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 Change.gov site. (Though I am in favor of the legalization of marijuana, I also recognize that the Change.gov 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. Fenton Johnson Says:

    Uh, no. I believe in the Christian rhetoric of forgiveness, etc etc., but Mr. Shirky is being too forgiving. I emailed Amazon directly to find out what was going on; I include their response below.

    Amazon has a large staff of people trained in customer relations (their motto, after all, contained at the end of their email response to my query, is: “We’re building the world’s most customer-centric organization”), and yet their response to my query was as ham-handed as the original problem. What do they mean by “fixed”? (My first thought was: “neutered.”) Note that their “customer-friendly” organization doesn’t allow me to follow up to their response.

    In an earlier encounter with Amazon, they refused to distinguish my books from those of the African-American writer Fenton Johnson (died 1958) because changing how their software categorizes writers and titles would be too difficult. Obviously many authors are in this situation – pity the poor author named John Smith! But no, they aren’t bending, even when their software design is clearly inadequate.

    Fenton Johnson, still very much alive

    Amazon’s response to my query:

    Hello,

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

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

    Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.

    Thanks for contacting us. We hope to see you again soon.

    Please let us know if this e-mail resolved your question:

    If yes, click here:
    http://www.amazon.com/rsvp-y?c=ahhwutdf3473878263
    If not, click here:
    http://www.amazon.com/rsvp-n?c=ahhwutdf3473878263

    Please note: this e-mail was sent from an address that cannot accept incoming e-mail.

    To contact us about an unrelated issue, please visit the Help section of our web site.

    Best regards,

    karthi
    Amazon.com
    We’re Building Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company http://www.amazon.com/your-account

  2. Victor Panlilio Says:

    @Cericonversion: “We are, no matter how amusing you may find us, not silly fools for being angry about this.”

    I shall let the wisdom of the crowd decide whether you are being silly or not.

  3. Nick Says:

    Clay, great post. We’d all do well to remember your points about “Moral Judgement”. It takes courage to write a post like this, well done.

    As Simon mentioned above, I try to remember “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence”, whether that’s human or machine incompetence; followed by the English tradition of a “nice sit down and a cup of tea”, where I think things over and then respond, giving the “head” time to consider the “hearts” opinions. Or maybe that’s just an excuse for a cuppa!

  4. RB Says:

    I work for an online publisher and set out to cover this topic with the headline, “Is the Amazon Fiasco a #Twitterfail?” but ended up suggesting that even though the information was not ultimately correct, the campaign was effective. Due the “glitch,” “honest mistake” etc, gay authors were losing sales on their books. After #amazonfail, Amazon immediately fixed the problem, which has actually been an issue since February–but no one knew about it.

    Would Amazon have fixed the problem without all that attention? I don’t know. That’s why I wrote: Amazonfail is a Twitter Success instead:

    http://bit.ly/am5b

  5. #AmazonFail and History « Goose Commerce Says:

    […] quotes, intentionally out of context*, from Clay Shirky: Metadata is worldview; sorting is a political […]

  6. Goose Commerce Says:

    […] quotes, intentionally out of context*, from Clay Shirky: Metadata is worldview; sorting is a political […]

  7. Joyce Melton Says:

    Sorry, but you’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Amazon failed and tens of thousands of books were delisted in a pattern that suggested that it was a deliberate act.

    This isn’t court and the level of proofs required are not the same. Amazon had ample opportunity to apologize, to explain and to correct the problem. They let it fester for days with no apology, contrary inadequate explanations offered and a haphazard, half-hearted effort at correction.

    The evidence is still there that Amazon, or someone at Amazon, did this to the GLBT community because many of those books are still delisted. If the original action was not deliberate, the coverup and reshuffling of explanations is equally incompetent; if the first was policy then the second probably is, too.

    Amazon can apologize for themselves, they don’t need you to do it.

  8. It’s Still On: The real failure of Amazonfail, Dubai, and Internet Outrage — Bookkake Says:

    […] There’s a lot of back-tracking going on right now, with some interesting thoughts on the issue, mostly from webby, social media types. Among others, Meg Pickard, Head of Communities at Guardian Media Group, is concerned about this kind of internet-enabled hue and cry, and whether it’s doing more harm than good. Clay Shirky, new media commentator de nos jours, has a thoughtful – and apologetic – piece on why moral ourage may have been redirected, and why it’s so hard to turn around. […]

  9. Twitter Outrage « Tape Noise Diary Says:

    […] leave a comment » The Failure of #Amazonfail […]

  10. DB Says:

    I have to say that I think #amazonfail worked brilliantly.
    People were angered by a situation, they grouped together, shared information and let the object of their displeasure know they were displeased in many ways.

    In my twitter circle it was about the technical blunders and stupidity and poor customer relations. There is also information that this was indeed policy posted by authors and publishers. It was about search on Amazon and how you could no longer trust it.

    I don’t see a mob, like you do, I see motivated concerned people who dislike a policy change (perceived or real) and want to make the changer aware of that fact.

  11. Amazon Fail and Over-Reaction « Will’s Blog Says:

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

  12. The Invisible library » Blog Archive » There’s A Little Amazonfail In All Of Us Says:

    […] Shirky has written a thoughtful essay on the fallout of #amazonfail and our collective culpability in […]

  13. ibidibid/JuneW Says:

    Clay makes some good points about group behavior but glosses over the major point of #amazonfail: The failure of a corporation to communicate honestly and quickly with its constituency. Amazon shirked its responsibility by declining to provide an actual, substantive response to a perceived critical issue, “Glitch” was offered as :the: explanation. Glitch is fluff. Fluff is not an acceptable response.

    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-GLBTQ and feminist bias. However, I also think it’s possible that any large business would act in its own best interests- and quietly slip in new policies when the lights are out. I recall myriad press releases about controversial corporate events that often hit the “wires”- and tried to dive under the radar – over major 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 have to demonstrate a fearless commitment to a much higher standard of communication.

  14. Slyfoot Says:

    Thanks for such an eloquent and levelheaded perspective on this whole mess. As someone who has worked with large databases in the past, I tried to make some of these same points on Twitter and on Youtube (tinyurl[dot]com/c6ca7m)

    You did a much more eloquent job.

  15. The Amazon Fail Says:

    […] Clay Shirky thinks we all went too far in claiming foul play, and should apologize to Amazon. Mary Hodder disagrees, and Richard Nash thinks the marginal always get the raw deal, and so no matter what, Amazon shouldn’t be off the hook. […]

  16. DougF Says:

    Amazon is not off the hook yet.

    Through Amazon’s initial screw-up and then lack of communication, the company lost my trust. And if I don’t trust a company, I can’t do business with them. They lost my trust because they don’t seem to have a policy in place to control how these “adult” tags are applied. They lost my trust by their slowness to respond. They lost my trust by how the targeted books were in some way related to sexuality. And finally, they lost my trust and my business by the lack of an apology. Yes, they issued a statement about what happened, but it wasn’t an apology, it was pure corporate-speak CYA.

    If you’re a member of community that has a history of being discriminated against, a community that has had it’s places of congregation shut down, that has had it’s books and magazine pulled off of bookstore bookshelves and magazine racks because the very mention of homosexuality is considered “obscene”, you would be very sensitive when something that echoes of that happens again. Amazon has not recognized why what happened felt so hurtful to so many. And that hurt was felt deeply, because many authors and readers felt they could trust Amazon. And you always feel the pain more deeply when it comes from someone you trust, even if it wasn’t intentional. And it is hard to forgive if the offending party doesn’t recognize the hurt it has caused, and that, Amazon hasn’t yet recognized.

  17. Alea | #Links Says:

    […] The Failure of #amazonfail […]

  18. Joe Clark Says:

    It would be nice if you people would stop talking in acronyms. Nobody reads “GLBT” or “LGBT” books, and no person has ever described himself or herself using those terms.

    #acronymfail, people.

  19. Mark Says:

    I believe there are two big offenses at play.

    FAULT: AMAZON… Amazon was amazingly blazé about the whole event, failing to quickly and decisively accept responsibility for any mistake and then issuing an empty apology for what happened. I don’t think you can rate anything they did as being remotely resembling concern or even damage control, but more of “it was a computer error so leave us alone”.

    FAULT: PUBLIC… We have put far too much power into the hands of and reliance on Amazon as the primary curator of ratings and reviews of merchandise in the digital world. True; Amazon has a responsibility to be extraordinarily careful with that trust, but we created a monster and allowed that monster to keep the keys, gate and castle.

  20. #amazonfail | Redefine…. Says:

    […] Excellent article from Clay Shirky on the hoohah surrounding the #amazonfail categorisation blunder over the past few days, not so much on the actual problems but focusing on how people initially reacted (with anger) and then what happened once the facts came out. Particularly notable is the following paragraph 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. Technorati Tags: #amazonfail […]

  21. bonio Says:

    So you recognize that amazon were dumb to delist all those books. And you recognize they were dumb to use a system so vulnerable to dumb accidents. And you recognize they were dumb to ignore consumer-control technologies like safe search. And you also recognize they were dumb to put out such a small amount of dumb PR in response.

    And you want to apologise to them?

    Wow. Self-hate much?

  22. Wayne Hartman Says:

    I recently discovered your blog and have to compliment you not only for your insightful remarks, but also taking responsibility for your actions when you are wrong. Many a blogger or journalist would have just shrugged off the notion that they were wrong–this is self-accountability in action.

  23. Richard Weiser Says:

    I admire the bravery of such a public culpe mea. You’re the real deal Shirky.

  24. J.D. Rhoades Says:

    Excellent post, Professor. I’ve been seeing a growing discontent with Amazon among writers and others in publishing: they’re too powerful, it’s too easy to game the review system, they’re destroying independent bookstores, etc. A lot of it stays under the radar (see “too powerful”, above) but it’s definitely there. I wonder how much of the #amazonfail reaction came out of that discontent.

    As for Twitter: I find it most useful when people are sharing links to other interesting or useful material they’ve found. When you’re trying to compress a discussion into bites of 140 characters each, though, you run the risk of the discussion devolving into the type of one-liner, bumper-sticker discourse that’s been very damaging to the country in the past few years: “Al Gore says he invented the Internet!” “Bush lied, people died!” Reality defies compression into bite-sized pieces, and you’re walking a dangerous path when you start seeing the world through the lens of Twitter.

  25. Sam Says:

    This is an excellent piece and one I’d like to see more of from the crowd that pushed the #amazonfail witch-hunt so enthusiastically over the weekend. This is why journalists are always called upon to corroborate, corroborate, corroborate, because what might seem an obvious connection at first blush may not hold up to more intense scrutiny.

    What’s worse now are those who still cling to the outraged mindset even now, after the internet dust has settled and we see it was just a mistake after all. Maybe a stupid mistake, but still just a mistake. As the saying goes: “Cock up before conspiracy.”

    Now I’m off to tweet this link.

  26. #AmazonFail - a classic Information Quality impact | IQTrainwrecks.com Says:

    […] BlogSphere, this issue was tagged as #AmazonFail. (some blog posts on this can be found here and here and… oh heck, here’s a link to a google search with over 400,000 results). There are […]

  27. #amazonfail and How to Respond to the Corporate Oops « That Can’t Be Right Says:

    […] concern for me is not that mistakes happened. And its not the mob internet […]

  28. fred wilson Says:

    clay

    great post, an apology and an analysis all in one.

    i reblogged two fantastic quotes from this on fredwilson.vc

    this post is everything that blogging should be, personal and opinionated, thoughtful and insightful

    well done

  29. Armand Says:

    There was a very good piece recently about What-Aboutism: timely, it seems. Has Amazon a history of of bashing political rights? Have they issued a first statement aknowledging the issue? Have they issued a statement saying the problem was resolved? No. Yes. No. I realise it’s hard to step down of your high horses, but quit wining while men at at work. Because if you keep on crying about gay-bashing anytime a gay person is actually harmed, let’s wine about all the gay people who died during 9-11, and all the ay people who are killed on the roads. No, they were not targetted; neither you know if this was the case for Amazon.

    A friend of of mine recently pointed at a *very* corny website (I’m talking animated gif gallore, pre-MySpace CSS nightmare, late 90’s hardcore blow-your-screen-fanticism) that happened to be about Esperanto, European constuction and hermaphrodites. A gay member of the group replied with the usual “LGBT people being harrased!” rant. First of all: that wasn’t the point. You can say that a gay person is stupid if he actually is, and that’s not insulting the entire gay rights movements: that’s simply considering them as normal people with a reasonnable ratio of assholes and not isolating a community with a veil of infailibility. You can say that gay books generally talk about love and sex, and that’s not a mind blowing statement either: they wouldn’t have much to make them explicitely gay otherwise.

    Second, let’s apply your narrow criteria, and talk about censorship, bashing and how you all haters from the LGBT lobby are constantly and explicitely silencing Hermaphrodites. Let’s do a Google search on LGBT against LGBTH. You are all such horrible, narrow minded in your view of sexuality. What is wrong with being born with a sexual ambiguity, and keeping it that way? Is someone less complete without a sex change? So many people have beaten hermaphrodites, and called them phreaks, and now, I’ll happily roll you into the same group as the bullies, because it’s much easier then to think. And don’t try to argue, because I can’t stand your hatespeech: hermaprodites have suffered enough of your narrow-mindedness not to have to stand more of your bile. — You see how pointless this is? You’ll always be someone’s hater, there’s no mind open enough to include all human opinions. The only think you can be is intelligent and civil, and apologise after you understood what you did wrong (not before you figured it out, as some seem to demand, because that would be void).

  30. Dave Ferguson Says:

    You deserve credit for owning up to mob frenzy.

    I’m still puzzled by how quickly it spread. A week before the incident, who (other than authors and rabid fans) cared about the Amazon sales ranks?

    Not to excuse their ham-handedness in responding, but honestly, if I could travel back in time with you, I’d pay you $10 for each person we found who read rankings if you paid me $1 for each who didn’t.

  31. Al Says:

    I disagree with your conclusions, Clay.

    You say Amazon did nothing wrong because perhaps you overreacted as an individual and assigned some nefarious gay-hating or Religious Right-influenced motives to Amazon, a deliberate conspiracy to hide gay books.

    On the contrary, I and many others assumed from the beginning of #amazonfail that, far from the conspiracy ideas, #amazonfail was a cataloging decision that associated all gay and lesbian material with pornographic and other “adult” content, along with other human sexuality and sex-positive feminist-related material. Amazon has stated as evasively as they can that this was actually the case, and it was demonstrated in the examples of the books that had been de-ranked from Amazon before last weekend. It was this blanket assertion inherent in this cataloging, that LGBTQ literature, scholarship, and other books are “adult content”, that infuriated me along with most of the LGBTQ community, not any idea that they wanted to “hide” the books. (I don’t think the consequences of assigning the many keywords they assigned to “adult content” were thought through that far, another reason for entirely legitimate anger towards Amazon.) Amazon is correct that this “error” (I think we can say “bad decision” – because at some point, someone did make a decision) was “ham-handed”. Perhaps a better description might be “completely, irrevocably offensive”.

    There are a number of elements that spurred the infuriated response from LGBTQ people. The first is the continued associations of our lives and orientation towards the same sex (or our gender identities) with sex sex sex, all the time, and sex only. That’s what Amazon did with their categorization, unwittingly or wittingly (how the categorization came to be still hasn’t been satisfactorily explained.) Whoever determined the keywords that would be put in the “adult” category saw “lesbian”, or “gay” and hypersexualized every aspect of our lives in the way that heterosexual identities are not. The prejudice inherent in that categorizing decision is what most of us were actually reacting to. A book on heterosexual parenting would never have been considered adult, but a book on parenting with “lesbian” in a keyword was. Most romance novels would not be considered directly on par with porn but with “gay” in the keyword, they were. The equation of an orientation/identity with porn, regardless of content, is the key offensive aspect here, and Amazon still hasn’t explained how it happened, just that it was a mistake. No kidding!

    Associated elements that spurred the outraged reaction are the closeness of LGBTQ people to literature, bookstores as community institutions, and to LGBTQ authors. Literature played a key role in raising queer consciousness in the 20th century. With a lack of visibility in film and television, literature still has an enormous formative impact on what it means to be queer, particularly for people before they come out and have other queer people to engage with. (I’ll cite Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home here, a graphic novel that is a memoir in books as much as the story of her young adulthood.) Academic queer scholars have had a significant impact on queer identity and politics as well, particularly since the 80s. The result is a queer community that has a very strong attachment to literature, an attachment that cuts across gender, class, racial, and age divides that usually fracture the community. With a small population, too, there is a real closeness to authors who write about us. Most of us know a queer writer or ten, either directly in real life, or increasingly, through the connection of blogging and social media. And last of all, Amazon has supplanted the role many independent bookstores used to play – including LGBTQ bookstores, which were formerly community institutions and meeting places. There was a pre-existing anxiety among a lot of people about the loss of independent, queer bookstores and financial situation of queer-oriented publishers.

    So, take a population with a deeper than usual attachment to books (that played key roles in formation of self-awareness and identity), add a significant percentage of that population with friends and families whose livelihoods were directly affected by Amazon’s un-ranking and the loss of visibility of their work, and combine that with economic anxieties about the publishers of the books that have played such an important role, and the more ephemeral-seeming, less community-beneficial means of distribution of the internet giant – I think the response to Amazon’s prejudiced cataloging decision was entirely appropriate, from the LGBTQ community, anyway. That so many other progressives cared and shared the anger is interesting, something that is a part of the growing movement towards LGBTQ rights in the United States, and straight people feeling like they have an investment in the equality movement even if they aren’t queer, because through social media they know more queer people and have a window on our lives. It’s also interesting that major events that impact the LGBTQ community (and this was one) can be quickly and easily understood now through social media where previously they would have been ghettoized and ignored by the bulk of the population unless there was a physical protest.

    I am happy the response to #amazonfail happened, I am happy I raised awareness of it among my twitter followers, and I am very happy that the growing engagement of gay people in online activism has bled over into the general online population. I don’t think there’s any overreaction involved and if conspiracy theories happened, perhaps that was only because information was imperfect, something that probably should be laid at the door of Amazon’s incredibly poor PR response.

  32. Schoschie Says:

    Something went wrong (we may in good faith assume it was an accident), lots of people noticed it and got angry about it, and Amazon should issue a truthful statement about it. As long as they don’t, and act like nothing happened, Amazon will smell fishy, and rightfully so. Isn’t that all it boils down to?

  33. Roni Taylor Says:

    Stop beating yourself up for having an emotional reaction. What are you, a robot? Amazon’s apparent failure was a hideous one quite worthy of the outrage it attracted. Anyone watching #amazonfail unfold can be left in no doubt how people really feel about the issue. Those feelings are valid, powerful and important. They won’t be overlooked again in a hurry.

    Thank you for posting this. The twitterstorm was a wonderful, powerful human event and articles like this one are just as necessary now as the dry PR and tech analyses we’ve been getting. There’s even more human stories yet to be told. Perhaps you could write some of them, too – What motivates a troll? How badly do people crave information? Have people ever had a tool amazingly fast and global as twitter? What happens next?

  34. karmacreep Says:

    Hats off to you Clay for apologising for your own behaviour. But don’t generalise from your own over-reaction to some kind of all-encompassing ‘we’.

    Plenty of that ‘we’ saw that the problem was obviously unaddressed systemic assumptions, rather than unannounced and ill-advised conservative crusades. Plenty of that ‘we’ are still waiting for the irreconcilable statements that Amazon have made over this to be clarified. Plenty of that ‘we’ are still wondering when Amazon are going to have the simple good manners to apologise for upsetting so many people. Moreover, ‘we’ have managed all that in the knowledge that it’s hard to type intelligently with a pitchfork in your hand.

    Today, almost a week after this began, search ‘homosexuality’ on amazon.co.uk and you still get anti-gay books as top results. Something is skewed and Amazon isn’t responding to its customers legitimate questions about what it is. You apologise if you want to, but never presume to do so on my behalf.

  35. The Failure of #amazonfail « Clay Shirky Says:

    […] View original post here: The Failure of #amazonfail « Clay Shirky […]

  36. Amazon sees censorship decisions magnified through the social web magnifying glass « Becky McMichael’s PR Balancing Act Says:

    […] great piece by Clay SHirky on the topic here.  I still think that regardless of the issue, organisations are dealing with percepotions and the […]

  37. another way to look at it Says:

    Another way to look at it: would Amazon have done anything differently if their system had eliminated the sales rankings on all sports related books? I don’t think so.

    It wasn’t being evil or mean, it was just being clumsy. It’s a large company, such things happen.

  38. David cushman Says:

    Yet more evidence that we are post rational creatures following herd behaviour. We act then seek to explain why later. Our hyper connected world means we can act without thought on more things, more rapidly, more often. Clay, you are right to raise this warning

  39. Radio Australia:Tech Stream Says:

    […] Clay Shirky, author of the book Here Comes Everybody.  He writes in recent blog post entitled “The Failure of #amazonfail” that: “Though the #amazonfail event is important for several reasons, I can’t write about […]

  40. Prokofy Neva Says:

    Good work on questioning your received wisdom and biases and knee-jerk reactions around the Twitter-mob witch-hunting of amazon.com

    Good for admitting that you fell for “the great seduction” as Andrew Keen calls it.

    You fall down when you start listing the stupidities. Start with this one:

    “It was stupid to have a categorization system that would allow LGBT-themed books to be de-ranked en masse;”

    er, maybe what was stupid, then, is even having a category called GLBT in the first place?

    Oh, you’d never think that? But it was that segregation, it was that status as “separate and supposedly equal” that made it possible for the false flagging to occur in the first place. It couldn’t occur in such a blanket way on other categories.

    And that’s just the problem with identity politics, which isn’t a substitute for universality and human rights.

    Now, if you’re in the self-criticism mode, go and look at the rest of your theories that need debunking, like “Micropayments will never work” or “people will never pay for newspapers” or “the Catholic Church is undermined by the printing press” or “if people have surplus value they will apply it to social media work” — and all the other web 2.0 biases.

  41. Simon Says:

    “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by
    stupidity”

    I’m glad to see the mea cupla. To often people react first only to find they committed an injustice themselves. What happened with #amazonfail was nothing less than a mob attack and I am surprised you don’t make that point.

    I am sure we are going to see lots of rationalisations about why the attack was warranted. I noticed you still are rationalising it to an extent. You realise you were part of a mob that unjustly and unfairly attacked. Despite the rationalisations, what happened has no justifications before or after the fact. I know the justifications will continue coming as people try vainly to cover up the ugliness of their personalities.

    While people coat it in the righteousness of attacking an injustice, it was at its heart an unjust attack of the mob. Indeed I would say that this illustrates the fundamental extremism that does exist in the blogsphere and twitterati. Unfortunately, these mob attacks will increase. I know you’ve talked about making graffiti harder than fixing it but how do you address the mob? I’m not sure you can. There is no fundamental flaw systemic or technological flaw to social media and recommendation systems. There is a fundamental human flaw though which will what limits the potential good and wonderful. Sad thought isn’t it?

    Lady Justice is blind for reason.

  42. Cericonversion Says:

    To clarify: I don’t mean that Amazon’s action alone is likely to have done harm. But it exists in a context where lack of access to non-hateful information is a genuine problem for many marginalized people, and in which a lot of the people who are setting up the systems and operating them don’t seem to care any more than Victor Panlilio about the real risks involved, particularly for those most removed from whatever stereotype he may have of GLBTs and others in the “chattering classes.”

    For some of us, Amazon’s failures put what had been largely hypothetical concerns into completely tangible form: “This is what can happen when the operators of a prominent system slip up without any particular malice. Now, what can we do to forestall such things?”

  43. broadstuff Says:

    Going without Comms to get a better connection…

    The View from the Top – Mountain as Metafilter

    Took the Easter weekend off to go hiking in the Lake District, and – with some trepidation – turned off all comms until arriving back yesterday evening. It is well worth doing, I’ve come to the conclus…

  44. AmazonFail or Social Failure? : Justin Vencel.com Says:

    […] the first time something like this has happened, but it’s one of the first to feel the full power of the twitter hash tag.  The hash tag #amazonfail quickly spread through twitter, and while on it’s own this is […]

  45. “L’AMOR CARNALE” L’INEDITO DEI TBSOD IN ANTEPRIMA NELLE PROVE - X FACTOR 2/7/4) | Amor Blog - The World’s News About Love Translated into Portuguese! Says:

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

  46. The Failure of #amazonfail | Clay Shirky | Voices | AllThingsD Says:

    […] Read the rest of this post Print all_things_di220:http://voices.allthingsd.com/20090416/the-failure-of-amazonfail/?reflink=ATD_yahoo_buzz Sharevar obj = SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: “The Failure of #amazonfail”, url: “http://voices.allthingsd.com/20090416/the-failure-of-amazonfail/” },{button:false});var elem = document.getElementById(“share-10805-0.13766100 1239865560”);obj.attachButton(elem); Comment Tagged: Voices, AmazonFail, Clay Shirky | permalink Sphere.Inline.search(“”, “http://voices.allthingsd.com/20090416/the-failure-of-amazonfail/”); […]

  47. Cericonversion Says:

    Victor Panlilio: You can certainly chuckle away at the misery of someone like Angela Zapata, a transgendered woman who had a loving family and good support was still miserable in many ways. Oh, wait, she was murdered by bigots, so she won’t be able to hear your chuckles.

    You could instead chuckle away at 11-year old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, subjected to homophobic bullying. Well, you could have before his despair at being tormented and having it backed up by the school when they didn’t just ignore it got great enough that he committed suicide.

    Such a downer. Maybe you could go chuckle at Sarah for her follies. But she committed suicide too.

    I don’t know that loss of access to Amazon listings of books on subjects that might have helped people like this cost anyone that last scrap of hope to keep going in the face of suicidal despair, or that might have helped them protect themselves against a violent or even murderous assault. But I’ve been suicidal myself and know how thin the thread gets sometimes, and how much small things pro or con can loom large when one really doesn’t know whether it’s worth continuing.

    That’s part of the ongoing legacy of Amazon’s errors. All of us who have relied on it at times when we didn’t have many other good options for access to info for ourselves or to recommend to anyone else know this: even this, a generally benign and certainly not institutionally homophobic resource, can go away at any time. What else can? Anything can, of course. And for anyone who’s already anywhere near the brink, that’s a damnably depressing thought to carry around. Amazon has broken trust with us, and trust cannot be claimed, only earned. Furthermore, this act of careless betrayal exists within a matrix of other risks we face as all-too-frequently marginalized and targeted outsiders.

    We are, no matter how amusing you may find us, not silly fools for being angry about this.

  48. Amy Says:

    Really appreciate your article.

    It’s interesting that so many wrongful accusers are defending their actions by blaming Amazon’s “slowness” to respond to the attacks (“it may not have been right for me to have graffitied your house with hate speech, but since you were on vacation when it happened and didn’t sufficiently apologize for my misjudgment of you, it’s still your fault.”)

    A rare example of reversal of moral judgment-
    Last year, after clearing Gregory Abbott of all charges following his arrest, police literally held a press conference to announce his innocence, saying they were “fully committed” to helping him restore his good name. Police and media acted responsibly and were able to undo the damage that had been caused.
    http://articles.latimes.com/2008/may/30/local/me-teacher30

    Unfortunately, in the case of Amazon, we’re setting records for how quickly we will form and join mobs, and how comfortable we are to bask in the warmth of their glowing torches.

  49. Jon Stahl Says:

    Great post, Clay. Thank you. I can’t help but wonder whether this shows a way in which communications systems like Twitter, with their extremely narrow “bandwidth”, tend to squeeze out the room for complexity, nuance and uncertainty in favor of assumptions, misinformation and simplistic, emotional arguments.

  50. buzz Says:

    The Failure of #amazonfail « Clay Shirky…

    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 …

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