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. Kommenterat på digitalpr.se - 01 May 2009 — Niclas Strandh digitalPR, creative planning och sociala mediestrategier Says:

    […] The Failure of #amazonfail […]

  2. #amazonfail: the book giant begins to rebuild its image - Crikey Says:

    […] On the failure of #amazonfail: 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. — Clay Shirky […]

  3. Gripe porcina, Amazon fail y comunicación emocional Says:

    […] ya está arreglado). Hasta alguien discolour poco sospechoso de ser poco inteligente como Clay Shirky hace una reflexión en este sentido la mañana después de haber […]

  4. Gripe porcina, Amazon fail y comunicación emocional : Blogografia Says:

    […] (Time.com, ya está arreglado). Hasta alguien tan poco sospechoso de ser poco inteligente como Clay Shirky hace una reflexión en este sentido la mañana después de haber […]

  5. Sobre Tecnologia » Gripe porcina, Amazon fail y comunicación emocional Says:

    […] (Time.com, ya está arreglado). Hasta alguien tan poco sospechoso de ser poco inteligente como Clay Shirky hace una reflexión en este sentido la mañana después de haber […]

  6. Episode 8 - Childhood Cartoons | drake relays Says:

    […] The Moth Podca&#115&#116&#10Shirky.com article on the #Amazonfail movement […]

  7. John Says:

    And the same thing is happening with swineflu. Instant communication yields instant opinion. We all have to be aware of that. All the time.

  8. Zeroth Says:

    @Ulan: I highly suggest you read the wikipedia coverage of the evidence and the incident: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tawana_Brawley

    Just assuming that someone’s conclusions in the case are the way they are because they are white is racist. Plain and simple. I’ve never heard of the case till now, and after reading that, she’s pretty obviously guilty of faking the attack. Its not because she’s black, or white, or poor. Its because of the lack of evidence for the sexual assault, for exposure to the elements, and so on.

  9. Del.icio.us op 25 april 2009 | Michel Vuijlsteke's weblog Says:

    […] – The Failure of #amazonfail « Clay Shirky In 1987, a teenage girl in suburban New York was discovered dazed and wrapped in a garbage bag, […]

  10. Notreal » Blog Archive » April 20, 2009: Beauty-schooled dropout Says:

    […] turning it into a Hateful Campaign to Kneecap All Gay People in the public bazaar, then I recommend this essay by the esteemed Clay Shirky as a […]

  11. SJ’s Longest Now » drunk with righteousness Says:

    […] Shirky takes a step back. “In 1987, a teenage girl was discovered wrapped in a plastic […]

  12. The Dark Side of Social Networking in Business - Tim Long Says:

    […] Clay Shirkey was in the angry mob, but realised that his emotional response had blinded him to the facts, that what had happened on Amazon was purely a technological phenomenon and there was no hidden agenda. His insightful reflection on the event highlights one of the dangers for businesses using social networking. When the mob turns nasty, you have no defence and there is no justice. There is no reasoning with an angry mob. Whatever mud they throw at you, some of it will stick. Posted: 04-24-2009 23:48 by Tim Long | with no comments Filed under: Technology, Business, Internet, Web Leave a Comment […]

  13. Tweetbomb – a tweet which can save, shave or shake the world | Screensumer Says:

    […] What Keith Kliner talks about may be actually in the making and we have seen this mass hysteria or the collective obsessional behavior in many shapes and forms. For example, the recent hashtag #amazonfail; explained here and here […]

  14. TBSOD - L’AMOR CARNALE - INEDITO - X FACTOR 2 | Amor Blog - The World’s News About Love Translated into Portuguese! Says:

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

  15. Tales from the dark side: the three key issues poised to fuel a social media backlash Says:

    […] in the temporary delisting of the books in question. Writing about the fracas and its aftermath, Clay Shirky owned up to his own role in the angry mob: “When a lifetime of intellectual labor and study came up against a moment of emotional […]

  16. Goodnotes Says:

    I am not sure if you can say this was technology problem – isn’t it at its core still a human problem? Its just not the human problem you thought it was. We have since the dawn of time, been susceptible to groupthink, whether we are Amazon catalogers or flickr taggers. no news here I think.

  17. news.affigold.info » Evening Beer Notes Says:

    […] The Failure of #amazonfail, by Clay Shirky, is a good read too. What he calls “conservation of outrage” (that is, “finding rationales for continuing to feel aggrieved, should the initial rationale disappeared”) is exactly why I am always slow to get worked about stuff that get crowds excited. In fact, VRM is in part a way not to get outraged at vendors, but rather to engage them constructively. (But we don’t have those ways yet, so go ahead and get outraged anyway.) […]

  18. news.affigold.info » Evening Beer Notes Says:

    […] The Failure of #amazonfail, by Clay Shirky, is a good read too. What he calls “conservation of outrage” (that is, “finding rationales for continuing to feel aggrieved, should the initial rationale disappeared”) is exactly why I am always slow to get worked about stuff that get crowds excited. In fact, VRM is in part a way not to get outraged at vendors, but rather to engage them constructively. (But we don’t have those ways yet, so go ahead and get outraged anyway.) […]

  19. Wednesday Links: 4-22-09 | Chamber Four Says:

    […] a contest to design the logo (?) for his next book; a piece about writers marrying writers; one last thing on #amazonfail from Clay Shirky; more on Kindle’s kill-switch; a library in Brussels is getting on the ebook bandwagon in a […]

  20. Annotation for social media rant | blackberrystorm Says:

    […] Shirky’s blog on the failure of the Amazon.com gay-themed books protest: I was wrong, because I believed things that weren’t true. As bad as that was, though, far […]

  21. Daily News Report Says:

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

  22. Clydicus Says:

    It is shocking to learn that a lot of people on Twitter are talking out of their arseholes.

  23. smoo Says:

    Bertrand Russell put it like this:

    “If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.”

    Nice one Clay, for gracefully admitting your mistake.

  24. levjoy dot com - links for 2009-04-17 Says:

    […] The Failure of #amazonfail « Clay Shirky Open and honest account of jumping to conclusions. (tags: amazon twitter activism) var friendFeedTasks1088 = new friendFeedTasks(‘117c2a6f-f8d0-2906-5d8b-5ad3f9b662a3’); On FriendFeed, this post was liked by 0 people and commented on 0 times hide View this post on FriendFeed $(‘ff_togglecommentslink_117c2a6f-f8d0-2906-5d8b-5ad3f9b662a3’).observe(‘click’, friendFeedTasks1088.toggleDiscussions.bindAsEventListener(friendFeedTasks1088)); […]

  25. Månhus » Länksprutning - 21 April 2009 Says:

    […] Clay Shirky on the Failure of ‘#amazonfail’ […]

  26. Hello again Amazon. We’re still not cool. « Megan thinks in sandwich spreads Says:

    […] This one is pro-Amazon to an extent, but not in an annoying way. […]

  27. ircluvr Says:

    #FAIL – It’s like none of you people are old enough to have used IRC or BITNET. Twitter, as it evolves convergently, is approaching the unworkable limits of unregulated hysteria that those other broadcast channels reached. Eventually, bureaucracy emerges and you get people with Ops status to trammel the hysterical masses… some of them are good and some are just douchebags. And so you have reinvented society. Enjoy it while it lasts, #TWITS.

  28. eau Says:

    I can’t get over how much I love how you think.

  29. Ulan Says:

    Re: it became clear that she’d actually faked the attack

    Let me guess, you are white.

    What continues to surprise me about the Gay/Lesbian community is how they so often dismiss those of us who could be their strongest allies. How many times have attacks on gay people been denied by the media?

    By using Brawley as an example, it simply shows that you have no black friends who lived through that experience. Maybe you should use this as a learning opportunity for understanding why so many “good meaning” people vote against your desires on a regular basis. I bet you do not mean to harm black folk and think you are “just being reasonable”. I mean, after all, you are “looking at the facts”.

    We could be your friends. We could help you. Instead you toss us to the side and then claim black people are not supportive. It is hard to support one oppressed group when they are actively dismissing your issues.

  30. Hello, Amazon. We have recommendations for you. | Own This City | Time Out New York Says:

    […] felt foolish for overreacting: This wasn’t homophobia, it was just a case of knee-jerk, viral, Twitter-led scapegoating of some idiot in charge of sorting Amazon’s metadata. That’s right! Everyone knows that gay […]

  31. tommy Says:

    this is confusing, im still not sure what its about at all.

  32. Internet Evolution - Alan Reiter - Geeks Shouldn't Judge Content Says:

    […] became enraged when Amazon recently “censored” gay-oriented fiction and non-fiction books, although the anger subsided (mostly) when the company said it was all a […]

  33. links for 2009-04-20 Says:

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

  34. Considering intent to evaluate morality is an ancient Western tradition. « Restructure! Says:

    […] in intent, Clay Shirky claimed that the filtering out of LGBT books from Amazon.com was only a “perceived injustice” and an “injustice that didn’t actually occur” since the delisting was done […]

  35. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » April 20, 2009: Beauty-schooled dropout Says:

    […] turning it into a Hateful Campaign to Kneecap All Gay People in the public bazaar, then I recommend this essay by the esteemed Clay Shirky as a […]

  36. TheTradingReport » Blog Archive » The Allure of Outrage Says:

    […] Shirky has a very good and honest post on the narcotic allure of moral posturing. I think this is a bigger problem that many people […]

  37. David Harmon Says:

    Agreed that “conservation of outrage is the wrong answer”… but it was still a Grade A screwup! More, it highlighted several different places where Amazon simply doesn’t have their act together — and their prominence means that their errors can cause a disproportionate amount of damage.

  38. Weekend link dump for April 19 « Off the Kuff Says:

    […] explanations for #Amazonfail. And the official explanation, for what it’s worth. Finally, an interesting postscript from someone who regrets the outrage that he had helped […]

  39. News Room :: Mobs and knights: #amazonfail and the Dubai Literary Festival Says:

    […] connnectivity is changing the way events unfold; to add to that there’s this post from net guru Clay Shirkey on the Twitter #amazonfail brouhaha that took place a couple of weeks […]

  40. Tyg Says:

    Amazon censoring gradually for over a year http://twitzap.com/u/2wM #amazonfail

  41. Mobs and knights: #amazonfail and the Dubai Literary Festival | The Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts Says:

    […] connnectivity is changing the way events unfold; to add to that there’s this post from net guru Clay Shirkey on the Twitter #amazonfail brouhaha that took place a couple of weeks […]

  42. Daily News Report Says:

    […] The Failure of #amazonfail « Clay Shirky Share and Enjoy: […]

  43. Was Amazon Fail A Con? « Women In Love Says:

    […] it’s still an easy score on the take & give back for Amazon.  Clay Shirky said over at his blog on the […]

  44. #amazonfail and we’re not done yet: links and perspectives « Liminal states Says:

    […] the attention being paid to Clay Shirky’s view obscures the fact that most of the participants don’t see it that way.  Here are some […]

  45. jason Says:

    The amazon fail wasn’t the only recent event on twitter that had a lot of people brandishing their pitchforks and torches. If you’re around the design community at all I’m sure you saw the “Jon Engle is being sued for his own work”, “save jon” types of tweets. Once the other side of the story finally broke, there were a lot of people left feeling pretty stupid. The downside of course is that most people won’t correct their mistakes and eat crow. So naturally, the truth gets a lot less publicity.

    http://www.thelogofactory.com/logo_blog/stock.html

  46. Common roles in online customer protests (with examples from AmazonFail) Says:

    […] The Celebrity is a “name” who adds the weight of his/her reputation to the debate.   Example: this post referenced Neil Gaiman weighing in on Amazonfail, as indeed he did. Clay Shirky commented in the aftermath here. […]

  47. Israeli IDF Soldiers Testimonials Taken Out of Context « Giladon-line Says:

    […] While doing research for my Global Voices Online post, I scoured through Israblog, Tapuz and other Hebrew portals, trying to find posts from soldier first-hand witnesses who wrote about their experiences in Gaza. To my dismay, I could not find any. It is such a taboo topic; an Israeli must not help those haters validate their claims against our country. We were all soldiers. We all realize that these situations are not black and white. And even if these stories are somewhat true on a micro level, it is certainly not an IDF-wide phenomenon. But when they are taken out of context and amplified to the masses, it is easy to forget the source, while letting our emotions play out. Especially when messages are rapidly amplified through Twitter, the effects can be devastating ( a.k.a. what we saw last week re: #amazonFail) […]

  48. The Core Files - The Unfolding #amazonfail Controversy Says:

    […] in Mary Hodder’s Why Amazon Didn’t Just Have a Glitch and Clay Shirky’s The Failure of #amazonfail.  Both take a good hard look at the aftermath of the #amazonfail frenzy and come to different […]

  49. Zbigniew Lukasiak Says:

    Scapegoating classic. Hey Clay – read some Rene Girard!

  50. The #Wisdom of Crowds | The Unforgiving Minute Says:

    […] empowering people’s decision-making through providing better information. Clay Shirky’s mea culpa has attracted a lot of praise for providing a clear-eyed insight into the mechanics of mob rule on […]

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