AmazonFAIL
April 12, 2009 1:57 PM   Subscribe

Within the last few hours, a trend on Twitter has emerged in response to Amazon's removing the sales ranking of books they consider to have "adult content," which also keeps those books from appearing in search results. However, while seeming to unilaterally de-list any books with gay themes and characters, many books with adult heterosexual content were left untouched.

Unfortunately, books included in the de-ranking include classic works such as Brokeback Mountain, The Well of Loneliness, Tipping the Velvet, and others whose "adult" content is negligible.

In response, some people have started a coordinated Googlebomb to bring a new definition of "Amazon Rank" to the top of Google's search results.

As of this writing, #amazonfail is the top trend on Twitter (possibly because some big names have taken up the re-tweet cause). A Google News search for this story returns no results, indicating that it might behoove corporate PR folks to keep a closer eye on Twitter...and that someone might be having a rough Monday morning tomorrow at Amazon headquarters.
posted by TochterAusElysium (311 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Here's one more link that may be of interest: Open Letter to Amazon Regarding Recent Policy Changes.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 1:57 PM on April 12, 2009


I think I would have preferred hearing about Amazon removing the books with less emphasis on the Twitter angle.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 2:00 PM on April 12, 2009 [27 favorites]


If this started two days ago, that would be Friday. My money is on a glitch in Amazon's systems rather than a policy change.

Do you really think Amazon would just throw away all the money they make on adult titles like that?
posted by b1tr0t at 2:00 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, try doing some research next time. The three titles listed all come up in search results and have sales rank:

Brokeback Mountain
The Well of Loneliness
Tipping the Velvet


FAIL
posted by b1tr0t at 2:04 PM on April 12, 2009 [5 favorites]


To all those marketing types excited about the possibilities of Twitter: welcome to the other side of the coin. Better keep your PR people on retainer seven days a week.
posted by grouse at 2:06 PM on April 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


However, while seeming to unilaterally de-list any books with gay themes and characters

Funny, there's a whole Gay & Lesbian category with 25k books.

And then there's some plain old classic porn.
posted by b1tr0t at 2:08 PM on April 12, 2009


I was getting really confused as all of the books mentioned I'd looked up at first had an Amazon Sales Rank but then I found one, Giovanni's Room, as mentioned in the third link, has no sales rank. And then a lot more. This is definitely going on. I hope it's just some sort of technical error.
posted by Kattullus at 2:16 PM on April 12, 2009


Let's focus on the important stuff here: what are we going to call this thing? Twittolution? Twitbellion? Uptwitting? Insurgentwit? Mutwitty?
posted by Krrrlson at 2:17 PM on April 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Anyone else get really freaked out when they saw #amazonfail trending on twitter? It took me 2 ganglia refreshes and 5 ssh/tail -fs to remind myself that they also sometimes sell books and stuff.
posted by neustile at 2:19 PM on April 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


Coup d'twit
posted by Pater Aletheias at 2:20 PM on April 12, 2009 [41 favorites]


I hate Twitter with the proverbial heat of a thousand suns. But if it can legitimately claim a scoop on this, good on them.
posted by Joe Beese at 2:20 PM on April 12, 2009


I'm taking one look at all the FAIL usage in this thread and twitching a little.

But it does seem that Amazon has scaled back its rank-stripping (or perhaps I'm not following the instructions correctly), from outwardly embarrassing to just mild douchebag. A lot of these books have no sales ranks but I can still find them via its search.
posted by shadytrees at 2:20 PM on April 12, 2009


We already have a Twitter revolution.

Also, this seems to support the policy angle, not the tech fail one. (source)
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 2:21 PM on April 12, 2009


Coup d'twit

My hat is off to you.
posted by Krrrlson at 2:23 PM on April 12, 2009


Sorry - I was misinformed that the books can't be found via search, and I should have checked that. But it is true that they no longer have sales ranks. Sorry to the Twitter-haters; I found it interesting that it trended so strongly there without any reflection in online news sources.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 2:31 PM on April 12, 2009


From my end of things, it really looks like a problem with the business logic caused by a technical failure. Of course, I don't know, it's pure conjecture. But I don't think the simplest answer is "AMAZON IS KOWTOWING TO HOMOPHOBES!" It sounds too much like something you read on Snopes.
posted by dw at 2:40 PM on April 12, 2009


A TREND ON TWITTER!? YOU DON'T SAY!
posted by delmoi at 2:41 PM on April 12, 2009 [5 favorites]


By the way, taking books out of search results would basically make them impossible to find, and therefore impossible to buy. So I find it pretty hard to believe that they would remove anything they sell from search results.
posted by delmoi at 2:42 PM on April 12, 2009


The paperback version of Brokeback Mountain indeed does not show up anywhere in the "All Departments" search for 'brokeback'. It does show up under a book search.
posted by kmz at 2:47 PM on April 12, 2009


Also, try doing some research next time. The three titles listed all come up in search results and have sales rank:

Brokeback Mountain
The Well of Loneliness
Tipping the Velvet


FAIL
None of those searches show the in-print book version.
posted by kmz at 2:51 PM on April 12, 2009 [8 favorites]


I found it interesting that it trended so strongly there without any reflection in online news sources.

Legitimate news sources would do some fact-checking and get a comment from Amazon first.
posted by grouse at 3:00 PM on April 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure I like being older than a 'classic' book.
posted by Lemurrhea at 3:02 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


It seems only a matter of time before Amazon goes WAL-MART on us.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:04 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I sent Amazon an email saying I will not be buying from them until they can resolve this issue satisfactorily.

Hopefully this is all a big misunderstanding, because I enjoy buying things from Amazon.
posted by Pants! at 3:13 PM on April 12, 2009


Carolyn Kellogg: "But as troubling as the unevenness of the policy of un-ranking and de-searching certain titles might be, it's a bit beside the point. It's the action itself that is troubling: making books harder to find, or keeping them off bestseller lists on the basis of their content can't be a good idea."
posted by muckster at 3:14 PM on April 12, 2009


Fucking fuck am I fucking sick of hearing about Twitter. The Twitter angle is the least interesting aspect of this story. A "Twitter trend" is about the only web movement more useless than a "Facebook campaign."
posted by EatTheWeak at 3:14 PM on April 12, 2009 [22 favorites]


kmz: None of those searches show the in-print book version.

HOLY SHIT! You're absolutely right. This is a lot worse than I realized. For those keeping track at home the deranked books, like the in-print version of The Well of Loneliness, do not show up when you search all of Amazon but do show up when just searching the books department.
posted by Kattullus at 3:18 PM on April 12, 2009


I think this was broadly applied and will get revamped or dropped entirely. Huge bestsellers like Running With Scissors are affected, and I can't see that standing. Doesn't look like an accident though.

Interestingly the works of Jean Genet still have sales rankings, probably because they aren't in the GLBT category.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 3:21 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Unfortunately, the inherent transience of Twitter content and trends suggests that any semi-coordinated knee-jerk outrage will quickly burn out to be replaced by tomorrow's semi-coordinated, poorly-research knee-jerk outrage.

Crowdsourcing! Yeah! Google-bombing! Yeah! We can change the world with Twitter! Yeah!

Unless we're too busy on facebook.
posted by i blame your mother at 3:24 PM on April 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


American Psycho (a book I like a lot) has sales rank and "all departments" searchability; Rubyfruit Jungle doesn't. Thanks for preserving those traditional family values, guys.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:24 PM on April 12, 2009 [5 favorites]


Fucking fuck am I fucking sick of hearing about Twitter.

You should totally tweet that.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:26 PM on April 12, 2009 [13 favorites]


The revolution will not be twittered.
posted by klangklangston at 3:30 PM on April 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


But whitey's on the moon.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:34 PM on April 12, 2009 [5 favorites]


This post contains Twitter. Flagged.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 3:36 PM on April 12, 2009


I suspect this is due to poor product requirements leading to poor programming followed up with poor testing and being rushed into production without anyone noticing these issues. That would explain why Our Bodies, Ourselves and YA guides for teenagers dealing with their sexuality (and not sex!) are being "protected" from people for being "adult" while Playboy Centerfold Pictorials retain their search ranking and visibility.

I can't believe that Amazon would be so foolish as to do this without a masking marketing campaign (Now, with extra Child-Shield!) that would frame the discussion ahead of time so they wouldn't be answerless in light of entirely expected events: a) writers organizing on LiveJournal and sharing notes and b) inspiring people in love with the hottest current internet trend IN THE MEDIA world to be outraged and viral, thereby causing their PR phones to burn up.

The articles started hitting GoogleNews about an hour ago.
posted by julen at 3:38 PM on April 12, 2009


Seriously, citing Twitter search results for something is about as useless as when journalists (used to) cite the number of hits a google search turned up for a certain term when they were trying to make a point; it's pretty meaningless.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 3:40 PM on April 12, 2009


An "all departments" search of keyword "homosexuality" gives this delightful tome as the first item. WTF, Amazon.
posted by elizardbits at 3:50 PM on April 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


Pants!: "I sent Amazon an email saying I will not be buying from them until they can resolve this issue satisfactorily."

The CSR who reads it will run a macro to give you this pre-written reply:

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude "adult" material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.
posted by Joe Beese at 3:53 PM on April 12, 2009


I'm seeing this much more on Livejournal than on Twitter -- where's the "Livejournal trend"? The "Livejournal revolution"?

(Sound, fury and late-night code changes, signifying nothing)
posted by Katemonkey at 4:00 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Here is a collection of amazonfail links with a time line and here is a list of known books that have been affected.

kmz is right. The books can't be found if with an "All Department" search. They can be found if you do a "Book" search. Books that are affected seem be a wide swath of LGBT books some with a little or no "adult content" and a wide swath of het erotica and romance.

Books that have hit by this include:
the Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students,
Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian History, Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America
The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk Biography
Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape
The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde.
My Germany: A Jewish Writer Returns to the World His Parents Escaped

Books not hit by this include Playboy: Readheads.

This was implemented in a really haphazard way as some editions of a book can be found and others can't. However, as far as people can tell, none of the kindle editions have had their rank stripped.
posted by nooneyouknow at 4:01 PM on April 12, 2009


none of the kindle editions have had their rank stripped.

I always suspected that. THE KINDLE IS TOTALLY GAY!
(The preceding gag comment does not represent my opinion of anything at all. I just sometimes cannot avoid the temptation to go for the obvious joke.)
posted by wendell at 4:09 PM on April 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


Appears to have started at least two months ago.
posted by Joe Beese at 4:10 PM on April 12, 2009


Can Twitter do anything about Whole Foods not carrying Rose's Lime Cordial?
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 4:24 PM on April 12, 2009 [5 favorites]


I'm looking at all these data points and none of it adds up. They don't even make sense from a human perspective. No human would make the decisions to delist/derank in such a haphazard way, and Amazon is a very methodical organization to a fault. Some calm and reason in this position would be best.

But then, this is the Internet, where there's a Pitchfork And Torch Brigade waiting to jump on any slight nowadays. Maybe I'm just burned out on years of This Must Not Stand screaming from Twitter, blogs, the Usenet, e-mails, faxes, mimeographs....
posted by dw at 4:44 PM on April 12, 2009


This is a very odd happening.
posted by Avenger at 4:49 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I suspect this is due to poor product requirements leading to poor programming followed up with poor testing and being rushed into production without anyone noticing these issues.

You have to go through a lot of review and tests to get new code live on Amazon; removing popular titles from search results should trip at least one of those tests.
posted by zippy at 4:55 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I wonder if Amazon Canada is doing this too. I'm not quite sure how to check, since I've never used Amazon before. (I like 3 dimensional bookstores, although I appreciate what would be great about buying online)
posted by zarah at 4:57 PM on April 12, 2009


Heather has two mommies: no sales rank.
posted by zippy at 4:58 PM on April 12, 2009


There's clearly a real problem here that needs to be fixed. The fact that it's more likely a screwup than institutional homophobia hardly matters.

If it's true that this has been going on for two months and nobody but some people on Twitter have noticed, maybe you Twitter-haters should redirect your venom.
posted by nev at 5:01 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Apparently some people have been getting their angry e-mails bounced. Full inboxen?
posted by rubah at 5:02 PM on April 12, 2009


You have to go through a lot of review and tests to get new code live on Amazon

In tough (and even not so tough) times QA is often the first thing to get cut.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 5:03 PM on April 12, 2009


Ok, amazon.ca seems fine. Searching "homosexuality" there, the top 2 results are a Y/A novel Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You & The Gay Man's Kama Sutra
posted by zarah at 5:07 PM on April 12, 2009


LA Times has picked up the story. (And yes I learned this via Twitter.)
posted by jnaps at 5:15 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


If it's true that this has been going on for two months and nobody but some people on Twitter have noticed, maybe you Twitter-haters should redirect your venom.

People have seen this happen in small numbers (1 or 2 at a time) over the past few months. On Thursday, hundreds of books had their sales ranks stripped in a very short period of time. It looks like they rolled out a time- and money-saving automated or software solution.

If the original product requirements were not robust (e.g. they didn't fully specify what adult meant), the whole development process was hamstrung. And if the QA specifications didn't include varied response to data type examples (e.g,. young adult gay/lesbian notfiction or historical non-fiction books about homsexuality at various eras or fiction about teenagers discovering they are gay), then they might not have tested negatives ("Yay it works! We're not see explicit fetishist sex manuals in this list" would not have been followed by "Yay! It works! We still see ALL of the non-fiction guides for handling it when your child tells you they are gay.)

I've worked for big companies and small, and when timelines get compressed and manpower is stressed, process and quality of development/testing suffers almost immediately.
posted by julen at 5:19 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


The lack of sales rank isn't being done as a blanket change by author, either. Rubyfruit Jungle doesn't have a sales rank, but Rita Mae Brown's mystery novels do. It's quite obviously being targeted at specific titles.

The top search about homosexuality is a parent's guide to preventing it?

Something smells rotten, indeed.
posted by hippybear at 5:21 PM on April 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


If the original product requirements were not robust (e.g. they didn't fully specify what adult meant), the whole development process was hamstrung.
Having extensively mucked around in the data exposed by their affiliate program APIs, I would not be shocked to discover that a rolled-out-too-quickly bulk tool missed some stuff and also pulled far too many innocuous titles into the net. Their internal data is really, really, REALLY messy. There's not really any way to avoid it when you cover as much ground as they do.

It's not an excuse, but it does rather make sense.
posted by verb at 5:25 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


But then, this is the Internet, where there's a Pitchfork And Torch Brigade waiting to jump on any slight nowadays. Maybe I'm just burned out on years of This Must Not Stand screaming from Twitter, blogs, the Usenet, e-mails, faxes, mimeographs....

Take it as reassuring background noise. It's a sign that there are lots of eyeballs on the problem. If Amazon's doing something wrong, one of these pissed-off Twits will likely find it.

I mean, yeah, I find it strange that anger is what motivates so many people to look into this stuff. I don't find anger motivating at all. I certainly don't work hard or think clearly when I'm mad. But who cares what motivates me? I wouldn't have the time or the energy to investigate this shit even if I wanted to. These people do have the time and energy, and if shouting about it on Twitter is what it takes to get them going, hey, I'm willing to tune it out and let them do their thing.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:25 PM on April 12, 2009


Listen to the wisdom of Sun-Tzu:

Appear at points which the enemy must hasten to defend, march swiftly to places to where you are not expected.

Head-on attacks on large organizations aren't as effective as indirect attacks. So what people need to do is find places where Amazon is connected to other organizations. The pressure those organizations can put on Amazon is what you really need. That's why right-wingers go after the advertisers, not the networks. Is Amazon interested in any legislation before Congress? Find out. Then start a carpet-bombing campaign with your local members of Congress. Perhaps push for an end to the lack of sales tax on some internet purchases. Publishers might also be a good spot. Does amazon have side deals with other retailers? Let those retailers know you won't be patronizing them. It is likely a bean-counter has already counted up the amount of money they might lose and they've deemed it acceptable--mess those calculations up. Strike at the Kindle. Who makes those things? E-mail the authors of the top 10 ranked books to express your outrage. Get Stephen King involved. Same with music. Attack the links between Amazon and its outside revenue-generators.

Hell contact the Google and tell them you won't be using their search engine as long as google ads for amazon come up. Same with Yahoo.

Other people will have better links to attack. But by punishing those who do business with Amazon for Amazon's wrongdoing, you can bet that persons at Amazon not directly involved will feel heat. That is how you can win.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:28 PM on April 12, 2009 [11 favorites]


Might I recommend that we all go out and buy For The Bible Tells Me So by Gene Robinson, the openly gay New Hampshire Episcopalian bishop? His book is the number THREE result for a search for "homosexuality" on Amazon. Think we can get it to number one?
posted by jock@law at 5:29 PM on April 12, 2009


The San Francisco Chronicle has it as its frontpage story but when you click on it you're sent to the Los Angeles Times.
posted by small_ruminant at 5:34 PM on April 12, 2009


I just tried this search on amazon.co.uk and got Can Homosexuality be Healed? and A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality as the top two hits! WTF Amazon! How are two US anti-gay books the top hits for a UK search on homosexuality? Does anyone know what results this search would have thrown up previously?
posted by Flitcraft at 5:35 PM on April 12, 2009


verb: "I would not be shocked to discover that a rolled-out-too-quickly bulk tool missed some stuff and also pulled far too many innocuous titles into the net."

This is perfectly plausible. However, they would have known about it for two months now. Even if you believe that they were incapable of rolling back the code at some point during that time - which I don't - it would be a colossal publicity blunder not to pre-emptively announce the technical issue.
posted by Joe Beese at 5:35 PM on April 12, 2009


Weird. My own book does show up on an All Department search. It has lesbian in the title, so maybe it thinks you want to be exposed to homosexuality and shows it to you.

And the first book in this search? That is the most egregious thing of all.
posted by ltracey at 5:36 PM on April 12, 2009


Andrew Sullivan's books have been taken off as well.

Yeah, this seems like a pretty crazy fuckup.
posted by delmoi at 5:44 PM on April 12, 2009


Can we get some kind of reaction from Amazon? I'd be really interested to hear what they have to say about this.
posted by Avenger at 5:57 PM on April 12, 2009


Amazon's response to an inquiry from a GLBT publisher.
posted by elizardbits at 6:00 PM on April 12, 2009


Duh. That's the second link in this FPP. Hangover = bad.
posted by elizardbits at 6:01 PM on April 12, 2009


Also, the Joy of Gay Sex has been scrubbed in the All Departments search, yet is still available for Kindle (as someone else pointed out above, on preview). I'm trying to figure out why it makes sense to scrub the hardcopy from their search while leaving the Kindle version. Kids can't own a Kindle or something?

Strangely, the Gay Man's Kama Sutra comes up as result #1 for the Joy of Gay Sex, in hardcover. Why leave that and not the others?

Somebody at Amazon is so fired.
posted by Avenger at 6:01 PM on April 12, 2009


Amazon's response to an inquiry from a GLBT publisher.

Whoops. RTFA Avenger.
posted by Avenger at 6:03 PM on April 12, 2009


elizardbits: "An "all departments" search of keyword "homosexuality" gives this delightful tome as the first item. WTF, Amazon."

What about other words?

Search for "homosexual" and you get: Loving Homosexuals as Jesus Would (Paperback), a link to category Teens > Social Issues > Homosexuality, Being Homosexual: Gay Men and Their Development (Paperback, looks reasonably positive), Slaves, Women & Homosexuals (Paperback and Kindle, explores the Christian church's treatment of these groups), and Gone, But Not Forgotten (DVD, unrated).

Search all departments for "gay" and the top 5 results are: The Pool (DVD, unrated), The Gay Man's Kama Sutra (Hardcover), Another Gay Sequel (DVD, unrated), a gay pride dog tag, and The Joy of Gay Sex (Kindle).

Something fishy is clearly going on, but for now I'm putting my money on "mistake." As for your search, I don't think many gay-positive books prominently use the word "homosexuality".
posted by CrayDrygu at 6:17 PM on April 12, 2009


This is an interesting story that began with a seed spread on Twitter and researched by those people. It is a part of the story.

That said, I would have like the Twitter angle emphasized less.

That said, shut the fuck up and don't derail this into a hate-fest on Twitter. This is something that's worth an FPP on.
posted by flatluigi at 6:26 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


This guy seems to think it's a massive trolling effort.

God I hate the word "butthurt."
posted by gc at 6:27 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I love Amazon, they're a great company. I really hope this was some stupid mistake, or at worse a poorly considered policy they will reverse. I know a fair number of Amazon employees and am confident none of them would support this policy.

I'm surprised that I can't find an official Amazon blog where they communicate with their customers. Do they not have one?
posted by Nelson at 6:27 PM on April 12, 2009


Also, the Joy of Gay Sex has been scrubbed in the All Departments search, yet is still available for Kindle (as someone else pointed out above, on preview). I'm trying to figure out why it makes sense to scrub the hardcopy from their search while leaving the Kindle version. Kids can't own a Kindle or something?
Kindle projects are stored in a completely different product tree. That's one of the reasons that the "Someone botched a large-scale bulk change and cleanup was low priority until people started complaining" explanation feels like the most plausible one to me.
posted by verb at 6:28 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Something fishy is clearly going on, but for now I'm putting my money on "mistake." As for your search, I don't think many gay-positive books prominently use the word "homosexuality".

Maybe, but the majority of results on the first page of a search for "homosexuality" on Amazon Canada brings up A Parent's Guide To Preventing Homosexuality at number 9, with the top 8 being gay-positve books. cf. Amazon.com search, where only 5 of the top 16 aren't Christian wingnut books.
posted by Frankieist at 6:32 PM on April 12, 2009


argh

Maybe, but the majority of results on the first page of a search for "homosexuality" on Amazon Canada brings up A Parent's Guide To Preventing Homosexuality at number 9, with the top 8 being gay-positve books. cf. Amazon.com search, where only 5 of the top 16 aren't Christian wingnut books.
posted by Frankieist at 6:34 PM on April 12, 2009


After reading the post linked by gc, I'm inclined to agree that this may be a meta-trolling exercise. There's no motivation for Amazon to do this (they're such a liberal company!) but I can absolutely think of a million 4Chan users who would something like this positively hee-larious.
posted by arielmeadow at 6:54 PM on April 12, 2009


Nope, gay-positive books with homosexuality in the title are definitely affected. James Davidson's magisterial academic book The Greeks and Greek Love: A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality In Ancient Greece now no longer shows up in an all department search - instead you get the Mills and Boon The Greek Billionaire's Love-Child. Davidsons' other well known scholarly book Courtesans and Fishcakes, not only comes up in an 'all department' search but has its sales rank. Sales rank on The Greeks and Greek Love is now gone.
posted by Flitcraft at 6:58 PM on April 12, 2009


"I would not be shocked to discover that a rolled-out-too-quickly bulk tool missed some stuff and also pulled far too many innocuous titles into the net."

Maybe so, but the highly convenient nature of the "mistake" raises my suspicions. If it was a glitchy tool, it appears to have been a tool designed witht eh desires of the Religious Right in mind.

Also, this is ducking the big question here: what the hell is Amazon.com doing, that they have an "adult" list that's excluded from ranking and bestseller lists in the first place? If a book is a best seller, it should be on theri best seller list, no matter what the category.

Glitchy tool or not, the bottom line is that Amazon has been engaging in "protecting" us from "adult" titles, basically deciding for us what we should be interested in reading.
posted by happyroach at 7:01 PM on April 12, 2009


If this a concerted effort by an outside group to mess with the complaint system then they likely have a webpage up with instructions to their minions. Find that webpage.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:05 PM on April 12, 2009


The Publisher's Lunch Twitter account is now reporting that Amazon says it is, in fact, a glitch, and they're trying to fix it.
posted by Caduceus at 7:15 PM on April 12, 2009


Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, a Booker Prize winner, has been deranked. So have books by EM Forster, Sarah Waters, and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. It's idiotic. I emailed Amazon and cancelled my account earlier today.
posted by jokeefe at 7:17 PM on April 12, 2009


Glitch my ass. It's been happening since the beginning of this year.
posted by jokeefe at 7:18 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Turns out, jokeefe, that your response is exactly the new trending topic on Twitter. #glitchmyass
posted by Caduceus at 7:22 PM on April 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


This situation is being called a glitch now, anyway. Had they boiled that frog a little bit slower ...

I'm miffed. Partially because they did this, and partially because they did it so badly.
posted by adipocere at 7:27 PM on April 12, 2009


Also, this is ducking the big question here: what the hell is Amazon.com doing, that they have an "adult" list that's excluded from ranking and bestseller lists in the first place? If a book is a best seller, it should be on theri best seller list, no matter what the category.

The very point driven home by the LA Times writeup. While the "adult" angle is egregrious, the real issue is larger - the idea that a distributor can inconsistently censor books based on arbitrary guidelines, without either clearly explaining these guidelines or providing a clear way to circumvent such censorship.

I agree with jokeefe - "glitch, my ass." The response from Amazon clearly indicates that this was intentional. The only "glitch" is that they got caught, and they're now trying to undo the PR damage.
posted by FormlessOne at 7:33 PM on April 12, 2009


The lack of sales rank isn't being done as a blanket change by author, either. Rubyfruit Jungle doesn't have a sales rank, but Rita Mae Brown's mystery novels do.

Louis Bayard's historical novels have a rank, but his novels about gay don't have a rank.

I honestly don't see how this could have been a "glitch". Is there any plausible hypothesis for that explanation? Mr. Sidhedevil can't think of one, and he's a computer guy.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:33 PM on April 12, 2009


Y'all can hate on twitter all you want, but the fact that it was trending turned my attention to it, and the attention of several of my friends. That's some useful organizing shit right there.
posted by lunit at 7:41 PM on April 12, 2009 [7 favorites]


I still believe this is some sort of brand-spanking new automated program or script or something (to replace a human process that got that one guy who is posting everywhere's book unsalesranked a few months ago, as well as a few other books that got unrankedin the months before the explosion of unranking at the end of this week). That program got misconfigured (at best) or was ill-designed (my guess). I think they're using "glitch" as shorthand "not what we intended and not really our fault! It's a mysterious error that you shouldn't hold us accountable for!"

I don't think Amazon's intention to prevent people from accessing classic literature, self-help books, books that are about gay folks or love or romance, but I do believe that they decided to fuzzily protect people as cheaply as possible and then used an anvil instead of tweezers to get rid of the things that drove complaints towards them, thereby doing exactly that. This implies that their requirements were broad and made assumptions that involved a lack of domain knowledge about their own complaints departments, human nature, and automatic filters.

I am not excusing them (indeed, I'm moving my shopping cart contents over to Powell's because I don't find this a minor error), but I'd rather ding them for incompetence and stupidity than for kowtowing to Anti-Gay forces that I do not believe actually are pulling their strings. Those groups would be CROWING over this and their impact over Amazon if their influence was actually that strong, and I held my nose and looked around and I saw no evidence of it in public sites of groups like the AFA.
posted by julen at 7:55 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


By the way, taking books out of search results would basically make them impossible to find, and therefore impossible to buy. So I find it pretty hard to believe that they would remove anything they sell from search results.

As the customer service blurb linked above indicates, Amazon suppresses "adult" items from generalized site search results all the time. This is so that when your theoretical kid gets on Amazon and searches for Tickle Me Elmo, he does not see French ticklers. Amazon also knows that people just love porn, but they also want you to be able to shop their site at work without fear that the cover art for the straight-to-video hit Hot Buttered Butts will appear uninvited on your screen. These items are still searchable within their particular store.

Amazon is a very methodical organization to a fault.

As a former AMZN editor, I can state with a loud guffaw that this is untrue. I'd provide examples, but I'm saving 'em for my tell-all book that I've been idly talking about writing since I quit. I've been talking about collaborating with a friend who worked in AMZN's IT department, and we're thinking of titling it Fucked in the Front End, Fucked in the Back End. Which, given these recent events, pretty much guarantees it will not be sales-ranked at our former place of employ.
posted by cirocco at 7:55 PM on April 12, 2009 [14 favorites]


I honestly don't see how this could have been a "glitch". Is there any plausible hypothesis for that explanation?

Oh yeah, many hypotheses. I can think of a dozen. It could be a problem with their databases, which date from 1995. It could be bad business logic in their Java backend. It could be a bad SQL statement. It could be old code. It could be new code. And I'm not even including a disgruntled employee.

I will say that I don't think the books that were mislabeled two months ago are this problem. They may be a symptom of this problem, but they are not the problem.

As someone who works with this stuff from the front-end back, I can totally believe that it was a glitch. The other day, I discovered a piece of code I wrote that three years on was kicking up problems because I didn't expect the XML feed to change. But I was in a hurry three years ago, and in retrospect it was dumb to make the assumption I did. Still, that's all it could take in a situation like this. A bad piece of code + a database that's been cobbled together over 14 years = FAIL.
posted by dw at 7:56 PM on April 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


they decided to fuzzily protect people as cheaply as possible and then used an anvil instead of tweezers to get rid of the things that drove complaints

I'd rather ding them for incompetence and stupidity than for kowtowing to Anti-Gay forces


Somehow, "protecting" people and removing sales ranks from items that draw complaints really sounds to me like kowtowing to Anti-Gay forces.
posted by hippybear at 8:00 PM on April 12, 2009


My first thought was that a hyper-religious person at Amazon was gaming the data, like what happened when all the negative reviews of Dianetics and related titles were removed a while back.
posted by mrbill at 8:02 PM on April 12, 2009


In addition to clarifying that my tell-all book is a joke (I actually loved the fast-and-loose corporate environment at AMZN, even as it drove me gradually mad) I have to stick up for the company's general open-mindedness vis-a-vis queer issues. For June 2006, I pitched the idea of a GBLT gift guide (I was the gifting editor at the time) and it was approved by management. It's still online, although the product selection is dated at this point.
posted by cirocco at 8:04 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


An interesting theory here, positing that this is in effect the result of mega-trolling shenanigans. I don't know enough about how Amazon works to evaluate the merits of those claims, or of other theories posited in this thread; I will say that I tend to fall on the side of "Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity." It'll be interesting in any event to see how Amazon spins the fallout from this.
posted by Kat Allison at 8:08 PM on April 12, 2009


Still, that's all it could take in a situation like this. A bad piece of code + a database that's been cobbled together over 14 years = FAIL.
Indeed. That doesn't diminish the seriousness of the issue, and it certainly highlights the Google-like power Amazon has to make or break long tail books that are unlikely to show up at the local Borders. But the "Why didn't Kindle books get de-listed" and "Why is it just the US" stuff is not proof of a conspiracy; kindle vs. print and US vs. Canada are existing database boundaries that are outlined in their developer documentation.

It's definitely an embarrassment. It's definitely inexcusable that GLBT materials would be flagged while straight porn is left untouched. But as dw notes, "Conspiracy to suppress" is a lot harder to explain when you know the backend than "Oh, shit, we didn't think of that" and a too-loose set of filters on a bulk update.

The fact that it hit the fan over Easter weekend, when a skeleton staff and absent PR people would almost ensure a response-vacuum, is double-plus-ungood for them. They'll spend weeks cleaning this up and it's not hard to imagine a lost job or two.
posted by verb at 8:09 PM on April 12, 2009


As a former AMZN editor, I can state with a loud guffaw that this is untrue.

Maybe methodical isn't the right word. It's more they tend to stick inside their ethos and stick to their M.O. There seems to be a method to their madness. That other big IT company in metro Seattle is all over the place by comparison.
posted by dw at 8:13 PM on April 12, 2009


Kat Allison: That's such a great counter theory, but it breaks down (and is discussed in the comments at your link) when you realize that Amazon doesn't have a "customer disapproval" button for their merchandise. Whatever is happening is happening from inside.
posted by hippybear at 8:14 PM on April 12, 2009


I hate to be yet another person on the 'shut up about Twitter' angle, but to be fair I think it is rather well a deluge over the typical mefi frontpage lately. One to two posts for the past week have featured Twitter as a main topic.

Maybe I'm just feeling bitter and willfully left out. But I guess I didn't bitch much about electionfilter back in the entire months of September thru November.

Anyway, in terms of the actual topic at hand and less with the Twitter angle, I'm glad that the information is at least getting out, because it seems like a rather shitty situation Amazon's setting up. Go go internet task force, and all.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 8:17 PM on April 12, 2009


That doesn't diminish the seriousness of the issue, and it certainly highlights the Google-like power Amazon has to make or break long tail books that are unlikely to show up at the local Borders.

And that's ultimately the problem here. It's not that Amazon isn't the biggest book seller (it's not), it's that it has the largest publicly accessible data set for books on this planet. Even if you're going to Powell's to buy a book, you're usually looking it up on Amazon first. Every time you add a book to LibraryThing you're pulling data from Amazon's APIs.

Amazon, like Google, may be "too big to fail" from an Internet perspective.
posted by dw at 8:26 PM on April 12, 2009


Publishers Weekly: Amazon Says Glitch to Blame for "New" Adult Policy.
posted by ericb at 8:33 PM on April 12, 2009


they're such a liberal company!

Source, please? I have a bunch of friends who won't buy from them because something like 60% of their political contributions went to Republicans. (I think they got their info from buyblue.com, which is currently down.)
posted by small_ruminant at 8:33 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Consumerist now has the story (yup, I learned this on Twitter; hate me).
posted by kaiserin at 8:35 PM on April 12, 2009


Source, please?

OpenSecrets has their PAC giving 63% to Democrats in the 2008 cycle.
posted by dw at 8:42 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


ericb: "Publishers Weekly: Amazon Says Glitch to Blame for "New" Adult Policy."

Whether a glitch or new policy...

PW doesn't appear to believe them either.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:42 PM on April 12, 2009


FundRace says $138,264 was contributed by Amazon.com employees to the 2008 presidential race, $125,879 to Democrats.
posted by dw at 8:46 PM on April 12, 2009


It's a glitch.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:56 PM on April 12, 2009


Amazon will be beside itself in the face of all this fury!

Face the fury Amazon! Face it!!!! You will be destroyed in 140 characters or less! Oh wait, you had $19,000,000,000 in revenue last year. I'm thinking the twits and LJ mopers are overestimating their power just a teeny, tiny bit.
posted by MikeMc at 8:56 PM on April 12, 2009


The Associated Press has picked up the story.
posted by ericb at 9:04 PM on April 12, 2009


Now, see, this is where I call bullshit on the "no sales ranking for adult products" line from Amazon. This is the top search from the Amazon homepage for "dildo", and seems to have a sales rank.

Or maybe this is part of a child's halloween costume?
posted by hippybear at 9:15 PM on April 12, 2009


In case you'd like a direct link to Powell's web store -- which has a pretty vast selection of new & used books, though not the electronics & toys & etc. of Amazon -- here you go. (I don't have any connection to them, other than I like going to their brick-and-mortar stores.)
posted by lisa g at 9:21 PM on April 12, 2009


Now, see, this is where I call bullshit on the "no sales ranking for adult products" line from Amazon.

I already called bullshit on this explanation when I saw that a scholarly biography of Ellen DeGeneres from academic publisher Greenwood Press was de-ranked, whereas Ron Jeremy's and Jenna Jameson's autobiographies--which are both quite explicit!--still have their rankings.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:21 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Amazon doesn't have a "customer disapproval" button for their merchandise.

Heh. You kids today. As part of a class assignment that skimmed the text of letters to a politician, looking for phrases that let him know how they stand on a handful of key issues, and then assembled the absolutely meaningless, "Like you I am deeply concerned " response to be sent with an addition to the "hit these people up for a campaign donation" - (gun control) or whatever list.

I'm quite certain that Amazon has reproduced and maybe even improved on my eight hours of mainframe terminal noodling, in PL/1, in the mid-eighties. Did they do anything about anyone trying to game their system?

...shakes...

ALL SIGNS POINT TO "NO"

posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:24 PM on April 12, 2009


FWIW -- Amazon's customer service line: 800-201-7575.
posted by ericb at 9:26 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Valleywag: These Books Too Gay for Amazon.
posted by ericb at 9:27 PM on April 12, 2009


Oh yeah, many hypotheses. I can think of a dozen. It could be a problem with their databases, which date from 1995. It could be bad business logic in their Java backend. It could be a bad SQL statement. It could be old code. It could be new code.

We considered all of these, Mr. Sidhedevil and I. I don't see how any of these could produce these incredibly focused results. Mein Kampf is the most complained about book on Amazon, and it wasn't affected. Tons of straight explicit erotica and porn was unaffected, while books like Changing Bodies, Changing Lives were de-ranked. I just don't see how this could have happened on the input end--what's different on the input for Tropic of Cancer and Delta of Venus?
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:27 PM on April 12, 2009


Face the fury Amazon! Face it!!!! You will be destroyed in 140 characters or less! Oh wait, you had $19,000,000,000 in revenue last year. I'm thinking the twits and LJ mopers are overestimating their power just a teeny, tiny bit.

Yeah, because cash money is the only power in the world that's worth taking any notice of.
posted by blucevalo at 9:27 PM on April 12, 2009


Kid Charlemagne

I'm trying to decypher your response. Are you saying that there IS a system within the Amazon customer interface wherein items can be marked as "adult" or "offensive" or somehow reported to the management in order to complain about them?

Are you suggesting that back in the mid-eighties you left a still-undiscovered backdoor into the Amazon catalog for people to remove sales rankings?

I'm probably mutton dressed as lamb, but help this "kid" understand what you, Kid, just said?
posted by hippybear at 9:30 PM on April 12, 2009


Yeah, because cash money is the only power in the world that's worth taking any notice of.

Cash money is the only reason Amazon exists.
posted by MikeMc at 9:32 PM on April 12, 2009


The word is spreading:
CNET News: Amazon criticized for de-ranking 'adult' books.

Seattle Post Intelligencer: Amazon under fire for perceived anti-gay policy.

Examiner.com: Amazon.com has anti-gay "technical glitch".

Advocate.com: Amazon De-ranks Books with Gay Content.

The Consumerist: Gay and Lesbian Books Lose Amazon Sales Rank For Some Reason.
posted by ericb at 9:35 PM on April 12, 2009


Boycott Amazon.com.

Online Petition -- "In protest at Amazon's new 'adult' policy."
posted by ericb at 9:38 PM on April 12, 2009


Foreign Policy: #Amazonfail and the politics of anti-corporate cyberactivism.
posted by ericb at 9:45 PM on April 12, 2009


I'm moving my shopping cart contents over to Powell's....Even if you're going to Powell's to buy a book, you're usually looking it up on Amazon first....In case you'd like a direct link to Powell's web store...

Powell's Books: "GLBT sale sounds like a great idea to me. I will check to see if this is something we can get going."
posted by ericb at 9:48 PM on April 12, 2009


Well, I sent my angry email informing Amazon of my intention to stop shopping with them and their affiliates, as well as ending my use of all Amazon Web Services.

I couldn't care less whether it's a glitch or an active policy. The effect is one of discrimination. I certainly hope the queer employees of Amazon throw their fit, too.
posted by Netzapper at 9:50 PM on April 12, 2009


amazonfail is now a tag on Amazon
posted by Kattullus at 9:54 PM on April 12, 2009


Foreign Policy: #Amazonfail and the politics of anti-corporate cyberactivism.

The partial list of titles banned by Amazon is already available here - all we need is a bot to track their sales from now on.

How do you get a bot to track sales if Amazon has "banned" the titles? #FPfail. In all fairness the author is from Belarus perhaps "banned" means something else there.
posted by MikeMc at 9:56 PM on April 12, 2009


I was going to boycott Amazon because of this, but nobody can talk about it without mentioning Twitter, so I decided to buy several things from Amazon in order to offend Twitter instead.
posted by mmoncur at 9:57 PM on April 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


We considered all of these, Mr. Sidhedevil and I. I don't see how any of these could produce these incredibly focused results.
And the answer is, "The results are NOT focused." Amazon's database is a giant assy tangle of keywords and outdated hierarchies that shift around and maintain ugly, broken backlinks for compatibility reasons when they try to do much of anything. It works, but it's big and broken at any given moment. It's wikipedia-esque.

Until there is some sort of answer from Amazon, I think it's tremendously irresponsible to assume that this resulted from deliberate policy rather than the unfortunate overlap of bad testing and a clueless (and potentially offensive) assumption about 'gay books' when doing some routine metadata management.

I'm the co-author of a book that hit the top 5 or so for 'Web development' for a week or so, so I keep careful track of where the amazon stats are. I've watched its sales rank -- and all custom reviews -- vanish entirely on occasion, then reappear. Odds are it was not a deliberate attempt to keep people from learning about PHP.

Now, when a wide swath of books gets hit by the same problem all at the same time, warning lights go off in the heads of those who notice. Naturally. But having seen the same kind of glitch happen to books so utterly nerdy they actually counteract erotica, I'm inclined to say, "Let's see what happens Monday."
posted by verb at 9:57 PM on April 12, 2009 [6 favorites]


We considered all of these, Mr. Sidhedevil and I. I don't see how any of these could produce these incredibly focused results.

It can if each record is flagged based on content, which obviously Amazon has been doing (to protect the kiddies from getting adult content on their home pages, according to a blog post by an AMZN techie which I can't find the link to right now).

Then all it takes is one mess-up in the code or the parameters you're feeding the algorithm and suddenly anything flagged as "gay" doesn't come up.

And I think that's part of the mix-up with the customer service person's initial response. She was assuming this was a classic "why isn't The Art Of Anal Pleasure coming up on my home page" question and sent the boilerplate answer. Which was correct, because they've always had some filtering in place. But in this case, the mob interpreted it as a NEW policy.
posted by dw at 9:59 PM on April 12, 2009


And the answer is, "The results are NOT focused."
By which I mean, the results we are seeing are classic "didn't filter a search set carefully enough" results. This is the result of a stupidly broad action, with the boundary lines appearing at obvious technical breakwalls like Print vs. Kindle and US vs. Canada.
posted by verb at 10:00 PM on April 12, 2009


I won't say more, but it really was just a glitch.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:05 PM on April 12, 2009


"Let's see what happens Monday."

Too late.
R.I.P
Amazon.com
1994-2009

posted by MikeMc at 10:09 PM on April 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


Then all it takes is one mess-up in the code or the parameters you're feeding the algorithm and suddenly anything flagged as "gay" doesn't come up.

All the anti-gay books (Recovering from Homosexuality and the like), which all have "gay" tags, still show up, though. I'm not seeing how buggy code could discriminate between Heather Has Two Mommies and Recovering from Homosexuality.

And then there's the weird stuff where books like Changing Bodies, Changing Lives was de-ranked. Or the odd case where The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability was de-ranked, while The Joy of Comfortable Sex retained its rank--both books are on roughly the same topic, but only one has a queer-positive slant.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:18 PM on April 12, 2009


Publishers Weekly: Amazon Says Glitch to Blame for "New" Adult Policy.

I wonder if Mr. Glitch has been fired yet, or if he's just gotten a reprimand from management.
posted by happyroach at 10:20 PM on April 12, 2009


As long as Amazon reverses the filtering and continues to maintain that it was just a glitch I don't see this hurting them too badly. I emailed to tell them I wouldn't buy anything else from them until they took care of the problem and that's not a lie, but I certainly don't want to have to stop shopping there and will be happy enough if they just undo what they've done. I can't say that I believe it's a completely technical glitch, but I also can't fathom how this could be a new policy they've knowingly instituted in the form that we're seeing right now so I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I also just received a reply to my email assuring me that it was a glitch that was being taken care of, so they're already making a concerted effort at damage control.
posted by des at 10:33 PM on April 12, 2009


All the anti-gay books (Recovering from Homosexuality and the like), which all have "gay" tags, still show up, though.

That's probably because they're not considered appropriate for listing as GLBT books, which this firestorm just confirms all the more.

People were running searches on "homosexuality" and getting the "Recovering" book. If books tagged with "GLBT" or "gay" or whatever are excluded from the search, of course the "Recovering" book is going to be #1.
posted by dw at 10:44 PM on April 12, 2009


Thing is, I'm not satisfied with either of the prevailing theories. A "glitch" that only seems to target LGBT literature just doesn't strike me as likely - it's just too specific for an accident. However, Amazon hatching some sort of "de-rank teh gayz" policy seems outlandish, too - it seems like too stupid of an idea to ever make it out of the boardroom.

Neither scenario strikes me as credible. What's happening is too stoopid to be a plan and too targeted to be a glitch.

verb - point taken, and you bet I'm curious as to what happens Monday. I wonder if there will ever be a satisfactory explanation for this.
posted by EatTheWeak at 10:52 PM on April 12, 2009


All the anti-gay books (Recovering from Homosexuality and the like), which all have "gay" tags, still show up, though. I'm not seeing how buggy code could discriminate between Heather Has Two Mommies and Recovering from Homosexuality.
Product grouping and categorization on one of the axis that isn't displayed to the public or directly submitted by visitors to the site. One of the ugly and annoying parts of Amazon's system is that they have a staggering number of mechanisms for grouping, organizing, and associating products. At any given moment, some of them are broken. Some can span multiple product groups (say, books and audio books, or 'video' and 'dvd') while others are blind to products with different ABIS_* typecodes. Others mechanisms great but only for up to 50 items at a time. Or they don't work in Japan, etc. Some of them are visible browsing the site, others are only visible when you poke around with specific focused requests in their APIs. Internally, I'm sure there are even more ways to slice and dice.

I spent a month or so in my spare time writing a relatively robust amazon web services client for a CMS, so while I'm not an expert, I have have spend a fair chunk of time slogging through large quantities of that data and saying, "Wow. That's messy." Also, noticing that it changes semi-regularly s they try to shift things around and make it work better or experiment. While it is certainly embarassing for this to happen, I can imagine dozens of ways that GLBT themed literature could belong to an associative group (or cluster of groups) that "religious books" about the issue of homosexuality would not.

Mind you, this is not an attempt to let people do something bad and hide behind the excuse that 'computers are hard.' It's just a word of caution, encouragement not to assume that any deliberate anti-gay sentiment or policy is responsible until there is enough time for action to be taken and more information to come out. What we've seen up to this point is some books without sales ranking data, some boilerplate customer service form-mail on potentially unrelated topics, and a LOT of anger.

I have made mistakes with a similar impact on live data. I was lucky enough to do it when it didn't matter, but it took me a couple hours to notice what had happened even when I had my head in the middle of it.
posted by verb at 10:55 PM on April 12, 2009


People were running searches on "homosexuality" and getting the "Recovering" book. If books tagged with "GLBT" or "gay" or whatever are excluded from the search, of course the "Recovering" book is going to be #1.

Interesting. The book I was thinking of, which is actually called You Don't Have to Be Gay (I spaced on the title) has "homosexuality" and "gay men" as subject tags. When I click on the "Homosexuality" subject tag, I get several pages of anti-gay hoo-ha, and then get John Boswell's magisterial and influential book, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, which has been de-ranked. Boswell's does have "gay studies" and "gay and lesbian" tags, whereas the other book does not.

On the other hand, that still wouldn't explain why this book was de-ranked, while this book wasn't, though. Same tags, but the disability-advocacy sex book was deranked, while the even more explicit sex book for people with back pain kept its rank.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:59 PM on April 12, 2009


It's definitely inexcusable that GLBT materials would be flagged while straight porn is left untouched. But as dw notes, "Conspiracy to suppress" is a lot harder to explain when you know the backend than "Oh, shit, we didn't think of that" and a too-loose set of filters on a bulk update.

Oh, please. You find it easier to believe that broken code or infrastructure managed to mangically touch everything gay, except the anti-gay religious stuff, the gay adult stuff, but magically avoided the straight porn because it's your considered opinion that magically homophobic bugs in code are more likely that deliberately homophobic action?

Riiiiiiiight.
posted by rodgerd at 11:01 PM on April 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Product grouping and categorization on one of the axis that isn't displayed to the public or directly submitted by visitors to the site. One of the ugly and annoying parts of Amazon's system is that they have a staggering number of mechanisms for grouping, organizing, and associating products.

If there is a product grouping rubric that characterizes Heather Has Two Mommies as "adult" and does not characterize How to Make Love Like a Porn Star as "adult", that rubric is messed up.

So, yeah, if a computer glitch exposed that rubric, the rubric is still a problem from my point of view.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:04 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


If there is a product grouping rubric that characterizes Heather Has Two Mommies as "adult" and does not characterize How to Make Love Like a Porn Star as "adult", that rubric is messed up.

But that fact alone proves there isn't such a rubric. I really think you're trying to read into the data points a pattern that doesn't exist.
posted by dw at 11:16 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Or, more to it, you're trying to overlay a rubric that is insufficient for the massive amount of stuff they sell. Keep in mind that the categories come from Amazon AND publishers, and they're often very contradictory.

And there's a little Potter Stewart mixed in, too -- you know it's "adult" or "GLBT" or "radish" when you see it.
posted by dw at 11:23 PM on April 12, 2009


Mind you, this is not an attempt to let people do something bad and hide behind the excuse that 'computers are hard.'

Heh heh. Heh heh heh. Heh heh. You said "hard".

In consideration of our entire customer base, this comment will no longer be given an Amazon sales rank.
posted by erniepan at 11:24 PM on April 12, 2009






Heh heh. Heh heh heh. Heh heh. You said "longer".
posted by erniepan at 11:25 PM on April 12, 2009


As a programmer, I can accept that it's possible for this to happen unintentionally in a number of ways, as verb and dw are pointing out. However, that it happened specifically to books that are concerned, in one form or another, with a politically divisive issue seems pretty coincidental to me.

I don't believe for a moment that this is the result of some new secret company policy, but I can imagine that a lone Amazon developer might have decided to impose his/her sense of morality on the site in a way that might go undetected for awhile, believing they could claim ignorance when the problem was discovered. If the test suite and the other developers could allow a "glitch" to slip by, they could overlook a deliberate alteration as well.

On the other hand, do we have any evidence that this same glitch has only occurred with the singular category of GLBT-positive books? I don't see any of the twits who are getting all a-froth about this researching whether the same fate has befallen books on Belgian gardening techniques or mudpuppy breeding. Perhaps Amazon will have something to say about this tomorrow.
posted by [user was fined for this post] at 11:26 PM on April 12, 2009


"Glitch" or not for this particular group of books -- discovering that Amazon censors sales rank info and hides some books from search results is an ugly awakening to me since the local library system relies rather heavily on Amazon.

They look at the Amazon bestseller lists and individual items' sales rank for help determining what to add to the collection. Amazon's data isn't the only factor of course, but the appearance that the world's biggest bookseller hasn't found it worth stocking would certainly make it harder to justify a purchase. Meanwhile, if you want to order a book or periodical via Interlibrary Loan, librarians at my branch won't accept the paperwork until the item's existence has been borne out by his/her Amazon search. Since they've had no reason to know there's a meaningful difference in which books are displayed via a search of Books dept vs. All Depts, I wonder how many patrons have blindly accepted no for an answer. Yeah, you can get them to search more thoroughly if you insist, but not everyone knows to insist. And the reference librarians typically make Amazon their first stop when a patron needs a suggestion they can't answer off the top of their heads. Not in their own catalog first. Not in WorldCat, or OCLC. Amazon.

Weekend "glitch" or not, Amazon has evidenced a corporate policy -- at least two months old -- of

* selecting books/editions to conceal from unsuspecting users,
* deprecating those books' sales rank (which also artificially inflates the position of books that otherwise wouldn't be able to squeeze into that Amazon bestseller list or top search result), and
* not being excruciatingly transparent about it

Yeah, sorry Amazon but that is indeed a fail.

Sure, we could debate how wise it is for a library professionals to assume that a merchandiser's database is complete and accurate sigh... But surely they were not alone in the underlying assumptions: that if one cannot find an item in Amazon's database, it's likely hard-to-find in general; and that if a book you do find there were prominent, then Amazon's bestseller lists and sales rank data would reflect that.

So after the massive outcry forces Amazon to reverse this cute little queer-positivity filter, I'm still going to have questions for Amazon. Like, what criteria do they use to decide what counts as "adult"? Do they filter other books too? What option will they provide for those of us don't want our Amazon searches and browsing filtered? Will they commit to providing authors and publishers notice that a material is being filtered, and provide info about why they felt it needed to be filtered? Will they commit to educating the public about the existence and extent of content filtering, and how to enable/disable this bleh feature?
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 11:32 PM on April 12, 2009 [9 favorites]


I just found this useful graph that sums up the science behind dismissing Twitter, as has happened in threads about this subject twice this week.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:32 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, please. You find it easier to believe that broken code or infrastructure managed to mangically touch everything gay, except the anti-gay religious stuff, the gay adult stuff, but magically avoided the straight porn because it's your considered opinion that magically homophobic bugs in code are more likely that deliberately homophobic action?
I am not suggesting "magical homophobic bugs." My considered opinion is, "Amazon product grouping mechanisms are complex and messy, and it is easy to imagine reasonable scenarios in which this intersection of products could have been flagged without malicious intent. Thus, let's wait for a moment and see if it goes back to normal."

I can't help but feel that people who've never worked with large, messy data sets are making authoritative statements about what is and isn't possible based on a remedial concept of what constitutes a "bug." If a technical glitch caused this rather than deliberate malice, it will not be because someone accidentally stuck "IF $TOPIC == 'GAY'" onto the wrong line of a PERL script. It will be because someone tried to build a really, really large set of data with nebulous and difficult to describe properties, and they failed.

As an exercise, go to a few different product pages on Amazon and read through the whole thing. Top to bottom. Look carefully at the different kinds of classifications. "Machine-generated tags." "User-submitted tags." "Categories." "Product Groups." "Similar products." "Suggested tags from similar products." "Statistically rare phrases found inside this book." "Capitalized Phrases Used Frequently In This Book." Some books have them, some books don't, some have different overlapping subsets of those different kinds of metadata. Add to that the dozens of internal metadata types used to categorize and associate books, an you've got a very messy soup. Finding any given 'broad' set of products requires working with a number of them simultaneously, teasing them into cooperating, and a lot of experimentation.

The section of Amazon's API documentation PDF file that explains how third parties can use just SOME of their grouping tools to find products is hundreds of pages long.

I do not find it implausible that batch operations relating to search index associations would pull in a lot of GLBT related content and leave a lot of straight porn, or even religious books about homosexuality. I think that i should be corrected, and quickly, but until additional information -- not uniformed speculation, but INFORMATION -- I still come down on the side of really embarrassing technical FUBAR.
posted by verb at 11:47 PM on April 12, 2009 [12 favorites]


So after the massive outcry forces Amazon to reverse this cute little queer-positivity filter, I'm still going to have questions for Amazon. Like, what criteria do they use to decide what counts as "adult"? Do they filter other books too? What option will they provide for those of us don't want our Amazon searches and browsing filtered?
All excellent questions. And up to this point, commentators seem to be assuming "homophobia" is the selection criteria. This is a bit silly and is likely to obscure the farther-reaching questions you raise.
posted by verb at 11:54 PM on April 12, 2009


You folks would do well to listen to verb.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:14 AM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Isn't this just a campaign by a bunch of trolls from Bantown to tag all the homosexuality-related stuff as explicit over and over again so it will automatically get removed from sales rank and search results?
posted by tehloki at 12:18 AM on April 13, 2009


tehloki: That's a theory but it hasn't been confirmed either way.

I'm collecting a list of alternatives to Amazon. I looked around online but didn't see any good lists, so I'm hoping to have one going. Please fill up the form and share it around.
posted by divabat at 12:58 AM on April 13, 2009


I do not find it implausible that batch operations relating to search index associations would pull in a lot of GLBT related content and leave a lot of straight porn, or even religious books about homosexuality. I think that i should be corrected, and quickly, but until additional information -- not uniformed speculation, but INFORMATION -- I still come down on the side of really embarrassing technical FUBAR.

and

"You folks would do well to listen to verb."

Okay, I'll buy that the dataset is completely unnormalized and tangly (and huge). It is therefore plausible that it's a technical glitch; but, as verb says, this isn't a one-liner typo kinda glitch. It's pretty much got to be a fundamentally incorrect program that was run against live data.

What I question is why such a program was being written in the first place? What was it targeting that it managed to catch pro-gay media without catching anti-gay media? If it's an overeager result set, what subset of the returned results was supposed to be returned?

And, likewise, you must admit that it's just as plausible that someone (not necessarily Amazon corporate, and perhaps even 4chan) has an agenda they chose to pursue through Amazon censorship. Since we don't know how this happened, we can't discount the possibility of goons (of some sort) perpetrating this.

In either situation, the effect of the incident is to (temporarily, hopefully) censor pro-GLBT literature. I don't really care if it's due to a careless programmer, a vigilante programmer, 4chan, or a corporate board comprised of Catholic bishops, the result is that those of us who care about such censorship have a responsibility not to give our money to the offending party until they've resolved the situation.

I am curious about, and hold out final judgment until, Amazon's public explanation of the situation. But, Amazon has some splainin' to do. Saying "it's a glitch" is insufficient. I want to know what happened.

Ultimately, though, I don't care about the root cause. If a search for "homosexuality" only returns results for curing it, I will not do business with Amazon.
posted by Netzapper at 1:01 AM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


An "all departments" search of keyword "homosexuality" gives this delightful tome as the first item. WTF, Amazon.

Whereas an "all departments" search of keyword "shagging" throws up this one in the first ten.

So, shagging people of the same gender is wrong, but shagging sheep is OK? Is Jeff Bezos a Welshman, or what?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:33 AM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


To whom it may concern:

It has recently come to my attention that Amazon has effectively de-listed a very large number of books with gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual content. As much as I have enjoyed doing business with Amazon in the past, I cannot condone this action and so must boycott Amazon until such time as the problem is resolved.

I request that Amazon do the following:
1) Undo the de-listings and restore the sales rankings of the affected books.
2) Issue a formal and public apology.
3) Explain precisely how the de-listing came about.
4) Explain the measures Amazon will take to ensure that something like this can never happen again.

Thank you very much for your attention. I look forward to your prompt and appropriate response.

Sincerely,

posted by Faint of Butt at 4:08 AM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090413/ap_on_en_ot/books_amazon

Down torches, down pitchforks.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 5:11 AM on April 13, 2009


Given the nature of instantaneous indignation, it feels like this entire brouhaha would've been much less brouhaha-y if the news hadn't popped up over a holiday weekend. If, as Amazon eventually said, it was all a glitch, seems to me they would have had the staff in place to make this conclusion quicker if the first LJ post had happened on a Tuesday.

Or would the angry spark have reached the same amount of people in such a short time?

I think I'm learning a bit more about the propagation of outrage via social networking outlets than I am of Amazon's business practices here.
posted by Spatch at 5:49 AM on April 13, 2009


The fiction I'm working on is GLBT. If this were actually homophobia on Amazon's part, I would be as mad as anyone. That said, I think people are going a bit overboard about this.

I don't think Amazon, as a business, would purposely and suddenly derank stuff it had been making plenty of money off of. I could see something like verb describes, easily; anyone who's ever browsed Amazon regularly has probably noticed weird things with the sales rankings and search results. I'm also not sure why people would find it difficult to believe that only the pro-gay books could bug out while the anti-gay books don't, or the general "adult" books don't; those kinds of books aren't going to be grouped together in Amazon searches. There's more to their search database than tags; as best I can tell, the tags are largely there for the convenience of the customers to organize stuff on their own. Everyone notices that they track what books you look at, right? It's part of how they tailor your recommendations; they compare what you've looked at to what other people like you looked at and bought. That's why if you look at pro-gay books on Amazon, you generally don't get recommendations for anti-gay books and vice versa.

Anyway. Failing that, I could see maybe one of Amazon's programmers doing it on purpose, without Amazon's instruction or consent.

Either way, if Amazon fixes it, I have no intent to boycott them or anything. I'd bet anything that they do fix it, too, even if it was a far-reaching homophobic agenda at the highest levels of the company. They'd be stupid not to.

I think what might be giving a lot of people pause is the response the one publisher received about how adult books are sometimes excluded from the searches and sales list. This is done for reasons cirocco noted above. The response given to the publisher struck me more as a customer service rep giving the book a cursory glance and deciding that was probably why it wasn't showing up like it should, rather than a completely informed answer. As it turned out, that was not really the answer, so when people looked up some other stuff they got all bent out of shape about it. Anyway, it seems completely believable to me that it was a glitch. An unfortunate glitch, yes, but no one notices or starts a shitstorm when, say, cooking books are prey to the same kind of glitch.
posted by Nattie at 5:52 AM on April 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think Blazecock Pileon is Jeff Bezos.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:05 AM on April 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


No, I am Jeff Bezos, Blazecock Pileon is my tiny clone. *puts pinky finger to mouth* I'm in ur database, delisting all ur books. Muahahaha .... muahahahaha.... muahahahaha... cough.

People would do well to remember that corporations are not individuals, and are not monolithic, and the vast majority of the people at Amazon are absolutely not responsible for this, not matter what. This is a strange sort of mental hurdle that most of us seem to get hung up on a lot. "There's no reason for Goldman Sachs to do X, it wouldn't be in it's own best interest" is something people say a lot. But Goldman Sachs doesn't exist, it is a collection of people, all of whom have different interests. And if its board of directors will make a lot of money doing X, then they will.

People SHOULD put pressure on Amazon to reverse this policy, and to clarify and address the mechanism by which this happened. If they fix things, there's no reason to hold a grudge afterwards, since most of the people at Amazon aren't responsible. If Amazon doesn't correct matters, then it's a defective organization, and more permanent boycotts begin to make sense.
posted by Humanzee at 7:00 AM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


1. If this is a new glitch, why did Craig Seymour report his book was de-ranked in February?

2. If de-rankings are a technical glitch, why was your customer service rep citing policy?


Ron Hogan - gay and lesbian studies editor at Amazon.com from 1998 to 2000
posted by Joe Beese at 7:01 AM on April 13, 2009


I'm still giving Amazon most of the benefit of the doubt but "it's a glitch" won't be a satisfactory explanation. I want to hear, point-by-point, as much as can be mustered, what went wrong and I. I want to see the full-blown, nerdtacular technical details as to why this happened - maybe it makes me cynical, but offering nothing but "it's a glitch" sounds a little bit too much like they're counting on general American computer illiteracy to get them out of a tight spot.

Astro Zombie - Cute graph, but it's still obnoxious having to constantly hear and see the Twitter fad referenced. I'd pay real money to spend a day at my usual level of media immersion without having to hear a peep about Twits.
posted by EatTheWeak at 7:12 AM on April 13, 2009


I want to hear, point-by-point, as much as can be mustered, what went wrong and why

Damn it. Does anyone else ever do that? Get words that rhyme mixed up, like some sort of poetic dyslexia?
posted by EatTheWeak at 7:15 AM on April 13, 2009


I want to see the full-blown, nerdtacular technical details as to why this happened - maybe it makes me cynical, offering nothing but "it's a glitch" sounds a little bit too much like they're counting on general American computer illiteracy to get them out of a tight spot.

The problem is that verb's been explaining why this is most definitely a glitch for multiple comments here and people don't seem to want to believe him because That's Not How Databases Work For Them. And MetaFilter is pretty damn literate when it comes to nerdtacular stuff!
posted by dw at 7:52 AM on April 13, 2009


dw - no, absolutely, verb's insight and theories are probably the most valuable comments in this thread - it sounds pretty reasonable to me, but I want to hear this level of detail from Amazon - I want them to show us the same level of respect that verb is showing by assuming that grown-ups can understand a complex problem if given a proper explanation - "it's a glitch" doesn't cut it.
posted by EatTheWeak at 7:58 AM on April 13, 2009


If anything, this could finally mean Amazon will take social media more seriously. If they had a human being handling a customer service related Twitter account over the weekend, they might have been able to respond more directly and assuage the pitchfork brigade.

Right now, they're all over the place on Twitter. Most of their content seems machine-driven.
posted by dw at 8:02 AM on April 13, 2009


1. If this is a new glitch, why did Craig Seymour report his book was de-ranked in February?
If this is a new glitch, why did I see my PHP technical book de-ranked in March?
2. If de-rankings are a technical glitch, why was your customer service rep citing policy?
Because first-line support drones answering email have a limited palette of canned responses. By definition, those canned responses exist before problems arise, and only after problems arise are the lists updated. All we know about that canned response is that "Adult content policy" was the closest match, and as a number of people speculated at the time, it didn't even seem appropriate for the question that was asked. Like many canned emails that I receive from first-line support. They are not the place to get accurate information about what happened inside a large organization to cause a FUBAR. Not with your local cable company, not with AOL, not with Cisco, not with Amazon.
offering nothing but "it's a glitch" sounds a little bit too much like they're counting on general American computer illiteracy to get them out of a tight spot.
General American computer illiteracy has already gotten a lot of people angry about it, so I don't see how it would be much of a change.

I really hate the fact that I seem to be defending the 'brown-bagging' of GLBT content by a major online retailer: I'm not. I'm just saying that the people shouting, "There's no way this could happen without deliberate action" are wrong, and ignorant, and they are amplifying the blind-outrage levels by making hard and fast statements about technical issues they do not understand. The fact that a large subset of content by and about a particular minority stopped listing its sales ranks over a weekend is indisputable. The reasons are still unknown, and there are LOTS of potential reasons. It's perfectly reasonable to demand that it be fixed and ask for an explanation, but many of the posters here and many of the folks pumping the #amazonfail trend have already decided how it happened, and are stirring up shit by assuring people that it couldn't possibly have been accidental.

This is the kind of blind outrage that makes any group look ignorant and thin-skinned, and is later used to diminish the legitimacy of their claims later, when there is genuine malice at play. Keeping our assumptions on the back burner for 48 hours until the problem can be fixed and a real response can be had -- not an automated one -- is hardly capitulation.
posted by verb at 8:27 AM on April 13, 2009 [9 favorites]


The uninformed speculation in this thread about how "this can't possibly be a bug it's too precise" is pretty disappointing. Respectfully, no one here who hasn't worked at Amazon has any understanding of how their systems work or how they could possibly fail. I don't either, but I've worked on enough systems like Amazon's to have deep respect (or fear) for how complex their failure modes can be.

I'm optimistic Amazon will fix the technical problem. But they have another problem, the failure to communicate quickly with their customers. It's been well over 24 hours since the problem became widely known, it's been in the media, and yet the only response we have so far is a quote from an email. To be fair this little scandal broke over a weekend, but in the Internet era corpcomm is a 24/7 kind of job.

Amazon's always had a bit of a faceless corporate presence. Their website is impersonal, they do everything they can to avoid having to talk directly to customers, and apparently they have no official company blog. Let's say Amazon does come clean with an apology and explanation, I'm scratching my head as to how they'd even communicate it. An interview with the press? That's awfully old fashioned. A front page posting on amazon.com? Probably overkill. They need some informal but official communication medium.

Thanks to Blazecock Pileon for saying at least a little here about it being a glitch. I assume he's got insider info and has said all he can (and more than authorized). It really benefits Amazon to have that kind of informal communcation; faceless corporations don't work well in the Internet community.
posted by Nelson at 8:31 AM on April 13, 2009


Most of their content seems machine-driven.
This is absolutely the case based on everyone I've talked to who's worked at Amazon. It's a strength and it's a weakness. They can roll out new forms of product association and categorization algorithmically rather than by employing an army of people with label machines, for example. And they can field gajillions of incoming support requests without having lots of human beings reading each and every "My book didn't get here on time" email.

On the flip side, those kinds of machine tools are a little like the magic wand in the sorcerer's apprentice: they can amplify the impact of a relatively minor logical error or misunderstanding. If there isn't a good mechanism in place for real people to quickly step in and say, "Woah! Woah! Sorry about that, totally accidental, we'll clean that up now..." you get the occasional chaos and madness and oh god scorpions.
posted by verb at 8:34 AM on April 13, 2009


Let's say Amazon does come clean with an apology and explanation, I'm scratching my head as to how they'd even communicate it.

Well, their Twitter account would probably be a good place to start.
posted by grouse at 8:46 AM on April 13, 2009


I really don't understand why Amazon hasn't said more yet. I mean, it's almost noon on Monday and it sounds like the latest communication from them was last night. Do they not understand how widespread the anger is about this? I think they're losing more trust (and customers) with every hour that goes by. Even just a, "Wow, we're sorry, we'd never to that on purpose, we really value all our customers, including our LGBT ones, we'll have more details soon about how this happened," would go a long way. I think that it's very fair and rational to demand a detailed explanation, and personally I'm not going to trust them until I see one.
posted by overglow at 8:50 AM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


overglow: "I really don't understand why Amazon hasn't said more yet. I mean, it's almost noon on Monday..."

It isn't even nine in the morning yet at Amazon's headquarters. (Even so, I'm surprised that they haven't said yet, too.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:56 AM on April 13, 2009


Yeah, it's 9AM in Seattle and yesterday was Easter. Terrible timing. They may also be trying to figure out what went wrong to give a clear answer, although if I were them I'd get something out quick saying "oops" and worry about the details later.

That Twitter Account doesn't seem to be a way for human beings to talk to other human beings.
posted by Nelson at 9:01 AM on April 13, 2009


And now four of the pages which I was using last night as a reference for NOT having sales rankings... seem to have mysteriously regained their rankings.

I guess they're just going to undo the symptoms without ever publicly speaking to the problem?
posted by hippybear at 9:05 AM on April 13, 2009


Oops, well I feel silly for neglecting to think about time zones. But maybe it's a useful example--I bet a lot of people are overlooking that too.
posted by overglow at 9:08 AM on April 13, 2009


I guess they're just going to undo the symptoms without ever publicly speaking to the problem?
Alternate scenario: A number of programmers who have been taking espresso shots and No-Doz since noon yesterday trying to clean up the data without causing OTHER ripple effects (like, say, causing Mapplethorpe books to appear in a search for 'Christ') and the effects of their cleanup work are slowly becoming visible. Elsewhere in Seattle, a harried gaggle of corporate communications folks scramble around in a related but very different-looking panic trying to decide how to do damage control.

It's not pretty, but it's the way it happens.
posted by verb at 9:09 AM on April 13, 2009 [6 favorites]


Just sent to me by a friend: Someone claiming responsibility. It looks like my explanation might have been more complex than necessary, if this is true.
posted by verb at 9:31 AM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


If the post is accurate, the "list of books" was just "books that belong to an internal collection named 'Gay and Lesbian' but do not have the word 'Homosexual' in their title." The poster then hired third-world Captcha-breakers to log into amazon, save their browser cookies, and send them to him for automated use.

He claims that he had tested it on and off with small sets of data over the past month or so -- which lines up with the claims that other small sets of GLBT literature was being adult-flagged before this mass action.

Again, according to that post, Amazon yesterday turned off all customer-reporting of inappropriate books to prevent it from happening again. Odds are, most previous instances of gaming were manual, with one or two books being the focus of a brute force "Go tell Amazon this book is inappropriate!" call to action. That's the stuff that can be fixed manually relatively easily.
posted by verb at 9:41 AM on April 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


verb, thanks for posting -- it all makes sense. Lots of sense.
posted by arielmeadow at 9:43 AM on April 13, 2009


Well that attack would probably work as described. The hard part is getting the XSS vulnerability placed into popular websites. Amazon could easily verify if that was the source of the attack. Even individuals might be able to verify it, if you can see your own history of what books you flagged as inappropriate.
posted by Nelson at 9:47 AM on April 13, 2009


In slightly-related news, a friend of mine has a running bet that 4chan will manage to cause a shooting war sometime in the next decade.
posted by verb at 9:48 AM on April 13, 2009 [4 favorites]


"We recently discovered a glitch" ≠ "We got hacked"

PR fuck-ups aside, I guess it's good to know that they're merely incompetent, rather than homophobic.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:50 AM on April 13, 2009


So the consensus is that the person claiming responsibility is telling the truth? Isn't he exposing himself to some serious liability by publicly admitting that he did this?
posted by overglow at 9:56 AM on April 13, 2009


If the post is accurate, the "list of books" was just "books that belong to an internal collection named 'Gay and Lesbian' but do not have the word 'Homosexual' in their title."

I don't see how this can be the explanation, because it does not account for the delisting and deranking of books about sexuality with a feminist slant, or with a focus on people with disabilities.

Also, if you're familiar with Weev, he's kind of famous for "confessing" to shit he hasn't done on b_h.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:58 AM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


So the consensus is that the person claiming responsibility is telling the truth? Isn't he exposing himself to some serious liability by publicly admitting that he did this?
No idea. I'm not jumping to conclusions about what he's claiming, but his story is 100% plausible and matches up with the odd outlier data, like smaller sets of GLBT lit getting delisted in the past.

Time will tell.
posted by verb at 9:58 AM on April 13, 2009


Also, if you're familiar with Weev, he's kind of famous for "confessing" to shit he hasn't done on b_h.
Oh, ugh. As if this wasn't complex and messy enough already. Thanks for the heads-up. Excellent point about the feminist and disabilities oriented stuff.
posted by verb at 10:00 AM on April 13, 2009


An LJ troll rushes to the fore and claims responsibility.

Great?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:03 AM on April 13, 2009


So the consensus is that the person claiming responsibility is telling the truth?

No idea. It's mostly plausible, like I said the key problem is
I know some people who run some extremely high traffic (Alexa top 1000) websites ... They put an invisible iframe in their websites to refer people to the complaint URLs
This claim is verifiable, at least by Amazon, so it'd be possible to check his story.

On second thought this part seems a little implausible. Not only is he convincing high traffic sites to help him hack Amazon, but he's got to arrange for every single visitor to those sites to get a different URL, which means some sort of dynamic addition. And those top-1000 websites are now culpable in vandalism on Amazon.com, the sort of legal liability a valuable website would generally avoid. It's possible, but I'd want to see more evidence.
posted by Nelson at 10:03 AM on April 13, 2009


Again, according to that post, Amazon yesterday turned off all customer-reporting of inappropriate books to prevent it from happening again.

Since when does Amazon have a button to report inappropriate books or products? I mean, maybe it does and I haven't noticed, but the only "report" function I've seen on product pages is to report inappropriate comments in customer reviews so that Amazon can delete them. That should have zero impact on the product listing or sales rank.

Wouldn't a "report this product as inappropriate" function, if it existed, already have been abused into the dust in the same sort of way as the Hasselhoff Accolades or the Milk Reviews?
posted by FelliniBlank at 10:05 AM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


The XSS scenario doesn't seem to wash. For one thing, you need to either hack some major traffic sites to overwhelm such a tracking system, or you'd need some sort of worm to cross-propagate. With the former, you'd need to slip under the radar of at least one major website with enough traffic to the game the system (and you'd probably need three to get it to work, and you'd need some friends to do it). With the latter, the worm would have been spotted, taken apart, and the Amazon-gaming code revealed.

I'm thinking this is someone mashing together the Amazon problems with the StalkDaily XSS worms and then claiming it as their own. This doesn't sound like an XSS hack that'd work and go undetected for three days.
posted by dw at 10:09 AM on April 13, 2009


I don't see how this can be the explanation, because it does not account for the delisting and deranking of books about sexuality with a feminist slant, or with a focus on people with disabilities.

Laying the claims aside, I suggest you go read this on Amazon's category metadata. I think you'll find your answer.
posted by dw at 10:13 AM on April 13, 2009


Yeah, this smells a little too perfect to me. Someone's looking for his fifteen minutes.
posted by middleclasstool at 10:13 AM on April 13, 2009


Since when does Amazon have a button to report inappropriate books or products?
If they do I haven't seen it. But that's part of the problem with Amazon's system: there are roughly thirty or forty ways to submit data about a product, and they appear and disappear as different approaches are tested and refined.

Given a careful reading of the poster's claims, and others' comments here, I'm definitely skeptical. But the complexity of Amazon's system -- from its product categorization to its customer input gathering -- does make it possible for something like this to happen without any internal "decision" about LGBT content being made.

Again, time will tell.

The three major scenarios, though, in order of plausibility, are still:
  1. Internal screwup with product management, and lots of resulting splatters.
  2. External attack using some undisclosed exploit to hide GLBT, Feminist, and Disabilities-positive literature.
  3. Internal policy decision by Amazon to hide GLBT, Feminist, and Disabilities-positive literature.

posted by verb at 10:16 AM on April 13, 2009


middleclasstool: "Someone's looking for his fifteen minutes."

Summation: nope, you didn't do that, you liar you. Nice meta-troll, though.
posted by Joe Beese at 10:22 AM on April 13, 2009


Fools! It was I! *pulls off mask* Baron von Schtempfeimer the Third!
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:25 AM on April 13, 2009


2. External attack using some undisclosed exploit to hide GLBT, Feminist, and Disabilities-positive literature.

3. Internal policy decision by Amazon to hide GLBT, Feminist, and Disabilities-positive literature.


See, I think you're falling into the same trap here. I'm thinking there's a tag, flag, or metadata item that all the "banned" books share. And how the system is handling that one particular common item of information is what's causing the problem.

Or maybe that's just what you're trying to say here -- that #2 and #3 are very improbable.
posted by dw at 10:27 AM on April 13, 2009


Fools! It was I! *pulls off mask* Baron von Schtempfeimer the Third!

AND I WOULD HAVE GOTTEN AWAY WITH IT IF IT HADN'T BEEN FOR YOU MEDDLING GAYS!
posted by dw at 10:29 AM on April 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


I asked [Amazon Director of Corporate Communications Patty Smith] Patty Smith this:

From a layperson's perspective, this glitch does seem to have affected certain types of books more heavily than others. In fact, only one of the top 10 books in your Gay & Lesbian section continues to have a sales ranking (the Kindle version of "The Picture of Dorian Gray"). No other section is similarly affected. Can you comment on that?

The reply:

Unfortunately, I'm not able to comment further. We're working to resolve the issue, but I don't have any further information.


Los Angeles Times
posted by Joe Beese at 10:33 AM on April 13, 2009


verb - Dang, look what an enterprising troll can accomplish if he puts his mind to it! If that's true, it reconciles a lot of things pretty tidily. It was a glitch in Amazon's software, and it was targeted. Waddayaknow?

Looks like Amazon's engineers have a customer feedback system to overhaul.

I wanted to thank you for your contributions to this thread - so nice to have someone who knows what they're talking about in a discussion.

I wonder what's gonna happen next?
posted by EatTheWeak at 10:33 AM on April 13, 2009


dw, yes, that's what I mean. #2 and #3 are theoretically possible, but #1 feels a lot more probable. My current guess is that their existing "adult content" system has an ongoing, regularly-tweaked-and-refined selection mechanism. With some things no one notices, but occasionally the mechanism grabs a far-too-broad swath of content, probably due to bad assumptions when it's being configured. The post you linked to made the point nicely, IMO.

The problem is amplified when 1) The flagged books are noticeably NOT adult, 2) The bulk-delisting happens on a major holiday, and 3) Amazon provides no channel for human communication...
posted by verb at 10:34 AM on April 13, 2009


And in the time it took me to not hit preview before posting, an article and some info that muddy things right back up. Oy.
posted by EatTheWeak at 10:38 AM on April 13, 2009


And it was all just a giant troll?
posted by Nattie at 10:44 AM on April 13, 2009


Why is LJ so easy to troll?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:45 AM on April 13, 2009


Why is LJ the human psyche so easy to troll?

FTFY
posted by hippybear at 10:50 AM on April 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


No, hippybear. If someone had posted that same text in a forum like /b/, the shouts and clamors of "TROLL!" would make the windows rattle. Post it in LJ, and people are falling over themselves praising the evil genius.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:52 AM on April 13, 2009


My current guess is that their existing "adult content" system has an ongoing, regularly-tweaked-and-refined selection mechanism.

See, this is why accident and outrage are not mutually exclusive. I'm perfectly happy to accept that this is a glitch in Amazon's "adult content" filtering system. I'm also outraged that Amazon has an "adult content" filtering system at all -- or at least that it's the inescapable, unannounced default setting on the site. What we're seeing in this particular instance is simply an object lesson in why it's a bad, bad idea to filter "objectionable" content -- because some person or machine gets to decide what's objectionable and inevitably makes a fucking biased, outrage-inducing hash of it.

If "Christ" is a keyword in a Mapplethorpe title, then it damn well should come up in the search results -- in its position of relative relevance with regard to the whole search string, which is probably usually around page 112. When I was six, I saw the word "fuck" written on the sidewalk and asked my mom about it. Oddly enough, she did not have someone come with a jackhammer and remove the sidewalk panel; she just told me it was an impolite word I shouldn't repeat. If you want to avoid all potentially NSFW search results, don't search a massive shopping site that sells some NSFW items. Or if Amazon wants to shield us from even momentary exposure to "adult content," then like WalMart and Blockbuster, it should just stop carrying it and face the $$ consequences.

But this filtering bullshit just reeks of wanting to profit from "naughty" items by selling them only from under the counter, in plain brown wrappers, to people requesting them in shamefaced whispers.
posted by FelliniBlank at 10:56 AM on April 13, 2009 [6 favorites]


No, hippybear. If someone had posted that same text in a forum like /b/, the shouts and clamors of "TROLL!" would make the windows rattle. Post it in LJ, and people are falling over themselves praising the evil genius.
I got what appeared to be new information and passed it on here, in the context of this thread, without doing additional investigation. I was ambivalent, gave myself wiggle room, but said that it was interesting if true. Fifteen minutes later, folks in this thread essentially debunked it.

And yet, here it is on DailyKos with attribution to MetaFilter! The rapid dissemination of information is a blessing and a curse; it's caused the #amazonfail meme to spread like wildfire, even though we know nothing about the details and can only speculate until more information comes out. And now, as the situation evolves, it causes each new piece of information to be passed around.

There was no 'praising a hacker-troll as a would-be genius;' just people looking at the claims and trying to evaluate them for plausibility. Same as the claims that Amazon had suddenly gone anti-gay. This is why stopping and breathing is important.
posted by verb at 11:00 AM on April 13, 2009


See, this is why accident and outrage are not mutually exclusive.
I agree. I just think that outrage becomes pointless screaming unless it's paired with accuracy. If you make claims that are untrue based on snap assumptions, people stop listening to your outraged rants.
posted by verb at 11:02 AM on April 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


MStPT: Okay, I do have to give you that. But comparing 4chan to LJ isn't exactly oranges to oranges, is it?

Note, the entire cycle of acceptance of this LJ troll was not even 45 minutes. And even then, it had to be cf'ed into the brutal_honesty pool before it was even noticed. The fact that it took 45 minutes to be questioned well enough to be noticed (also in LJ, I notice), simply means that it takes time for information to propagate.

I still think it's a glitch in OUR wiring which makes us want to accept things like the LJ "confession" as truth without questioning it at first. And any who do question it have succeeded in transcending at least one small part of our lizard brain wiring.
posted by hippybear at 11:02 AM on April 13, 2009


Alternate scenario: A number of programmers who have been taking espresso shots and No-Doz since noon yesterday trying to clean up the data without causing OTHER ripple effects (like, say, causing Mapplethorpe books to appear in a search for 'Christ') and the effects of their cleanup work are slowly becoming visible.

Just FYI, here's a programmer that agrees with your assessment.
posted by dw at 11:02 AM on April 13, 2009


There was no 'praising a hacker-troll as a would-be genius;'

Not here, no, but look at the comments under the troll's post. People are lining up to praise this guy.

I have to thank you and others in this thread for demonstrating just how fast information can travel from one forum to the next.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:03 AM on April 13, 2009


verb: "And yet, here it is on DailyKos with attribution to MetaFilter!"

Glad you got my MeFi Mail.
posted by Joe Beese at 11:06 AM on April 13, 2009


Glad you got my MeFi Mail.
We're all part of a long chain of crazy information transmission. The more heated it gets the more difficult it is. Is there any way that we can pair the rapid "breaking news" that everyone wants with the carefully vetted accuracy that they also want? I don't know.
posted by verb at 11:10 AM on April 13, 2009


Is there any way that we can pair the rapid "breaking news" that everyone wants with the carefully vetted accuracy that they also want? I don't know.

Welcome to the post-newspaper world. On the one hand, inaccurate information runs out ahead of its vetting. OTOH, because we're in a sense crowdsourcing the vetting, the vetting happens much faster than in a journalistic scenario.

Thus, the LJ hoax is flipped in 45 minutes, earlier than when the LJ post would have arrived in a reporter's inbox. But the tradeoff is the mob running off in the wrong direction thanks to some schmuck doing it for the lulz.
posted by dw at 11:15 AM on April 13, 2009


Is there any way that we can pair the rapid "breaking news" that everyone wants with the carefully vetted accuracy that they also want? I don't know.

I don't think so, but I think as in any breaking news, if it's emphasised - as you have, repeatedly - that this is incoming, continuous and unverified information that is still being vetted, then the information lands in the "lead" zone, as in, "OK, here's some information. We don't know if it's true, so don't take it as news. Can someone determine if it actually is true?" And then someone digs and comes to the either Yes or No of the information's truthfulness. If verification is impossible, then the benefit of the doubt needs to fall on the side of it being false.

So far, I think we've been good about doing all of this here.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:15 AM on April 13, 2009


This is why stopping and breathing is important.

Totally. Blogs and forums have sped up the speculation cycle immeasurably.. It used to take days or weeks for a rumour to propagate through a community, but thanks to the Internet it takes hours. And now, thanks to Twitter, it takes minutes. And that breathless intensity contributes to a lot of false information being churned. I'm embarassed that I republished that LJ post to Twitter, myself, although I still say the outline of the attack sounds plausible (even if the actual claim of responsibility is not).

The problem is that most public relations departments haven't figured out how to handle this kind of rapid rumourmongering. To some extent they have to go slowly and carefully, they have to get it right. But it's also important to get a message out quickly, if nothing else than to quell all the pseculations.
posted by Nelson at 11:17 AM on April 13, 2009


MStPT: (interesting derail, worth continuing): I think one feature which is missing from this post-newspaper journalism is the writing of the final summary, the weaving of the story into a narrative which invests the reader with a sense of events as they happened and the truth.

As it stands, it's easy for modern readers to not find all the threads they need to follow to learn the full story. Or to have the important pieces lost in all the buzz and chatter. That used to be the job of the journalist. Now it is left to the reader, and often laden with barriers to full understanding.

[None of this means we have full understanding about the topic at hand.]
posted by hippybear at 11:20 AM on April 13, 2009


Valleywag: Why It Makes Sense That a Hacker's Behind Amazon's Big Gay Outrage

What Weev says he figured out was a way to trick Internet users into automatically flagging products without their knowledge, with the help of friends who run high-profile websites. He also says he hired "third-worlders" to register fake Amazon accounts and flag books. (His full explanation of the stunt is below.) He hasn't yet offered proof that he carried off the prank as described, but one part checks out: Amazon.com has apparently removed the feature that lets users flag books as "inappropriate." And the scheme he details seems far more likely than Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos deciding to become a censor.

Have no idea if this will check out or not.
posted by mediareport at 11:22 AM on April 13, 2009


I think that's the danger of this Internet lynch mob. While the LJ post was a total hoax, it actually could work under the right scenarios. And it could be used by a company to take down another organization, or a blogger, or whatever.

In the wrong hands, the lynch mob is a powerful weapon. And now, all it takes is a couple of blog posts pushing the right outrage buttons. See also the #savejon lynch mob last weekend.
posted by dw at 11:23 AM on April 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


Ugh. Read long threads.
posted by mediareport at 11:23 AM on April 13, 2009


mediareport: I understand this was not your information first-hand, but does anyone actually have a screenshot of the "inappropriate" flagging option on an Amazon book page? I've been an Amazon customer since before the Internet's dog was a puppy, but I can't remember EVER haven't seen such an option on any of their pages.
posted by hippybear at 11:26 AM on April 13, 2009


Nelson: "The problem is that most public relations departments haven't figured out how to handle this kind of rapid rumourmongering."

Amazon puts a big link at the top of their home page: "Please click here for information about reports of de-listing." Link takes you a simple text page saying: 1. This is what is happening. 2. We became of aware of it on this date and this time. 3. A widely quoted e-mail from an Amazon CSR explaining this as policy was sent in error. We apologize for the misunderstanding. 4. This is the name of the person coordinating our technical response. We will post updates from them here as they become available. 5. We vigorously assert our support for GLBT authors and readers and offer them our sincere apology.

How long would that take - even starting cold on a Monday morning? Two hours, tops?
posted by Joe Beese at 11:30 AM on April 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


While reading down through this thread the adage "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity" has been echoing in my head. The lynch mob on Twitter should take a step back and ask themselves: Does it make any sense that a bookseller would try to hide the books it's trying to sell?

I think that in the end we're going to be left with two major results:

1) This will be a textbook case of how not to do PR for a fast-breaking corporate disaster.

2) Future Twitter lynchmobs, even if they're correct in their accusations, will be dismissed. "What are the twits crying wolf about now?"
posted by barnacles at 11:33 AM on April 13, 2009 [8 favorites]


As it stands, it's easy for modern readers to not find all the threads they need to follow to learn the full story. Or to have the important pieces lost in all the buzz and chatter. That used to be the job of the journalist. Now it is left to the reader, and often laden with barriers to full understanding.

This is true, which is why it's the responsibility of the readers to understand when something is unverified, updating information, and to be courteous to the truth in NOT passing it off as news. Both dynamics need to be in play - even if some people are less than careful, or less than honest, and try to pass off rumour as fact, other readers should be take every Tweet and LJ post with a giant fistful of salt until verification is complete. If they can, they might even contribute to the verification process. That, to me, is one of the great things about online journalism - who needs interns when you have the internet's capacity to encourage people to seek out the bragging rights to "yeah and it was me who got the facts straight on that one"?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:34 AM on April 13, 2009


Mike Daisey (author of 21 Dog Years, his memoir of working at Amazon in the early days) says it was a glitch.
posted by dw at 11:49 AM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm also outraged that Amazon has an "adult content" filtering system at all

Then you get outraged real fucking easily.

Go to Amazon, and search for 'fisting' in the books section. You'll find yourself able to call up pretty well everything ever published on the subject of inserting a whole hand into an anus or a vagina in the pursuit of sexual pleasure.

Now if you're struggling to make sure that you specify books when you're searching for sexually explicit content, then I'm afraid I can't help you, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to me that Hand Book for Gay Men: A Practical Guide to Your Arse, Douching, Dildoes and Fisting shouldn't pop up when you're searching for a Handbook on Car Mechanics or on Child Rearing.

But I guess I'm just overly anal about that sort of stuff.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:53 AM on April 13, 2009


From the link dw points to:
After hearing from people on the inside at Amazon, I am convinced it was in fact, a "glitch."

Well, more like user error--some idiot editing code for one of the many international versions of Amazon mixed up the difference between "adult" and "erotic" and "sexuality". All the sites are tied together, so editing one affected all for blacklisting, and ta-da, you get the situation.

The CS rep who responded that this was Amazon policy was just confused about what they were talking about, and gave standard boilerplate about porn.

The dumbest part is saying it was a "glitch". A "glitch"? Just say that it was one of your workers making an editing error. Really dumb PR move, that one.
Again, if this is in fact correct, it's going to be an awesome case study in the interconnected dangers of large-scale automated data management, skeleton-crew PR, and 'Taking vacation days, ever.'
posted by verb at 11:58 AM on April 13, 2009


It doesn't seem unreasonable to me that Hand Book for Gay Men: A Practical Guide to Your Arse, Douching, Dildoes and Fisting shouldn't pop up when you're searching for a Handbook on Car Mechanics or on Child Rearing.

This has nothing to do with filtering objectionable content but with relevance -- any search engine with a halfway decent keyword/relevance search function is not going to return that first book in response to a search for "car mechanics" or "child rearing" or "car handbook." If you search ONLY for the term "handbook," then, yeah, the book will be included, somewhere, but you're going to see 4,000,000 other totally irrelevant results as well. I strongly doubt it would come up anywhere in the first several screens unless it were an extremely popular item. And even if it did, so what? Since your first search was so incompetent, you're going to do a different search within about 5 seconds because none of the results you see on your first page is likely to be remotely related to your target.

When you drive down a strange road looking for a gas station, you face the possibility of you or your carload of kids glimpsing a titty bar instead, for a few seconds. And nobody dies.
posted by FelliniBlank at 12:07 PM on April 13, 2009 [6 favorites]


The problem with the whole "all the sites are tied together" thing is that while we were all seeing problems on amazon.COM, lots of people were checking both amazon.CA and amazon.CO.UK and not seeing the same de-ranking problem.

So, the international versions are not all tied together quite as much as you might think.
posted by djfiander at 12:16 PM on April 13, 2009


From this link, a post by someone claiming to have worked at 6A during their "Strikethrough" controversy, positing that this is all a result of someone's deliberate trolling:
Of these, the Firefox shitstorm, Nipplegate, and Strikethrough stand out. Friends, #amazonfail is simply more of the same. I don't mean to imply that any of the same people are involved, but rather that the same tactic is involved, and it is working devilishly. Cleverly as well, this troll was perpetrated on a weekend AND a holiday, when Amazon's customer service would be operating on a skeleton crew and most of those who would be able to fix the problem would be at home and possibly unavailable or on vacation. Also, like Nipplegate and Strikethrough, this troll pits a marginalized and activist community against a big company, with the Internet and all its various discussion media (in this case, blogs and Twitter) as the facilitator.
posted by statolith at 12:19 PM on April 13, 2009


The problem with the whole "all the sites are tied together" thing is that while we were all seeing problems on amazon.COM, lots of people were checking both amazon.CA and amazon.CO.UK and not seeing the same de-ranking problem.
Those sites share a similar codebase but have different (overlapping) pools of product information. Affiliate codes, for example, are region-keyed, and ASINs for one region are not necessarily the same product in another region. The underlying system, though, is the same basic codebase.
posted by verb at 12:23 PM on April 13, 2009


Amazon filters content for their recommendation system, which is part of their search engine and also powers their home page.

If you're logged in on the American site, try doing a search for something innocuous and clicking through to a book's page. Now go back to the home page. There should be something telling you that people who bought the book you clicked on also bought a few other listed books.

Now try it for something less innocuous, like "anal sex guide." Click through, home page... the "People who looked at" item will still be talking about your previous search, not about the anal sex book.

That's the way the filter works here. It's not a "censorship" filter; it's an "embarrassment" filter.
posted by dw at 12:27 PM on April 13, 2009


I strongly doubt it would come up anywhere in the first several screens unless it were an extremely popular item.

That's his point, isn't it? You can't run the risk of simple popularity propelling a book about those queers' revolting sexual practices to the top of an over-general keyword search by a normal guy looking for a manly book about car repair. You need some kind of stigmatization system in place.
posted by Joe Beese at 12:31 PM on April 13, 2009


That's the way the filter works here. It's not a "censorship" filter; it's an "embarrassment" filter.
Also, it's important to note that this is not a filter based on Amazon saying, "Wow, people will be embarrassed if we let them see naughty things."

It's implemented because lots and lots of people contact them, very angry because their search and browse history influences what appears on Amazon.com when they pop the site open. It has been that way since the very first days of 'smart web sites' that changed based on your history. If you want to blame angry closeted red-staters for that, fine. But the 'saddest/funniest' Amazon support center stories came from friends who had to talk angry people down from the ledge after Amazon 'said they were interested in gay stuff.'
posted by verb at 12:34 PM on April 13, 2009


So, the international versions are not all tied together quite as much as you might think.

I'm only speculating, but with many web-based businesses, perhaps the data that are stored, joined and otherwise massaged on the back-end servers (which most do not often see) and the front-end (which anyone can see) are quite different representations.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:36 PM on April 13, 2009


Also, it's important to note that this is not a filter based on Amazon saying, "Wow, people will be embarrassed if we let them see naughty things."

Yeah. I meant embarrassment in the sense of your boss asking you to look something up on Amazon only to see "you searched for The Art Of Pleasuring A Woman Anally, you may also like Up The Butt: 40 Years Of Anal Porn Box Set (DVD)" come up.

The algorithms drive everything on this site. If you're way down the long tail ordering some book without a lot of other buyers recently (say, an old sci-fi novel), and one of those other buyers just happened to buy The Art Of Pleasuring A Woman Anally, guess what Amazon would be recommending to you endlessly, even though it has nothing to do with the book you bought.

Totally making up the names of these items. I'm not about to search for real titles.
posted by dw at 1:00 PM on April 13, 2009


Yep. And BOY HOWDY is it hard to make algorithms for those purposes that aren't easily gamed.
posted by verb at 1:04 PM on April 13, 2009


Follow-up from Daisey:
I asked Mike for more details, and according to his inside sources, the story is that a programmer at Amazon France was editing the site to filter porn out of some search results, and he "mixed up 'adult,' which is the term they use for porn, with stuff like 'erotic' and 'sexuality.' The system he was working on is universal, so the change he made propagated across Amazon's sites worldwide.
Still seems like it's missing a detail or two, but this continues to corroborate the "it's a technical mistake" line of thought.
posted by dw at 1:27 PM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Joe Beese wrote: You need some kind of stigmatization system in place.

And see, here's the beef. Any policy that suggests that a book about sex for people with disabilities is "adult" and must be isolated, while a much more explicit book about sex for people with back pain is not "adult" and doesn't need to be isolated is a ridiculous, idiotic policy.

So I don't see how this is a "glitch" except in the human sense.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:29 PM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Greifer takes credit. Weev, a griefer featured in the NYT is claiming credit for the attack.
posted by delmoi at 1:34 PM on April 13, 2009


So I don't see how this is a "glitch" except in the human sense.

According to valleywag, trolls went around flagging these books. So gay content was targeted, but not by anyone working at amazon (according to the greifer, who could be lying)
posted by delmoi at 1:35 PM on April 13, 2009


delmoi, you're totally behind the buzzcurve. the twitterati are twattering about the blogosphere revelations and the MSM is DOA.
posted by verb at 1:37 PM on April 13, 2009


Still no official word from Amazon? It's way past noon in Seattle now.
posted by overglow at 1:53 PM on April 13, 2009


I dunno! This vs. This. I know which I prefer for style.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 1:57 PM on April 13, 2009


Yeah. I meant embarrassment in the sense of your boss asking you to look something up on Amazon only to see "you searched for The Art Of Pleasuring A Woman Anally, you may also like Up The Butt: 40 Years Of Anal Porn Box Set (DVD)" come up.

OK, so let's split the difference and say it's helpfully intended to be a "discretion filter." Seems to me the easiest way to achieve that would be not to filter things at all but instead just put users' recommendations and personal search history behind the account login wall instead of flapping out there on the front page in front anybody who fires up the site with your cookies. But then I'm sure assloads of folks would scream bloody murder at the inconvenience of having to log in to see what Amazon thinks they should buy. Ah, the joys of customer service.

Frankly, I'd be way less humiliated by a search history including Pump'er in the Pooper than if a coworker looked over my shoulder and discovered I'd purchased something like Saved by the Bell: The Definitive Screech Collection or Sting Sings the Delta Blues, so my embarrassment algorithms are way off.

posted by FelliniBlank at 2:03 PM on April 13, 2009


Just for the record, I found out about this from Twitter, and I have cancelled a pending order with Amazon and sent them several messages regarding why. And I'm a BIG Amazon customer.

My problem is not that I think Amazon is evil and anti-Gay. My problem is that it's almost end of business on the second day and Amazon has not said a word in support of the authors and customers that have been (however unwittingly) offended and harmed by their incompetance. I want Amazon to take this seriously, and I want it to hurt them. I want every other corporation to know that they need to handle their PR and customer service very carefully. And I want them to know not to discrimate against my LGBT friends, or they will lose my business.

The Fail at this point is in the stunning lack of communication.
posted by threeturtles at 2:17 PM on April 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


The line between Screech and fecal porn is not as clearly defined as it once was.
posted by Joe Beese at 2:20 PM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Fail at this point is in the stunning lack of communication.
Absolutely.
posted by verb at 2:26 PM on April 13, 2009


The lack of communication is par for the course for Amazon, though.
posted by dw at 2:39 PM on April 13, 2009


threeturtles: My problem is that it's almost end of business on the second day and Amazon has not said a word in support of the authors and customers that have been (however unwittingly) offended and harmed by their incompetance. I want Amazon to take this seriously, and I want it to hurt them.

At this point, I'm not entirely surprised that Amazon isn't worrying about hurrying to say anything. They've already been tarred and feathered and pilloried and had orders cancelled and threatened with boycotts and etc etc etc. How much worse can it get for them? If they try to solve the problem and diagnose it fully, they can announce a press release in the near future saying what was wrong, how they fixed it and why it won't happen again. With an apology for anyone offended and 10% off any order that included one or more of the following LGBT titles ...

But at the moment it seems like folks are so quick to jump straight to pitchforks and torches that even a measured response of "We know some of you are angry, and we're working on it, give us a day!" would probably be met with further threats. And when you're damned whether you respond or not right now, you might decide it would just better to go for a 100% push tomorrow rather than a half-assed push today.
posted by barnacles at 2:44 PM on April 13, 2009


Slightly more detail from Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener here.
posted by curse at 3:07 PM on April 13, 2009


Just about to post that link. Amazon apologizes. I wonder... no, it's not sunny and 72 outside here in Seattle. But at least it's not raining. Yet.
posted by dw at 3:10 PM on April 13, 2009


curse: "Slightly more detail from Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener here."

No apology. No affirmation of support for GLBT authors*. No justification for filtering policy.

FAIL.

* Neil G. Giuliano, President of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, has said in an e-mailed statement to the Seattle P-I and the Wall Street Journal that Amazon will fix an error that caused gay-themed books to lose their sales rankings on the Web site. "GLAAD has reached out to Amazon.com and they indicate this was an error, so we expect to start seeing evidence of its correction immediately, and any loss of visibility of gay-themed books as a result of this error will be made right by Amazon," Giuliano said.

posted by Joe Beese at 3:21 PM on April 13, 2009


I guess we can put away the pitchforks.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:39 PM on April 13, 2009


Interesting that Amazon funneled their response through the blog of the local failing newspaper.
posted by Nelson at 3:40 PM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I guess we can put away the pitchforks.

Not necessarily.

I immediately called my editor, Brooke Warner, over at Seal Press. ... She spoke to their Amazon rep today, and he told her it was definitely not a glitch. From Brooke's email to me:

[[ Basically he said that amazon has been experimenting with the way they dole out content specifically so that people who are searching Harry Potter or whatever won't run into links to products that might be offensive.

...It's super fucked up, but apparently he's saying that Amazon is a bully when it comes to stuff like this and it's all about sales for them and it's not about censorship. [He said t]hat they love you, love Seal, but that this is mandated from their bosses, who essentially want to be Walmart.

...He also said no human is responsible for the decisions per se, and that it's all about tagging and feeds which are constantly being tweaked. He does think that amazon will retweak the tags based on the uproar that happened over the weekend. ]]

posted by Joe Beese at 3:52 PM on April 13, 2009


Interesting that Amazon funneled their response through the blog of the local failing newspaper.

First off, it's been online only for a month now. Second off, it's on the paper's Amazon blog, and that reporter has an existing relationship with Amazon as a result. Third off, the other paper in town has never covered Amazon the way the P-I has (which was long and deep in tech and business reporting until they went online only and laid off 90% of their employees).
posted by dw at 3:54 PM on April 13, 2009


Someone probably had the idea of reducing Amazon's exposure to bad publicity without increasing the site's legal liability. Manual censorship of the rankings would certainly make the service more liable, so the idea was probably a tool that would let the site's users do the work for it. After all, if the community doesn't like it, then, well, US community standards laws apply and you're safe. A group of developers coded it up, and it worked well - for a while.

Either a parameter wasn't quite right, or someone released a new version of a keyword file without testing - and, well, suddenly the GLBT books were off the list. Maybe someone gamed the system, too - it's impossible to tell from outside.

A separate test and operations team would have been likely to spot the underlying flaw before it got released - or at least spotted the first wave of complaints and started to triage them effectively, with a more productive response than "It's a glitch".

So now Amazon has to unwind data that's spread across its distributed application platform, which may be stored in any or all of three different kinds of database, and in at least three different geographies and many more data centres.

Ooops.

posted by Joe Beese at 3:54 PM on April 13, 2009


Ooops.

I posted that link what, four hours ago? Are you even reading this thread, or is this just another desperation heave?
posted by dw at 4:06 PM on April 13, 2009


Not necessarily.

It's breathtaking how much misinformation has been repeated and amplified as fact over the weekend and today. No offense to you or feministing, but I'd suggest that you look for confirmation of that comment, instead of repeating something that was third-hand, repeated through another third-hand source.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:09 PM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Drew Herdener: This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error.

Ham-fisting? Now that's just sick, and I want it expunged from my search results pronto.
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:23 PM on April 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


The idea of the discretion filter makes some sense, but the folks at amazon seem to have a pretty high embarrassment threshold.

I just followed a link from Susie Bright's blog to Amazon, to check out their entry for Behind the Green Door (primarily because of this thread). It has a sales rank of 5,738 in Movies & TV right now (I expect that it will trend up over the next few days).

So, because it has a sales rank, my amazon.com home page is now recommending that I look at a few of Chamber's other popular works.
posted by djfiander at 4:25 PM on April 13, 2009


Blazecock Pileon: " No offense to you or feministing, but I'd suggest that you look for confirmation of that comment, instead of repeating something that was third-hand, repeated through another third-hand source."

And your suggestion comes from... where, exactly?

A desire to protect other readers of the Blue - who may not have the advantage of your hearsay-recognition skills - from being recklessly misled?

A chivalrous feeling that Amazon is doing the best they can, darn it, and I'm not making it any easier for them?

Resentment that others are getting their views aired on MetaFilter without having to pay the five bucks?

If you think the perspectives of the people I've quoted are worthless, you're free to say so. But, no offense to you, please don't set yourself up as a judge of what's relevant commentary.
posted by Joe Beese at 4:47 PM on April 13, 2009


Looks like Herdener sent out the statement to multiple people, TechFlash got a little info about the reports that this was a hack: Herdener responded: "This was our error," without elaborating.
posted by curse at 4:56 PM on April 13, 2009


But, no offense to you, please don't set yourself up as a judge of what's relevant commentary.

I'm just suggesting that you check your facts. You have repeated a lot of false information as fact, so far.

I don't have much of an agenda beyond that. If there was a genuine assault on GLBT writers, I'd be as angry as you. But that's not what happened here, as far as I know.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:01 PM on April 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


As mentioned above in the Seattle PI link …

Amazon: Error That De-Ranked LGBT Books is Fixed
“Amazon.com said on Monday that a ‘ham-fisted cataloging error’ caused thousands of gay-themed books to be classified as ‘adult’ literature and de-ranked from its online store, the Seattle Times reports. ‘This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection,’ Drew Herdener, communications director at Amazon, told the Times.

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 books from Amazon's main product search.’”
posted by ericb at 5:25 PM on April 13, 2009


*As mentioned above in the Seattle Times link...*
posted by ericb at 5:26 PM on April 13, 2009


Blazecock Pileon: "You have repeated a lot of false information as fact, so far."

1. "Something I don't believe" ≠ "False"

2. "Repeated" ≠ "Repeated as fact"
posted by Joe Beese at 5:53 PM on April 13, 2009


Even after it explained the scope of the problem, Amazon continued to face criticism for its slow and limited response to the online blowup, particularly at a time when sites like Twitter can so easily accelerate and amplify a public outcry.
Nice story in the New York Times about this mess: manages to cover the trollish false confession, seems to get the facts right, has some bits of reporting not seen elsewhere. And at least they tried to talk to some publishers (who didn't comment).
posted by RogerB at 6:01 PM on April 13, 2009


I got an email with the ham-fisted line in response to my boycott email:

Hello,

Thank you for contacting Amazon.com.

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.


Sincerely,

Customer Service Department
Amazon.com

Note: this e-mail was sent from a notification-only address that cannot accept incoming e-mail. Please do not reply to this message.
posted by Pants! at 7:11 PM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't think it was a policy move on Amazon's part, but the idea that "Heather has two mommies" is tagged with "sexuality", but Ron Jeremy's autobiography isn't, seems laughable to me.

Add in the idea that somehow 1 guy in France, working on Easter weekend, magically affected rankings back in February, and it still smells like a disgruntled insider to me, not a glitch.
posted by nomisxid at 9:13 AM on April 14, 2009


Add in the idea that somehow 1 guy in France, working on Easter weekend, magically affected rankings back in February, and it still smells like a disgruntled insider to me, not a glitch.
1) Amazon has a policy of preventing "adult content" of particular types -- driven by complaints from their own customers -- from appearing in search results or "You might also be interested in" displays. This has the unfortunate side effect of causing certain titles to effectively vanish from Amazon unless you're very very deliberate when hunting for them.

2) Some books receive that classification and are subsequently disputed. For example, some of the authors who complained in February.

3) Over Easter weekend, a developer screwed up (either via code or incorrect pseudo-manual management of product metadata) and incorrectly classified ~50,000 books as 'adult'. This included GLBT themed books regardless of sexual content, some feminist literature, some books about sexuality for people with disabilities, and so on.

4) Amazon's notoriously crappy customer communications resulted in #3 being conflated with #2, and a 36 hour orgy of outrage ensued with no corrections from Amazon. It was a colossal, monumental, cataclysmic PR fuckup that could have been prevented had they just established lines of communication beforehand.

It's important to note that one can object to #1 and #2 without regarding #3 as a conspiracy or malicious act.
posted by verb at 9:42 AM on April 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


The SeattlePI has some more detail from an inside anonymous source. Basically same story, a data error, but with a bunch of detail of how Amazon handles problems like this.

Speaking now as a gay sometime-activist and a software engineer.. All you conspiracy theorists, give Amazon a break. Your rage is misplaced. Mistakes like this happen all the time in software and sometimes they take time to fix. Amazon's a very progressive company, full of smart gay-friendly people. It's ridiculous to carry a grudge against them for a bug. The only reason you are so angry is because you fed off 36 hours of hype and speculation.

The real failure here is Amazon's poor communication with its consumers. Maybe they'll learn something from this.
posted by Nelson at 9:50 AM on April 14, 2009 [4 favorites]


Why are we all convinced that ALL the delisting happened over this weekend? Is it possible that the delisting has been happening slowly, in the background, maybe the work of one individual or a small group, and that it only just was discovered and really blew up this weekend?

The vision I keep coming back to is of minor adjustments being made by hand over a long amount of time. Some authors complain, but then it's just kicked through the usual Amazon channels because the system is largely / mostly / partly automated, or judgement calls can be wrong, etc. But over the months (since Feb, at least), many many products are slowly moved into nearly-invisible status, all by one person or small group who are protecting us all from ourselves.

It's that just as plausible as the mysterious "wrong checkbox got clicked" excuse we've been offered up until now? It certainly meets the test of Occam's Razor.
posted by hippybear at 9:54 AM on April 14, 2009


er, um... crappy last sentence in that post. please edit in your mind.
posted by hippybear at 9:56 AM on April 14, 2009


Why are we all convinced that ALL the delisting happened over this weekend?

Please go back up to Nelson's comment and read the link to the P-I's anonymous source. This apparently happens ALL THE TIME. It's just this time it happened over a holiday weekend, happened with a large set of items associated with an activist community, and was compounded by Amazon's piss-poor public relations infrastructure.

In other words, VERB CALLED IT. The evidence points to a "glitch," or more correctly human error, and not to a conspiracy. You put down Occam's Razor once there's enough evidence to support one version of things over another.
posted by dw at 12:35 PM on April 14, 2009


The people who noticed this -- the authors -- check their rank frequently and that of their pals/competitors. So when their ranks disappeared, they checked their pals, and then their competitors, and then other people they began to suspect were affected. So if this had been done to them sometime in the past, they would have known before the weekend.
posted by julen at 3:20 PM on April 14, 2009


My first instinct was to blame Amazon for a change in corporate policy. From my own perspective, I think that a lot of Americans (gay and straight) are damaged by the country's systemic hatred of minorities. This makes a lot of us, myself included, punchy, quick to blame, and eager to assume the worst about others.

But when I learned late Sunday afternoon what the cause was and how their staff were responding, I have to admit that I watched the Twitter/blogosphere response that followed with as much fascination as horror.

This weekend, we watched as laypeople, people who do not understand how large, complex systems work (and occasionally fail), were whipped into a frenzy, a self-organizing riot with no one stopping to take a moment to step back, to think rationally about why a company would suddenly change its (admittedly, from my own perspective) normally GLBT-friendly policies.

Blogs and tweets repeated complete fabrications in a sensationalized manner. Stories were invented about "what really happened" that turned out to have no basis in fact whatsoever.

There is a lot of talk about the blogosphere, bloggers and other "new journalists" replacing mainstream media outlets that don't "understand" the Internet. But what this event showed -- aside from how badly Amazon PR handled this crisis of confidence -- and what perhaps should be a more important and cautionary lesson, was that bloggers and other Internet personalities who covered this were nearly completely incapable of researching, corroborating and reporting information in a competent and professional manner.

For whatever faults the MSM have, we need them to transition to the Internet as quickly as possible. The next target of an Internet riot may get treated worse, for much less offense.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:19 PM on April 14, 2009 [7 favorites]


This weekend, we watched as laypeople, people who do not understand how large, complex systems work (and occasionally fail), were whipped into a frenzy, a self-organizing riot with no one stopping to take a moment to step back, to think rationally about why a company would suddenly change its (admittedly, from my own perspective) normally GLBT-friendly policies.

That is so very true, and I'm glad we had verb here to be the voice of reason even when folks weren't listening to him.

This whole debacle should be embarrassing for both sides, though if the latest trending on twitter's #AmazonFail tag is any indication, the only people who are going to learn from it are corporate PR departments.
posted by barnacles at 5:55 PM on April 14, 2009


from the NYT article linked by RogerB

> Mr. Mendelsohn pointed out that books like “American Psycho,” a novel with sexually and violently explicit content,
> did not lose its sales rank. He teamed up with others affected by the problem, including the playwright and author Larry
> Kramer, to start a petition to boycott Amazon. As of Monday afternoon it had attracted more than 18,000 names.
>
> Mr. Kramer said on Monday that he was willing to shelve the boycott for now. But in an e-mail message he wrote:
> “I don’t think for one second that this was a glitch,” adding, “We have to now keep a more diligent eye on Amazon and
> how they handle the world’s cultural heritage.”

Ah. This is about the world's cultural heritage. Some people just don't care about anything except looking like a heavyweight to themselves.

As for Amazon apologizing, I very much hope in the interest of justice that they can find a way to offer their apologies only to those who did not leap onto the tar and feather bandwagon, and the smelly finger to the horde of twittering idiots who did.
posted by jfuller at 5:57 PM on April 14, 2009


My first instinct was to blame Amazon for a change in corporate policy. From my own perspective, I think that a lot of Americans (gay and straight) are damaged by the country's systemic hatred of minorities. This makes a lot of us, myself included, punchy, quick to blame, and eager to assume the worst about others.

That's the thing that had me scratching my head. I live in Seattle. I know scads of people who've worked for Amazon. I know they've have some very progressive corporate policies for a long, long time. Given that Seattle has the second largest GLBT population by percentage of any city in the US (12.9%, behind only San Francisco's 15.4%), you can figure the corporate offices are as queer as they can come here. (Seattle's GLBT population is larger than its African-American population [10%].)

So the idea there would be some "new anti-gay policy" sounded absolutely ludicrous. It'd be like McDonald's announcing an alliance with PETA. For a local with direct knowledge of a local company, it did not pass the smell test.

But that's the thing -- as a local, I knew that. For a lot of people picking up a pitchfork, it was all about the Big Evil Corporation. A lot of writers and publishers have an animus towards Amazon already; mix in some anti-corporate sentiment and voila, you've got an angry mob who would not stop until they extracted blood. And that was the scary thing -- the idea that even if was an honest mistake, Amazon still had to pay because They Were Evil.

I certainly feel like a lot of the blame for the angry mob is on Amazon. They do not get social media. Their PR folks were out to lunch, and when they finally showed up they're using "glitch" to explain a serious human-caused cataloging error. Their decentralized structure meant no one was on point when they needed someone on point. There was no one in a position to assuage the mob or respond in a timely matter, especially not on Twitter.

At the same time, though, once the mob started rolling, it just ate up the incomplete information and ran with it, and it refused to self-correct. Even now, it's not self-correcting. People still want to boycott them because Amazon Has A Policy Against Gays, even though the evidence is overwhelmingly against that (and has been from the beginning). Some people are still spreading around the idea that Weev hacked the system, even though there's no form he could grief and no evidence of the iframes he talked of on "popular sites." And people are still interpreting customer service boilerplate as some dictate from the head of the PR department instead of as customer service boilerplate.

And I've left out the complete inability of 90% of the pitchfork-wavers to even grok how databases work, much less something as large and byzantine as Amazon's 14 year old enterprise data warehouse, or something as obtuse and odd as their metatagging system.

What's frustrating is the truth WAS there, and yet people didn't listen. What I didn't say during the heat of this was that the pitchfork-wavers were starting to remind me of Creationists, people who despite all the evidence presented before them have already made up their minds and you cannot change them, and if you are trying to change them then maybe you're part of the problem. And that's what scares me. The #savejon debacle unraveled because people heard the evidence and changed their minds. The #amazonfail debacle continued partially because people heard the evidence and refused to change their minds.

That scares me. It says that the Internet zeitgeist will behave like a lynch mob if it reaches the right size and contains the right combination of people. In a case like that, it's no longer about truth, it's about justice, and the lynch mob is judge, jury, and executioner. And heaven forbid if the condemned doesn't show; they'll just find some innocent to lynch in its stead.

I want to think we've beyond that now, that we're beyond the anger that overcomes reason. But I know better, and #amazonfail was a bitter reminder that we have yet to move that far beyond the "strange fruit" that hung from trees in the South 80 years ago, even if those leading the pitchfork brigade are people who might have been hanging from those trees all those years ago.

How is justice served when the process is too angry to be just?
posted by dw at 7:52 PM on April 14, 2009 [4 favorites]


IMO, #amazonfail is social media's Beauchamp. The last several months have given us disasters and revolutions announced in realtime via social media -- the equivalent of the Rathergate 'We won!' that the right-wing blogs experienced. They saw their 'next target' and decided to flex the new media muscles.
posted by verb at 9:52 PM on April 14, 2009


There is a lot of talk about the blogosphere, bloggers and other "new journalists" replacing mainstream media outlets that don't "understand" the Internet. But what this event showed -- aside from how badly Amazon PR handled this crisis of confidence -- and what perhaps should be a more important and cautionary lesson, was that bloggers and other Internet personalities who covered this were nearly completely incapable of researching, corroborating and reporting information in a competent and professional manner.

It's my understanding that a number of bloggers attempted to contact Amazon for some sort of an explanation. The initial ones were met with the canned response about "adult material". Subsequent contacts were met with the utterly unsatisfactory answer about a "glitch". At no point did Amazon respond to the bloggers as if they believed "new journalists" had any claim to information. The treated the bloggers in the same way they treated me when I sent an angry email. Only when the "old media" started asking them questions did the CEO (I believe) respond with anything but a canned CSR statement.

At no point during the initial blowup was there even a platitude: "Amazon greatly values its GLBT customers and employees, and there is no internal policy to discriminate against GLBT-oriented merchandise in our web store. We do not yet know what caused these problems, but we're working on it." No.

The only thing Amazon said for the first 36-48 hours of this was (and I quote an email from Amazon), "We recently discovered a glitch in our systems and it's being fixed." This explanation sounds so disingenuous and trite that it cannot be expected to garner any sympathy. It certainly garnered none with me. It sounds like so many other glib corporate statements that amount to "shit, we got caught."

Not only were bloggers ignored, Amazon made no attempt to communicate to the public. Even now, I can't find any acknowledgment of the situation on Amazon's site. Apparently, this is a long-standing problem with Amazon--no corporate blog, no news area, nothing. However, their inflexibility and non-communication as an organization isn't the fault of the bloggers.

And I don't feel that you can fault the mob for seeing what appeared to be a very specific discriminatory effect on the Amazon store and, after hearing nothing more substantial or satisfying than "it's a glitch and we're working on it", deciding that there was something sinister in the offing.
posted by Netzapper at 1:19 AM on April 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Since I still don't get to find out the "real story" (is it a hack? a technical issue within Amazon? a process and human factors problem? a trolling? was it really at root a PR issue? how about a combination?) and because most of the explanations, official and unofficial rely on someone not having enough process training or documentation to have done their jobs properly, I decided that this debacle was at the very least a good reminder to really make good on my desire to shop locally, and at a worst, it was an indication that I probably didn't want Amazon holding any of my credit card information.

Also, I had to ask Amazon 4 times to close my account (via their official channels) before they actually did as I asked. I blogged the correspondence, but since Metafilter seems rather set against my self-linking, ya'll will have to go find that stuff yourself.

Given the overall fail, and lack of proactive outreach or any hint of social culpability (though I have seen them admit to technical culpability) from Amazon, I really don't feel badly about that decision.
posted by kalessin at 4:47 AM on April 15, 2009


And I don't feel that you can fault the mob for seeing what appeared to be a very specific discriminatory effect on the Amazon store and, after hearing nothing more substantial or satisfying than "it's a glitch and we're working on it", deciding that there was something sinister in the offing.
My main complaint is not with people who were outraged, but with people who -- while confessing their own ignorance of anything related to Amazon's infrastructure -- made authoritative statements about what was and wasn't "possible." People who, in numerous blog posts, discussions, forums, and online feeds said quite confidently that "Gay stuff is being filtered out. Filters work like [x], not like [y], so this had to be intentional."

It's a two-sided coin: no one wants to be the dupe who's fooled by a lot of technical hand-waving, but just making shit up about one of the largest and most complex enterprise data stores on the 'net today is not the solution. If the technical details of the system are the "proof" of deliberate action, it behooves us to maybe, you know, take a look at some of the actual technical details. They are available online, after all. They're complicated and confusing and incomplete and they're tangled up in 500+ pages of technical documentation. But if a person doesn't have the patience to wade through that information, and doesn't have someone trustworthy they can ask to translate, making stuff up isn't the solution.
posted by verb at 7:10 AM on April 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


And I don't feel that you can fault the mob for seeing what appeared to be a very specific discriminatory effect on the Amazon store and, after hearing nothing more substantial or satisfying than "it's a glitch and we're working on it", deciding that there was something sinister in the offing.

I think, for myself, it isn't so much having received an explanation. Yes, what verb has been saying and what the Amazon people are saying all make sense and may be the truth. (I say maybe because, well, there are reasons why Amazon might lie about this situation. Not saying that's what is happening...)

I think, for myself, it is about the shock that a company such as Amazon has a mechanism in place which can, with the "stroke of a pen", conduct editing to their database which amounts to targeted censoring. I am certain that I am not the only person who finds this revelation disturbing. It leaves me with a taste in my mouth of impending possible doom, where entire segments of society can be relegated back into the dark nether regions simply because "someone" gives the word. It serves as a reminder that any progress made toward full inclusion of gays and lesbians (and other "fringe" groups) can be undone instantly, and possibly without recourse.

This is disturbing as so much more than just a retail issue.
posted by hippybear at 7:49 AM on April 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think, for myself, it is about the shock that a company such as Amazon has a mechanism in place which can, with the "stroke of a pen", conduct editing to their database which amounts to targeted censoring.
Indeed. And that's where I think a lot of the 'geek vs. nongeek' disconnect came from. Folks who are used to working with large database systems are used to the fact that the tools needed to maintain stuff are the same tools needed to censor, or memory-hole compromising data. There's not really any way to separate those things from each other; hammers can kill people, and all that.

Building systems designed to prevent misuse is really, really hard. It's important sometimes, but it's also really difficult and complex, and I would be shocked if Amazon had put any time or energy into that. We're only just barely getting to the point that the health care industry is doing things like that, and they're still mostly focused on 'logging so there's a record', not 'keeping people from abusing access.'
posted by verb at 8:08 AM on April 15, 2009


Clay Shirky's post about the "#amazonfail fail" is an interesting one.
posted by verb at 8:36 AM on April 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Indeed, that is a really interesting post. I'm struggling to reconcile two things within myself at the moment, one which says that it isn't really right that Amazon has a system which allows the kind of actions we witnessed over the weekend, and one which says that Amazon really isn't to blame for the actions we witnessed.

That post by Shirky really hit on a lot of things. I'm going to have to sort that out for a while.
posted by hippybear at 9:09 AM on April 15, 2009


A Rational Explanation of #AmazonFail and the So-Called 'Glitch'
“Dabble.com founder and ‘veteran Silicon Valley technologist’ Mary Hodder offers the most rational explanation I've heard to date for what happened with regard to gay and lesbian book sales de-rankings on Amazon, in a post at TechCrunch. She expands on a report that a French employee was behind the ‘ham-fisted,’ as Amazon called it, mistake:
The issue with #AmazonFail isn’t that a French Employee pressed the wrong button or could affect the system by changing ‘false’ to ‘true’ in filtering certain ‘adult’ classified items, it’s that Amazon’s system has assumptions such as: sexual orientation is part of ‘adult’. And ‘gay’ is part of ‘adult.’ In other words, #AmazonFail is about the subconscious assumptions of people built into algorithms and classification that contain discriminatory ideas. When other employees use the system, whether they themselves agree with the underlying assumptions of the algorithms and classification system, or even realize the system has these point’s of view built in, they can put those assumptions into force, as the Amazon France Employee apparently did according to Amazon.

This of course doesn’t explain how the problem arose two months ago, and why when Amazon was notified, they didn’t look into it then. I would suggest that the same underlying assumptions that drove their classification and algorithm system to be built to filter ‘gay’ into ‘adult’ also led their investigations in February and March to lead to nothing. It was only public outrage this past weekend that caused them to look harder, beyond their own assumptions, to find the underlying problem.
I would suspect that subconscious discriminatory assumptions are built into plenty of algorithms as similarly as they're built into the human mind.”
posted by ericb at 9:24 AM on April 15, 2009


Clay Shirky's post about the "#amazonfail fail" is an interesting one.

Very well said. And he, too, references Mary Holder's post at TechCrunch.
posted by ericb at 9:28 AM on April 15, 2009


The issue with #AmazonFail isn’t that a French Employee pressed the wrong button or could affect the system by changing ‘false’ to ‘true’ in filtering certain ‘adult’ classified items, it’s that Amazon’s system has assumptions such as: sexual orientation is part of ‘adult’. And ‘gay’ is part of ‘adult.’

This is a different interpretation of what happened than what I got over the last couple of days. It seemed to me that the additional assumption of "sexual orientation is part of 'adult'" is what the single French employee added. Because Amazon has always been filtering "adult" items. It is the addition of sexual orientation to this set that offended people.
posted by grouse at 9:29 AM on April 15, 2009


it’s that Amazon’s system has assumptions such as: sexual orientation is part of ‘adult’. And ‘gay’ is part of ‘adult.’

The one problem with this logic is that writers of hetero erotica were ALSO caught in the middle of this. And that fact is being ignored because, well, they're not GLBT, so they don't fit The Narrative.
posted by dw at 9:54 AM on April 15, 2009


dw: The one problem with this logic is that writers of hetero erotica were ALSO caught in the middle of this. And that fact is being ignored because, well, they're not GLBT, so they don't fit The Narrative.

Oh wow! I hadn't seen that before but it was right there all along in the list of banned books linked in the FPP.
posted by Kattullus at 10:01 AM on April 15, 2009


It seemed to me that the additional assumption of "sexual orientation is part of 'adult'" is what the single French employee added. Because Amazon has always been filtering "adult" items. It is the addition of sexual orientation to this set that offended people.

Well, that and the sudden revelation that Ellen Degeneres' biography which isn't sexually explicit is regarded within Amazon at large as "adult" whereas Ron Jeremy's very explicit autobiography isn't.

People aren't upset by the concept of books being considered "adult" in theme. They are upset at the obvious lines of discrimination which were revealed by this "glitch". If all the stripper biographies had disappeared, gay and straight, it would have been one thing. But it wasn't. Why is a gay stripper biography more adult than a straight one?

Yes, I know, it all somehow makes sense with metadata and keywords. And yet, somehow, when viewed from above, it makes no sense whatsoever. The underlying bias is that gay = inappropriate for children, even if the item is question is Heather Has Two Mommies. Or that gay = embarassing, even if the item is Rubyfruit Jungle.

I suppose I should just chant "Iowa" and "Vermont" softly to myself until all the bad feelings go away.

Still, I'd love to see a full list of the 57,000 items Amazon says were affected. I'm sure it would be illuminating.
posted by hippybear at 10:04 AM on April 15, 2009


dw: good point. And there were many other books affected beyond GLBT items, yes.

Which is why I want to see the full list. Was it ONLY non-missionary-position sex that was affected?
posted by hippybear at 10:06 AM on April 15, 2009


I hate how much smarter Clay Shirky is than the rest of us. There should be a law against that.
posted by dw at 10:10 AM on April 15, 2009


dw: good point. And there were many other books affected beyond GLBT items, yes.

My wife is a former romance writer who still reads romance blogs and forums. And they're getting increasingly angry for being this becoming a GLBT thing exclusively and for their concerns getting lost in the wash. (I'm waiting for her to get out of a meeting so she can send me links.)
posted by dw at 10:17 AM on April 15, 2009


dw: well, it's not like the heterosexual romance novel community has 40 years of practice organizing under their belt, is it? ;)

Seriously, I really want to see the full list.
posted by hippybear at 10:20 AM on April 15, 2009


Well, that and the sudden revelation that Ellen Degeneres' biography which isn't sexually explicit is regarded within Amazon at large as "adult" whereas Ron Jeremy's very explicit autobiography isn't.

I really don't want to defend Amazon, because I think they should be doing it themselves. But I don't understand this. What do you mean that it is "regarded within Amazon at large as 'adult'"? It is regarded as having something to do with the "Gay & Lesbian" category. I think that it clearly would be. The explanation we have is that a single employee instantly added the adult tag to all that stuff, as well as stuff in "Reproductive & Sexual Medicine", and "Erotica."

I fail to see what this has to do with "Amazon at large."
posted by grouse at 10:29 AM on April 15, 2009


What do you mean that it is "regarded within Amazon at large as 'adult'"?

I mean, simply, that there is a mechanism within Amazon which propagates through their system which allows content to be filtered as "adult". And this isn't restricted to subsets of their system but will be seen / felt throughout amazon.com.
posted by hippybear at 11:22 AM on April 15, 2009


I suppose I should just chant "Iowa" and "Vermont" softly to myself until all the bad feelings go away.

Like grouse, I don't want to defend Amazon because they should be doing it for themselves. Nonetheless, if you think Amazon hates gays and lesbians, and that this mistake was deliberate corporate policy, I suggest that you step back and rethink your premises. There's no evidence that this was a deliberate act, let alone policy decided from the top. Scare quotes are a really poor substitution for homework, bloggers.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:59 PM on April 15, 2009


My wife says
Could you say on MeFi that it's not so much that the group is increasingly angry, because that sort of sounds like the romance community itself is anti-GLBT, which is not at all the case--if anything, it's more a frustration that the meme of the fail doesn't quite reflect the reality... we're hearing about X, when the actual issue was X + Y, which could change the narrative both about what happened and how to prevent it in the future.
So that's where the romance/erotica community is on all this.
posted by dw at 2:38 PM on April 15, 2009


dw: it seems to have actually be X + Y + Z and also a subset of Q. My own personal frustration comes not so much from the gay/lesbian angle specifically but rather from a wider sense of "queer" which expands to include, perhaps, readers and authors of sexual and erotic fiction. Someplace along the line, someone has decided that any sex outside of a narrow definition of the activity should be flagged, and that smells rotten, in or out of Denmark. And then there are the non-sexual but gender-related books which were included...

B.Pileon: Not sure you read what I've written carefully, but I never have suggested that Amazon itself has a policy against gays, lesbians, the wheelchair-bound, feminists, or any of the other groups which find their literature affected by this little "glitch". If that was communicated, I have written imprecisely. This does NOT mean that the implications of this are lessened. [Did I include a scare quote in my post?]
posted by hippybear at 7:13 PM on April 15, 2009


I talked to a friend this morning who works in a non-technical part of Amazon.

There's been no internal communication about #amazonfail. No e-mail to employees saying "hey this is what happened, this is how you should respond when asked." This person learned everything about what happened from the newspaper.

That's really, really, really not good, and it pretty much means we'll never see an explanation from Amazon other than "glitch" and "ham-fisted."
posted by dw at 9:09 AM on April 16, 2009


That's why I don't really feel compelled to defend Amazon. At first I thought it was a bit unfair for this whole thing to blow up over Easter Sunday, but given that they've said very little in the following three business days, I think much of the blame for the PR disaster lies with them.
posted by grouse at 10:03 AM on April 16, 2009


The delisting of GLBT books has been happening since 2008.
posted by divabat at 4:07 PM on April 19, 2009


I've just seen that too divabat, a lot still remains to be explained about what's going on.
posted by Flitcraft at 4:51 PM on April 19, 2009


I know it's hard to read the whole thread and keep up with the ping-pong that went on during the very active portions, but before piging the thread again please try.

The fact that small numbers of books were being de-listed as far back as a year ago, on both the Kindle and the general Amazon site, is not news and was understood at the outset. Whether the 57,000 books in several categories were intentionally or accidentally delisted over Easter weekend is a separate question.

The difference is important: treating the two as the same only means that your arguments about the former will be dismissed because you mix them up with the latter.
posted by verb at 8:06 PM on April 19, 2009


You know what's especially fucked up about this?

If I go to Amazon and search for a book, it means I'm interested in buying it. If it doesn't show up in the results, I'm going to move on to another retailer. And then there's the bad PR...

The only possible effect this can have is a negative for Amazon and a positive for its competitors. It just doesn't make any kind of practical business sense, particularly in this economy, when one would assume retailers would take all the sales they can get, for Amazon to actively cut off customers from merchandise.

So, like, really, WTF?
posted by Sys Rq at 11:30 AM on April 22, 2009


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