffe written all over it. Somebody somewhere clicked the wrong box, a simple error in the code.
    The firestorm (oh how I loathe to use the word storm in relation to LGBT subjects) surrounding the SSM victories didn’t even occur to me until later when I discovered that “What’s Hot” listed a book written by a hugely controversial conservative Mark R. Levin, and my suspicion went up.
    But it still didn’t make any logical sense.
    I felt as if a bunch of chicken littles were running around Twitter, and that really it was just an easily explained error in the implementation of a new algorithm.
    So, I actually kept my skepticism this time, which was rare, but telling.

  43. Bart Says:

    I posted this comment on another blog*, but it applies here:

    The length of time that it took Amazon to reply was just bizarre considering the gravity of the situation. The reply that they did give (albeit through unofficial means rather than on their own website, not even on a news/press page) was also bizarre in its brevity.

    If something happened in Times Square where a part of a sign fell off the Reuters building and left a swastika in its place, and after many many hours of outrage (especially from the Jewish community) the only thing we hear from Reuters is “oops, a glitch happened” and, then a day later they send a longer message (again, not posted on their own website) that still doesn’t have an apology in it and the swastika is still not completely covered, the anger towards Reuters would be justified even if what happened was accidental.

    This whole thing is about communication and you can’t dismiss Amazon’s lack of communication while shunning the reaction on Twitter. I have given Amazon every benefit of the doubt, but I have not heard an apology or seen an acknoledgement of the problem on or seen a complete fix to the situation. Until all three of those happen (most importantly the first and second ones; I understand the third might take time) I have every right to still be angry.

    If they simply let us know that the problem is taking a while to figure out and that they’re *sorry*, as Kara pointed out, none of this would have reached such extremes. I woke up on Monday morning expecting an adequate response. Tuesday, the same thing, now it’s Wednesday, four days after I personally heard about this, still nothing and searching for “homosexuality” at still shows those awful books (while some people are saying the problem’s all fixed, and are calling on the failure of #amazonfail). I want to continue using my Kindle, I want to buy some new books for it, but right now all of this is still unsettling. What gives?


  44. The Failure of #amazonfail | Renegade Futurist Says:

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  45. Gleeful Says:

    Right. Wrong. Indifferent. All I know is this is creating a great opportunity to load up on shares of an amazing business. From an investor’s perspective this is a less than a minor blip from a long term perspective and offers an opportunity to scoop up AMZN shares at a discount. The ease at which Amazon has made obtaining books among other products and getting those to customers efficiently is incredible. They do this without shipping huge quantities of “maybe they’ll sell” books to bookstores with big carbon footprints.

    In the end, whether this was an accident or intentional (unlikely as that is bad for business) it is irrelevant. Amazon is going to be one of the largest companies in the world in the future whether you like it or not and will be a primary means for obtaining reading material (see Kindle).

  46. Clay Shirky on The Failure of #amazonfail « Feral Librarian Says:

    […] on The Failure of #amazonfail 2009 April 15 by Chris A repentent Clay Shirky writes about The Failure of #amazonfail: After an enormous number of books relating to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered (LGBT) […]

  47. Fabio Says:

    I agree with Nobilis. The fact that rankings in Amazon have a backdoor that allows books to disappear almost unnoticed, albeit by error, kinda freaks me out. It scares me that Amazon stands undisputed as the source for books online, that some editor can make a single mistake and make books disappear from listings and not sell as many copies as they should have.

    I’m taking my business somewhere else because I want another player in this market just as strong, so that Amazon can have some competition in the near future.

  48. Jon Reed Says:

    Are we really sure Amazon did nothing wrong here? I agree that this wasn’t a huge conspiracy. But whether human prejudice or technological error, the effect and the outcome was the same – and there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

    But the real failure, in my view, is one of PR, and the way this crisis was handled (or not) by Amazon. My analysis is that amazonfail = PRfail.

  49. Kara Says:

    Vicki summed it up for me nicely with this:

    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?

    And on top of that I’ll add the following:
    As of today Amazon STILL has not made any definitive statement explaining what happened, or saying that they don’t know what happened but they’re continuing to investigate so they can fix it. Nor have they apologized in any way, shape, or form for what happened. And I’ll be honest, to me, that last is the most important.

    What would get me to start buying from Amazon again? What would get me to relist their stores and affiliate links on my websites? A simple statement maybe like this:

    “We are still investigating what happened, but we will take full responsibility and do our best to insure it doesn’t happen again. We apologize to all the authors who were affected by this situation and to the community at large for allowing this error to go unchecked for months.”

    Simple. Classy. And admitting that intentionally or not, they screwed up.

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