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. April 18: PR top 5 | Strive Notes Says:

    […] Clay Shirky’s post on the failure of #amazonfail explains why, even when so many people got it wrong in acusing Amazon of discriminating against gay […]

  2. wavethenavel.com Says:

    […] Contact Links for Friday, April 17th, 2009 But, it felt right at the time? […]

  3. foljs Says:

    @Kylie

    The problem here is that what you’re arguing can be boiled down to the following:

    1. Everyone overreacted to the #amazonfail business.
    2. They overreacted because they don’t live in a vacuum, and thus have faced lots of homophobic bias in the past. Their points of view were influenced by that history.
    3. Everyone should pretend to live in a vacuum when stuff like this happens.

    Here’s the thing: *we can’t*.

    Here’s the thing: we *can*.

    Just wait till you hear all sides of a story, and avoid knee jerk reactions.

  4. striatic Says:

    assuming that #amazonfail was the web’s equivalent of an ignorant angry mob, which is quite a leap, where are the equivalents to broken windows and assaulted victims?

    the truth is that amazon DID fail. and it did need to be pointed out. and presumably the very real failure on amazon’s part is going to be corrected more promptly because of this.

    i didn’t use the #amazonfail tag, because i don’t personally like hash tags, but i did post a matter of fact link to a news site talking about the issue because it was a bizarre, problematic situation. i don’t see how this such behaviour is “mob like” and i imagine the majority of people using #amazonfail were doing the same: pointing to a bizarre, problematic issue with amazon, and reserving full judgment as to the cause.

    as for the call to use the “power of twitter” responsibly – what would have been the more responsible action? to not bring up and discuss an issue as in public, to leave these kinds of complaints to sage, staid advocacy groups to engage the corporation in a way that allows the public to continue to cultivate its sense of detachment for fear of potential embarrassment?

  5. AMillionBucks Says:

    I’m stoked to read the characterization of sorting and cataloguing in such human terms.. .

  6. AmazonFail = TaxonomyFail? | The Noisy Channel Says:

    […] what intrigues me was something in Clay Shirky’s nostra culpa post comparing the collective outrage against Amazon to the Tawana Brawley incident. While the post on a […]

  7. kaizoku Says:

    I’m still not convinced there was no intention of disenfranchising GLBT authors, feminists, and other sexual minorities. While most of the popular works have their sales ranks back, books like The Ethical Slut (first edition) and books about fisting are still deranked… Amazon’s statement that it was a “glitch” really doesn’t go too far with me. You’re right, we don’t know for certain — so, why are people jumping on the #sorryamazon bandwagon?

  8. murphtron Says:

    This is partly in response to Kylie’s comment, above, which was thoughtful. I have empathy for K’s point of view, but ultimately side with Clay’s conclusion. While it’s certainly true that the LGBT population is subjected to all kinds of unjustifiable persection, it’s not a priori justifiable to condemn an event without at least some investigation into the cause.

    In this country we are (in principle) innocent until proven guilty. While the reality is grey, we at least have a principle with which to judge, in hindsight, our actions. Sure, Amazon’s response was lousy. That may be in part to not knowing how ‘best’ to handle the incident, or not even knowing exactly what happened.

    What troubles me about the #amazonfail incident is that it’s a worrisome example of mob behavior. A few elements are required to motivate a mob, and #amazonfail had them all.

    1) An event occured
    2) The event is simple to understand and has a clear consequence
    3) The event is not abstract
    4) There’s an impassioned population affected by the event

    Mobs are not inherently bad, albeit the word has a pejorative slant. My favorite examples of #hashmobs are from SXSW, where moderators got instant feedback of on their in-progress panels (good or bad), or of mobs going back and forth between bars, all coordinated by Twitter #hashtags. These are fun examples of #hashmobs

    But #hashmobs can have negative consequences if passions are not kept in check. Just imagine if Melissa Huckaby, the suspect in the murder of child Sandra Cantu, was outed publicly prior to her arrest and a #hashmob strung her up from a treelimb. Is this farfetched? I’m not sure. I think it’s too early to tell.

    What concerns me is the #amazonfail incident has its behavioral roots in 16th century witch hunts. Twitter is just the amplifier. This is not an indictment of Twitter, or any individual who tweeted #amazonfail. Rather, it’s a call to recognize the power of Twitter, and to use it responsibily.

    I’m not an absolutist, and there are undoubtedly flaws in my argument. But this is currently where I stand.

  9. Elizabeth Wellburn Says:

    Clay, what you’ve written is beautiful and heroic (I’ve been following Phil Zimbardo quite a bit lately and love his notions of everyday heroic acts).

    You’re an exemplar of the first of his ten steps:

    ———from Phil Zimbardo and Cindy Wang———
    I made a mistake!
    Let’s start out by encouraging admission of our mistakes, first to ourselves then to others. Accept the dictum that to err is human. You have made an error in judgment; your decision was wrong. You had every reason to believe it was right when you made it, but now you know you were wrong. Say the six Magic words: “I’m sorry”; “I apologize”; “Forgive me.” Say to yourself that, you will learn from your mistakes, grow better from them. Don’t continue to put your money, time, and resources into bad investments. Move on. Doing so openly reduces the need to justify or rationalize our mistakes, and thereby to continue to give support to bad or immoral actions. Confession of error undercuts the motivation to reduce cognitive dissonance; dissonance evaporates when a reality check occurs. “Cutting the bait” instead of resolutely “staying the course” when it is wrong has immediate cost, but it always results in long-term gain. Consider how many years the Vietnam War continued long after top military and administration officials, like Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, knew that the war was wrong and could not be won. How many thousands of lives were lost to such wrong-headed resistance, when acknowledging failure and error could have saved them. How much good could come to all of us were our political leaders able to admit their similar errors in Iraq? It is more than a political decision to ‘save face’ by denying errors instead saving soldiers and civilian lives — it is a moral imperative.

    ========================================

    Zimbardo’s Ten Steps to build resilience and resistance.
    http://www.lucifereffect.com/guide_tenstep.htm

  10. The Arrogance of the “Citizen Journalists” & Amazon Fail | blending the mix Says:

    […] pointed me to a post by Clay Shirky looking at the justification (or not) for the extensive lambasting that Amazon received this […]

  11. Alogon Says:

    Factual says: ‘I protest the word “homophobe.” I am not “fearful or afraid” of homosexuals, but that is the implication of the word. I simply disagree with them.’

    Well, bully for you. Then let’s hope you also disagree with those who would prohibit same sex marriages by means of “Defense of Marriage” acts. They quite openly appeal to a FEAR, and a totally irrational fear at that, that married gays will somehow undermine the relationships of married straights. This campaign totally stultifies the claim that typical homophobes are not driven by fear. With it, str8ts make only too obvious what fragile folk they are, and how easily spooked.

    ____________________

    Mike says:

    >I don’t think Amazon has any kind of secret agenda, but there is something rotten with their search algorithms. Even today, if you go to Amazon and do a simple search on “homosexuality” the top hit is a virulent anti-gay book.

    Even more to the point, we can wonder where the data for these search algorithms comes from. By a process of elimination I surmise that it comes either from tags submitted by publishers, or from an automated scanning of some of the text of the publication itself. In either case, an anti-gay book is likely to come up as highly relevant in a search for “homosexuality” because pro-gay books no longer use this word frequently. And in either case, this happens because the data are drawn from an utterly uncontrolled vocabulary.

    There is one group of people, and one only, who is dedicated to an objective and reliable classification and cataloging of books. Those people are librarians. One of the tools of the trade, the list of Library of Congress Subject Headings, now runs to five heavy volumes. The proper cataloging of a book, with assignment of subject headings from this objective, controlled, and cross-referenced vocabulary, might well take an expert an entire hour. It is labor-intensive, and hence expensive, enough that the result now goes into a database drawn upon by thousands of libraries so that it need not be repeated. I doubt that Amazon uses this database, because the records are elaborate, must be purchased, and typically do not even exist until a publication has been for sale for several days at least.

    Anyone foolish enough to suggest that library cataloging can be eliminated if publishers catalog what they publish has only to spend a few minutes searching YouTube (or Google, for that matter). Publishers are not interested in precise retrieval. They are interested in maximizing sales (or “hits”).

    Thank you for bringing up this example of why, in the computer and Internet age, the work of librarians is still needed.

  12. andedammen » Takk, Twitter Says:

    […] nok er det ogs denne uka blitt la mode omtale Twitter som den nye lynsjemobben. Clay Shirky skrev om “The Failure of #amazonfail” og angret offentlig p at han hadde kastet seg p […]

  13. Stella Omega Says:

    All of what you say is true, up to a point. And that point is that this problem started three months ago, and authors were complaining individually. It took lashings of public outrage to get Amazon to get started on fixing it.

    It’s *still* true that books labeled GLBT were deleted from the search DB. Even though Amazon points out that health, history and reproductive medicine books were affected, those books were labeled GLBT, either via the metadata or by user tags.

  14. Friday Links: amazonfail, Domino’s, and a little bit of fun | Inside the Nerdery Says:

    […] #amazonfail: If you were like me, you returned from a holiday dinner with family Sunday night to discover a storm of controversy brewing around venerated online bookstore Amazon. It seems Amazon was accused on Sunday of removing books with gay, lesbian, or transgender subject matter from their sales rank. What followed was a barrage of tweets and blog posts accusing Amazon of homophobia and calls to boycott. It was a display of groupthink that is both impressive and terrifying. As the work week dawned it came to light that maybe Amazon really did have a glitch in their system. Maybe this was all a stupid, ill-thought-out accident of technology. For more on how all this happened read Clay Shirky’s The Failure of #amazonfail. […]

  15. Bench Marks » Blog Archive » Twitter Rant Number 2–Good to see it’s not just me Says:

    […] Clay Shirky has an introspective piece about the fallout from Amazon’s recent glitch where “adult”material was removed […]

  16. MacroHW » Blog Archive » » Manipulando Encuestas En Línea: #amazonfail & Precision Hack Says:

    […] Pero entonces como un bromista experto, sale riendo el autor de esto y explica cómo lo hizo. Resulta que Amazon elimina libros de las recomendaciones si tiene algunos votos negativos. Enojado con la comunidad gay por una estupidez, un hacker se dio cuenta de esto y con un poco de dedicación logró sacar una lista de libros con la palabra ‘Homosexuality’ en su descripción, para luego comprar algunas captchas resueltas y comenzar a reportar negativamente los libros, estando detrás de un proxy. En unas horas, y con unos cien dólares y un pequeño favor logró quitar miles de libros. Verdaderamente asombroso, el mundo se tuvo que disculpar con Amazon. […]

  17. 布里斯班 Says:

    Give me so many thoughts, thanks for sharing.

  18. akohli Says:

    Clay — this incident is pretty much the same as mob outrage and being reactionary. No matter how well intentioned (and I was outraged too on Sunday that amazon would do something like this), mob action is still mob action. Fritz Lang examined this extremely well in his movie Fury. I wonder if there is an equivalent one that could done for today, involving well intentioned, but wrongly directed, outrage?
    — ak

  19. We Got The Tweet: The Streets Tweet An EP | Good Clef Says:

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  20. Interesting Reading… | us bank 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.’” […]

  21. Clay Shirky in soccorso di Amazon sulla vicenda dei libri Gay-Lesbo | Yurait Social Blog Says:

    […] sulla torta, in un post sul suo blog del 15 aprile,  il professor Clay Shirky prende le difese di Amazon in maniera aperta, sostenendo la tesi […]

  22. Talking ‘Bout A Revolution « shattersnipe: malcontent & rainbows Says:

    […] – the now-notorious #amazonfail incident and its aftermath; […]

  23. We Got The Tweet: The Streets Tweet An EP Says:

    […] Eminem video. Yesterday we were retweeted by half of Tears For Fears … #swoon. There’s vital discourse happening in the Twitterverse, if you know where to look (hint: not here). But this week’s […]

  24. Episode 8 - Childhood Cartoons « Live Free or Blow Hard Says:

    […] Shirky.com article on the #Amazonfail movement […]

  25. Keith Says:

    @Jacob Russell: Absolutely. I know many people who boycotted Amazon over patenting their one-click system.
    @Factual: I think you’re making the common mistake of confusing the word phobia (fear) with the suffix -ophobia (hatred). Besides, disagreeing with? That sounds like every gay person has the exact same opinions. LOL.
    @Buzz: Try getting books about whatever group to which you belong (female, Jewish, whatever) blacklisted and see if you feel that you’re seeking special treatment for wanting them not to be.
    @VoodooBettie: Talking about LiveJournal, I’ve read about their homophobic practices as well.

  26. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    When you poll the American people they say legalize it. In other countries legalization of cannabis is even more popular. Blaming online users is bizarre because the biggest stoners I know are not online.

  27. Pustoolio Says:

    @Factual
    “I protest the word “homophobe.” I am not “fearful or afraid” of homosexuals, but that is the implication of the word.
    I simply disagree with them.”

    Since you haven’t mentioned the idea you disagree with then that must mean you disagree with a group of people being who they are. That is hate.

    “Are people who dislike heterosexuals called “heterophobes?” No.”

    Now you tip your hand, you don’t just disagree, you dislike. Why would anyone be a heterophobe? Heteros are not being discriminated against.

    Your comments make no sense, which is to be expected because they are built on hate.

  28. VoodooBettie Says:

    I guess you never had a livejournal, I stopped using mine because you can’t write anything in public without it turning into a flame war by misunderstanding what the intent was. Online communities are weird things, good in some ways but in others they’re just as bad as real-life mobs. Handle with care.

  29. Denise Shiffman Says:

    Excellent article and commentary.

  30. DB Says:

    Bravo. I applaud your clear-eyed postmortem and your willingness to admit, publicly, to making a mistake—something too many people won’t do. Being myself both bisexual, with a large number of gay friends, and a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, I see this dynamic all the time, from both sides of the political divide. It’s never comfortable, and it’s taught me the hard lesson never to let outrage cloud one’s judgment.

  31. We Got The Tweet: The Streets Tweet An EP | Wiz Kid Reports Says:

    […] Eminem video. Yesterday we were retweeted by half of Tears For Fears … #swoon. There’s vital discourse happening in the Twitterverse, if you know where to look (hint: not here). But this week’s […]

  32. Buzz Says:

    You’re still making a mistake and that is that the de-listing (or whatever it was) actually matters much if at all. I’d also posit that the reason the GLBT community at large got so enraged is because they are hypersensitive to even the perception that they are being somehow being put at a disadvantage. This whole thing reminds me of a group of short bus riders who believe they are special to the exclusion of all others, which actually distracts from real issues facing real people (i.e. the rest of the world).

    I support equal rights and equal opportunity without regard to race, religion, gender, national origin, physical limitation or sexual orientation. In short, none of us are special because we all are. This whole “get your dander up against Amazon” thing though? Fail.

  33. Sunshocked » Mission-driven online strategy Says:

    […] Clay Shirky, “Here Comes Everybody” author and post-organizationalist, admits that #AmazonFail was about misguided emotion and not […]

  34. Internet Evolution - Editor's Blog - Your Brand vs. the Internet Says:

    […] a blog post this week, Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, who championed some of the Amazon Twitter […]

  35. David S. Says:

    Last weekend convinced me that I made the right decision in not joining Twitter. What a brainless, impatient and senseless beat up! Even as it unfolded and I picked up the story in various blogs and online news stories over the holidays I couldn’t believe so many usually sane and sensible people were acting like idiots and demanding instant responses from Amazon, over Easter! Madly organizing boycotts before anyone had any idea what was really going on. It seemed obvious to me that Amz had either been hacked by outsiders or, more likely, it was a very human screw-up magnified by faults in their internal systems (and anyone who expects a large multi-national corp. to detail those publicly, instantly, in response to a Twitter storm is a fool beyond price). Obvious to anyone not wrapped up in the sense of moral outrage fuelled by the madness of the Twitter twits.

    I am so glad though to see someone who has the sense and clarity of Mr Shirky come out and admit they overreacted and point out how easy it is to do (I missed this one, but I am not unfamiliar with the problem of conservation of outrage in other cases alas.) Ever since the phrase “the wisdom of crowds” emerged I’ve been thinking “yeah, but what about the madness of crowds?”

  36. Kylie Says:

    The problem here is that what you’re arguing can be boiled down to the following:

    1. Everyone overreacted to the #amazonfail business.
    2. They overreacted because they don’t live in a vacuum, and thus have faced lots of homophobic bias in the past. Their points of view were influenced by that history.
    3. Everyone should pretend to live in a vacuum when stuff like this happens.

    Here’s the thing: *we can’t*.

    Let’s look at the two options for what may have happened here. One is a policy change and the other is a technical error.

    Scenario one: Amazon changed its policy so that users could flag items as “adult” and, if an item got flagged enough, it would be deranked. This scenario is a huge problem because it allows the majority to silence the minority: if Focus on the Family gets a million people to flag all the queer content they can find as adult, then it will all disappear. Trolls are the least of my concern in this scenario, because if someone trolls then the site can fix it. But if a political movement fights to obscure queer lit or any other lit to which they object, then the system is working as it is meant to work — hiding whatever a large number of people think it should hide — and that is a *serious* problem.

    In this scenario Amazon is not guilty of homophobia. In this scenario homophobia exists. In this scenario people ought to be pissed at the homophobia.

    Scenario 2: the technical error. This assumes that what Amazon said was true and that someone “changed a field” or whatever it was they said. If so, that person did so because they made a connection in their mind — probably not active and deliberate; probably reflexive and unconsidered — between “queer” and “obscene”. It was not a random error; it couldn’t possibly be, when the categories that got flipped to “adult” were sexual health and LGTBQ.

    This person is not a policy-maker at Amazon but rather someone in data entry, and as such, this mistake should not be construed as a homophobic action by Amazon-the-corporate-entity. This person’s actions were informed by homophobia. This kind of homophobia is particularly painful to queers because it reinforces the idea that we are so obscene that children should not be exposed to us. That is the meaning of “adult”. The person who made that possibly-unconscious connection was acting in the same manner as the people who cover their children’s eyes when they see my wife and I walking down the street, who censor Heather Has Two Mommies from schools because they argue that their children should not know that gay people exist. In this scenario, people ought to be pissed off at the homophobia, and in this situation, people *were hurt* by the homophobia.

    You can hear it in my comment, I think. You can hear it in those small anecdotes of the ways in which I’ve faced homophobia in my life.

    For a whole bunch of queer people, this pulled the scab off a wound that is never allowed to heal because somebody is always pulling the scab off. This incident does not exist on its own. It’s part of a much bigger problem, and when people got angry and ranty and hashtag-obsessed it was not just because of this, it was because of the whole situation.

    I don’t know you but in reading your post I have the impression you’re probably queer too. And you yourself noted having a fast reaction to this. And then you came around to here, and for the most part, that’s cool.

    But I take issue with the way your post ends. Because the fact of the matter is that it’s not about fighting this one battle where this one wrong thing happened and then resting until the next wrong thing happens. We don’t have to wait for specific events to crop up to fight homophobia. In fact, that’s kind of a crappy way to do it: it means we have to wait for the crappy things to happen in order to deal with them and then wait for more if we want to engage in more activism and then when things are quiet people tell us homophobia doesn’t exist anymore when in fact it’s just gone invisible for awhile. We need this visibility. And when one person makes this kind of screwup and it is the result of endemic homophobia, and it has an effect as titanic as *actually removing the voice of LGBTQ folk from the biggest bookseller in the world*, then we need to own our anger — not narrowly directed at the small, unconsciously homophobic error that caused the big thing, but at *the whole system that enabled that small error to happen.*

    This doesn’t mean we all need to boycott Amazon, at least not permanently. Once they get this all fixed I’ll continue to shop there.

    But I won’t stop talking about what it meant to me to see the classics of LGBTQ literature, the books that were signposts along the march for LGBTQ equality, these iconic works of literature that did so much to make us visible, made *in*visible. I’ve tried to talk about it in a wide-ranging way, to talk about the system rather than the technical “glitch”. It upset me, so I wanted to talk about it. It made a big stink, so people wanted to listen. It was a good thing, the #amazonfail hashtag — good that it could do that much.

  37. allgood2 Says:

    I admit to loving to use the hashtag #amazonfail, but while I agree that your reasons were probably wrong; I don’t think the use of or the desire to bring notice to the issue is or was wrong. From the first time I heard of the issue, I assumed that Amazon harbored no malice to to lesbian, gay, and bisexual communities.

    My concern was about how Amazon, YouTube, and a number of other sites have grown complicit in crowdsourcing morality. As these large repositories of content have developed, making decisions about what’s objectionable or acceptable has been left to users. This is the true failure, because these systems are easily corruptible.

    I imagine that Amazon, despite their protest of ‘no policy’ change; had indeed made a minor policy change that would have undoubtably remained mostly un-noticed, except for, at least, the last three years there have been an increase in flagging anything that contains positive portrayals of lesbians, gays, and bisexuals as ‘adult’. It’s a process that even the LGBTQ communities have been complicit in, but is visible across YouTube and other sites.

    The point IS that most people use ‘flagging’ appropriately—which means they don’t do it. This unfortunately, leave those who want to make an impact, with a greater ability to do so. This additionally is multiplied by the fact that there is no method on most sites to counteract a flag.

    My assumption was that Amazon.com which has a growing body of porn/semi-porn materials was just attempting to clean up searching. And while we can debate whether they should engage in suppression, even at that level; the fact is, I doubt they had little to do with which books were flagged as adult. I would go so far to assume that they were just as surprised that so many LGBTQ books were included.

    But with a growing, vocal population of people indicating that any mention of lesbians, gays, and bisexuals that doesn’t condemn is unacceptable. Books, videos, even news stories have been being flagged as ‘adult content’ on numerous sites. I believe Amazon, the queer community, and the world at large finally got one very large wake up call about what that means in a digital world. I’m expecting no one expected to be rendered invisible by what should have amount to a minor policy change.

  38. Sabbatical, Day 75: Re-Imagining Persecution; Funeral Music « Big Circumstance Says:

    […] Secondly, there has been outrage in recent days over the removal of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender books from Amazon’s best-seller list. Search for #amazonfail on Twitter and you’ll find thousands of upset tweeters. But today comes the news that it wasn’t the consequence of anti-gay policies. It was a technological error. Clay Shirky, himself strongly in favour of gay rights, reports the truth in detail. […]

  39. Mike Says:

    I don’t think Amazon has any kind of secret agenda, but there is something rotten with their search algorithms. Even today, if you go to Amazon and do a simple search on “homosexuality” the top hit is a virulent anti-gay book.

    I have no problem with Amazon selling these books, but making this the top search result is like making “Mein Kampf” the top search result for “Judaism”

  40. foljs Says:

    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.

    This narrowing of civil rights is even worse than the #amazonfail bummer…

  41. bowerbird Says:

    way too much blah-blah-blah on this whole thing.

    here’s the real bottom line, author-folk, listen up:

    if you’re letting amazon mediate your relationship
    with your readership, you’re making a big mistake.

    and if you depend upon something as tenuous as
    “sales rank” and amazon’s search engine internals,
    you have allowed _far_ too many vulnerabilities…

    even if the gay rights community over-reacted here
    — and i think it’s pretty clear that many of us did —
    it’s fairly easy to understand that that over-reaction
    is only natural from those who’ve been persecuted…

    but gay authors must learn internet lesson number 1:
    an artist must go directly to the audience, and refuse
    to let any entity insinuate itself as an intermediary…

    -bowerbird

  42. linkfeedr » Blog Archive » Clay Shirky on the Failure of ‘#amazonfail’ - RSS Indexer (beta) Says:

    […] [1.1.7_509]please wait…Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast) This article was found on Daring Fireball. Click here to visit the full article on the original website.Clay […]

  43. Factual Says:

    I protest the word “homophobe.” I am not “fearful or afraid” of homosexuals, but that is the implication of the word.

    I simply disagree with them.

    Are people who dislike heterosexuals called “heterophobes?” No.

  44. Mister Snitch Says:

    Big props and respect for admitting you were wrong. But remember – as with Tawana Brawley, there’s usually someone (Al Sharpton) fanning the flames of distrust and hate, to serve his own purpose. You always want to know who these instigators are – because they WILL do it again. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…

  45. tim Says:

    When I first saw an author comment on the fact that his books was deranked and noticed #amazonfail I was completely perplexed. Why?

    Simple – I can’t imagine any company ‘purposely’ excluding books from the search categories that a highly vocal affluent segment of their customer base purchases

    So that left only two possibilities – one is that Amazon made a mistake (amazon has made many mistakes – nothing new here – sometimes they own up to it – sometimes they don’t) or it was malicious (again – not a surprise that yet another flaw would be found in a complex website like amazons). How anyone could come to the conclusion that amazon was purposely targeting a group of people (and for the record – being gay I am part of that group “targeted”) was beyond me.

    Personally I was saddened by @amazonfail. So many wrong conclusions in such short period of time bothered me. Its like everyone checked their brains at the door and did not step back and actually think about this.

    (purchased two books from amazon this morning)

  46. The Eye Doctor Says:

    Just wanted to mention. 20/400 is terrible vision. Like really really terrible. It’s actually twice as poor as the legal threshold for blindness.

    It means you can see at 20 ft. what a normal person can see from 400 ft.

  47. When Amazon’s Attacked! » Boztopia.com Says:

    […] read this post from Clay Shirky, and then especially the comments. The appearance of what was a systematic case of applied bias by […]

  48. Hamilton-Lovecraft Says:

    I’m with RB here. This is a problem that individual authors were bringing to Amazon’s attention months ago. How long would it have taken to rectify if not for the howling of #amazonfail?

  49. Jessica Chapel / Railbird v2 - links for 2009-04-16 Says:

    […] The Failure of #amazonfail "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." Or, as Andy Baio said, "Outrage has its own momentum." Or, Merlin Mann, "Problem with mob justice is the ones who're more interested in the mob than the justice." Interesting parallels to Mullins incident and reaction. (tags: web2.0 culture social-media blogging twitter amazon outrage clay-shirky) […]

  50. Jacob Russell Says:

    The recent delisting is is hardly the only reason complaint one could level at Amazon and the corporate model it follows. If anything, the Twitter protest was a distraction, drawing attention from deeper structural problems with Amazon, its monopolistic policies and its impact on publishing and book marketing.

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