#AmazonFail – Where Are We Now?

The dust appears to be finally settling on the AmazonFail story and we appear to be getting a good idea of what really happened. Here’s the best I can make of it.

Firstly Amazon really does have a system for tagging books as “adult content”. This does not surprise me. They want to sell every book they can, and at the same time avoid falling foul of the guardians of public morality. The question for them is, how to identify “adult” content.

Amazon’s problem is that it sells far too many books to make that decision easily. So it looks for ways to categorize books so that it can run automatic processes on the database. What appears to have happened here is that someone caused a mass update that affected way too many books (over 50,000 in all), and in particular lots of books of a specific type.

How that happened is unclear. I don’t for a minute believe that an evil wingnut hacker was responsible. I know it is all very dramatic, and people on the left seem to love any story that portrays them as victims, but I’m pretty sure we’d have heard about it long ago, and for different reasons, if Amazon’s systems were that vulnerable. Not do I believe that this was a deliberate policy on behalf of Amazon’s senior management. It could have been a deliberate act of an individual employee; there’s a story that it was the fault of a French employee who misunderstood nuances of English; or it could just have been a screw-up. We may never know.

Once this happened, people started to complain. They may well have got the standard, canned response about “adult” content. That’s because the people dealing with customer complaints initially had no way of knowing that something awful had happened and were simply following their script.

Then there is the whole “glitch” thing. What we need to remember here is that for non-programmers any time the computer goes wrong it is a “glitch”. When a salesman or PR person calls something a computer glitch he doesn’t always mean a hardware failure, or even an unforseen bug, he just means that something on the computer was wrong and he doesn’t know why.

The good news is that Amazon acknowledges that an error has occurred and that they intend to fix it. Apparently this is going to take time, due to the nature of their systems. That’s unfortunate, but at least the problem is in hand. Hopefully they will also look and strengthening their systems so that this sort of thing can’t easily happen again.

The bad news that it happened, because it really shouldn’t have been able to happen. As Simon Bradshaw puts it:

If it turns out that such an embarrassing incident could have arisen from a single coding error, and that Amazon’s infrastructure allowed the error to pass undetected, propagate around the world and then take days to fix, then it rather makes the world’s best-known online ordering brand look like a massive house of cards.

What does appear to have been “embarrassing and ham-fisted”, to coin a phrase, is Amazon’s PR response. Had they simply issued a brief official apology early on explaining that this was a cataloging error and they were working on it then much of the fuss would have evaporated very quickly. It is clear from this article that Amazon staff were working very hard on the problem, so it wasn’t that it was being ignored.

Instead Amazon left it to staff to leak explanations, and when an official response came there was no sign of an apology and every sign that Amazon felt it had nothing to apologize for. In particular the accusation of “misreporting” appears to have been a deliberate attempt by Amazon’s PR people to cast the company as the victim in the affair. Yeah, right, that’s an interesting new spin tactic. I can see it now:

“The current situation in the Middle East has been misreported,” said White House spokesman, Karl Rove. “Our investigation has shown that many of the people who have died have been Iranian, Jordanian, Palestinian and indeed of many other nationalities. The whole idea of a “War on Iraq” is a fabrication of the Liberal media.”

There should be two lessons here. The first is that if you make a mistake that predominantly targets a specific group of people who are sadly used to being victimized then they will jump to conclusions. Simply brushing it asides as teh gays making a fuss over nothing is not going to fix the damage.

Secondly, as the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones explains:

If WH Smith or Waterstone’s decided to put gay literature on more obscure shelves (remember – the books weren’t banned, just made harder to find) would anyone have made a fuss – or even noticed?

This happened to Amazon because they are online (and therefore easily accessible) and because they have such a dominant position in the market that a book going missing from their store is seen as a disaster by that book’s author. Unfortunately, because of the way online markets work, companies like Amazon do attain dominant positions. Economically, and eventually even politically, this is unhealthy. Incidents like this help remind us what we might be giving up by allowing Amazon to attain such dominance, and hopefully remind Amazon that just because they are dominant it doesn’t mean that they can do whatever they want.

52 thoughts on “#AmazonFail – Where Are We Now?

  1. Excellent article, Cheryl. I agree. Plus, I really would like to see an apology. You know, one that uses words such as “apologies”, “sorry”, “sincerely”.

    It would also be nice to see an explanation why GLBTQ authors were de-listed MONTHS ago (Craig Seymor for example) and what Amazon intents to do about the lost profits of these authors it hit in the backroom.

    Until then, all I see is some lip-service and amazon saying “we’re embarrassed”. Well, you better be. Now apologize. Properly.

  2. vashtan:

    My impression is that this is something that has been going on for some time at a minor level. One or two LGBTQ authors may have been delisted in error weeks ago. Some of them may have been reinstated (Seymour was, I believe). What brought the whole thing to light was the mass de-listed of thousands of books.

  3. I pointed out elsewhere that Amazon’s success has been at the expense of gay bookshops. The Oscar Wilde Bookshop in NYC and A Different Light in LA both announced closures recently. Gay’s the Word in London continues to struggle. Part of that is due to rents but the rise of internet bookselling is also a factor.

  4. In addition to Mary roach’s “Bonk” no longer being ranked (tho that’s now fixed) our “The Science of Orgasm” and “The Natural history of Homosexuality” also had their ranking deleted, but now restored.

    But our “The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction” always had a sales ranking throughout the debacle.

    And by “our” I mean The Johns Hopkins University Press.

  5. 4: I pointed out elsewhere that Amazon’s success has been at the expense of gay bookshops.

    I think this is a key point. The big chains plus Amazon have wiped out a lot of specialty stores which hand-curated this sort of material. Expecting Amazon to be an adequate replacement for specialty booksellers is very naive.

  6. As a customer services monkey myself, I can sympathise with the initial response, which probably came from a template while the department desperately tried to get techies to give them a straight answer on the problem/fix it.

    What seems odd to me is that the “adult content” flag is defined, whether by algorithm or employee, at the Amazon end, with no option for users to opt-out of this kind of filtering. Surely it ought to be possible for users aged 16+ to have some kind of account option along the lines of “I do/do not wish to see adult content in my search results”. I don’t need Amazon filtering out naughty things from my page view, and I’m pretty sure a large chunk of grown-up users don’t either.

  7. What I find most distressing about this entire clusterf— is the mob-rule mentality of most involved. Without anything to go on except some hearsay, hundreds of folks suddenly decided that Amazon — with its long history of gay-friendly policies and CLEARLY inclusive catalog — was a homophobic, antisemitic, dogfight-promoting hate factory.

    Now that it’s turned out to be either 1) a malicious exploit of the customer-feedback system, or 2) a simple database error, some people still can’t seem to stop rending their garments and continuing to accuse Amazon of being some sort of monstrous engine of intolerance. A recent comment blaming Amazon for the death of independent booksellers is a laugh, given that the damage was done years ago by the rise of B&N and Borders.

    No one passes up a chance to be a victim these days, but it’s time to admit #amazonfail is an embarrassment to all involved, an over-the-weekend exercise in internet hysteria and misinformed/misplaced outrage.

  8. I do not understand why Amazon needs an “adult” tag at all. ALL Amazon users are _by definition_ adults because you have to be over 18 to have a credit card and an Amazon account.

    btw the problem is still very apparent on amazon.co.uk e.g. Melymbrosia by V Woolf is unranked (the only one of her books which is tagged as “Gay & Lesbian”.

  9. Well said, Cheryl!

    Unfortunately, because of the way online markets work, companies like Amazon do attain dominant positions. Economically, and eventually even politically, this is unhealthy.

    Indeed. Network effects (online and off) tend to have “rich get richer” dynamics, and market dominance and monoculture introduce new kinds of hidden systemic risks — for accidents as well as intentional abuses.
    Amazonfail & The Cost of Freedom
    on Vroman’s blog brings up some very good points here … and of course the problem’s far more general than just Amazon and books.

    It’s been very interesting to see the backlash in certain quarters against the Twitterstorm. I guess technologies that let people organize effectively to put a spotlight on corporations and hold them accountable are really threatening …


  10. I agree.

    I think you should be careful with your fake Karl Rove quote though. You used the same formatting as for your real quotes. At some point in the future, someone’s probably going to find this site looking for ammunition against conservatives, they’ll see that, copy/paste without thinking and it will be bad. Misinformation is not our friend.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  11. Sam:

    I’m sure you are right that many people over-reacted. I don’t think I saw anyone complaining that they’d have to flee to Canada, but it had that sort of air.

    On the other hand, these things are much more important when it is your book or books about people like you, that are being affected. All too often responses to discrimination get brushed aside with an “oh, it is just the x making a fuss again.” But those people are painfully used to being to being trampled on, and they know full well that if they don’t make a fuss they’ll get trampled on again.

    So, far from being an embarrassment, I think the whole thing was a very effective demonstration of the speed and intensity of reaction to (albeit probably unintended) discriminatory behavior.

  12. Yes, I agree with Jon at #10. Personally I don’t give a rat’s you know what about Amazon. I try not to pay attention to them — ever.

    The local book store is now bankrupt because of Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders.

    As far as being the victim, I don’t appreciate that the “left” is eager to become the victim at all. I disagree with that.

    I think those critics of the left really need to think about what they would do or say if they were on the verge of homelessness and starvation because of their beliefs like so many of us are right now.

    Peace, if you can find it.

  13. Jon: as someone who has been extensively googlebombed and harassed in a different recent Failstorm, I think my skepticism of the methods deployed by AmazonFail are both healthy and appropriate.

  14. “The good news is that Amazon acknowledges that an error has occurred and that they intend to fix it. Apparently this is going to take time, due to the nature of their systems.”
    And while this statement makes sense – it does rather put the lie to the “French employee flipped a switch ‘false’ to ‘true’ and de-listed all these books” argument. If it were that simple, they could just “flip the switch” back and fix it rather quickly, eh?

    Really good article, Cheryl. I’ll have to link to it :>.

  15. Excellent article, Cheryl, but all yours are. You deserve to be Neilbombed more often (as long as the server wouldn’t crash).

    Twilight2000 at #17 – as an occasional database programmer, there are lots of things that are easy to break and REAL hard to fix. It really can be like dropping a glass on cement – less than a second to do, may take relatively “forever” to repair.

  16. Hmm…centuries of oppression, still ongoing in many countries (see last week’s news stories about people in Iraq being targeted for execution following suspicion that they may be gay)…I wonder why gay people might be overly-used to being in the position of victim?

    Someone I know was gay-bashed just a couple of days ago while out with some friends. Maybe I should tell him to STFU and stop whining, eh Sam?

  17. >and people on the left seem to love any story that portrays them as victims,

    You know, you acknowledge later in the post that the folks that this change at Amazon affected have a long history of being the target of discrimination, intentional and not, and thus were likely to interpret events such as the Amazon.com incident as discrimination – which I agree is likely what happened. So why include this phrase at all?

    I think a more accurate statement is that folks on the left are interested in better understanding when prejudice and discrimination unjustly affects a targeted group, and in becoming allies to that group. Isn’t that what we should all be doing?

  18. Like I said on my own LiveJournal, the whole clusterfuck did happen on a long weekend and I was willing to allow them a “real” business day to fix things (although I cannot believe that this happened and nobody at Amazon *noticed* while it was happening – it’s an online organization, ferchrissakes, and somebody responsible must have been contactable if something bad was going down. I can possibly buy the “we made a mess” explanation, but it’s the silence and the cover-up and the allowing the mess to grow bigger by saying nothing or saying the wrong thing that screwed Amazon here, more than the original mess.

    Things are being restored now, so I’m willing to let them have the benefit of the doubt. But I have yet to see a real apology to those who (whether or not they actually WERE, in the relatively short space of time) saw themselves as directly affected by the “glitch” – the people who are Amazon’s bread and butter, the authors and the publishers. Yes, there was a statement by an Amazon PR person in a Seattle newspaper – but that was sounding awfully defensive, and more or less had the tone of, look, we were victims here too. Okay, they’re fixing the problem. They are taking steps to see that the problem is “less likely” (their words – I would have preferred a phraseology that gave me more confidence) to occur again. But still… but still.

    I never did go rashly into the “mob” thing, nor participated in google bombing, nor advised a wholseale BOYCOTT NOW attitude – screwups happen, and mistakes are made, and I was willing to let them try and make it right before I waded in with both guns blazing. And they have, largely. And I’m unlikely to pull my Amazon account over this… but I WILL be keeping a closer eye on them from here on.

    I just wish they had taken that extra step, is all. Had taken RESPONSIBILITY. Had said, “we’re really sorry this happened” rather than “we’re really sorry we got caught with our pants down while it was happening”.

  19. Erin:

    Well one reason is that the attraction of victimhood led a whole lot of people to give far more credence that was wise to the idiot who claimed to have caused the whole thing. It isn’t true that everything that happens in life is the result of a grand conspiracy. Thinking that it is just makes us feel helpless and afraid.

  20. Kathryn, I certainly agree that “internet mobs” have real dangers. Danielle Citron and others have done some important work here that needs to get more attention and discussion. And yeah, a lot of people leapt to conclusions with #amazonfail.

    What I’m talking about in terms of backlash, though, is statements like Sam’s:

    it’s time to admit #amazonfail is an embarrassment to all involved.



  21. I noticed the rankings had disappeared for half my titles (some of which are erotic romance, some not) a couple days before I heard about #amazonfail.

    Having watched Amazon rankings for a very long time and seen glitches before, I didn’t freak out. Nor did I even make the connection between what was happening to me and what I was reading on Neil’s Twitter. (Okay, I admit I was a bit asleep at the switch.)

    So…I realized I was an actual “victim” of this #amazonfail business only a half a day before all my rankings were back and normal again.

    This is hardly the first incident of “Amazon failing.” But I believe it is the first one where the existence of Twitter probably got Amazon-tech-butts moving to solve the problem ASAP! So that’s the good news here, folks…

  22. What an excellent article — great, thoughtful take on the whole thing! 🙂

    One minor quibble: while I do think that if “WH Smith or Waterstone’s decided to put gay literature on more obscure shelves” it wouldn’t have been as big a deal, a more analogous example to items not appearing in the main search would be if shopkeepers acted like the gay books you were looking for weren’t on the shelves at all — and I do think that would have gotten noticed! 😉 That for me was the biggest wake-up call — I use that search box for everything and if it doesn’t pull up what I was looking for, I assume Amazon doesn’t carry it…

    Also, I’m with Tank and the others: “adult” filters should be in the hands of the customers, not simply applied to everyone. The best explanation I’ve heard for why Amazon does this is to keep their best seller lists from being embarrassingly overwhelmed with erotica — which makes some sense to me, although I have no idea how true that might be. Still think it should be user-choice, though.

    Anyway — it was a delight to find your blog and your post. Please keep up the great work!

  23. Great article once again, Cheryl. The thing that bothers me the most about how this is ending is the general air of, “They only meant to hide the porn, so it’s all OK.”

    I personally have problems with cencorship and I believe it continues to be a problem.

    I know I would certainly prefer my Amazon.com searches to be complete. If they are concerned about offending people, they should have a ticky box for the easily offended.

  24. If WH Smith or Waterstone’s decided to put gay literature on more obscure shelves …


    This is actually standard practice.

    (Also, I don’t really see the significance of that particular point.)

  25. Anna:

    Well, the point is that no one much cares what WH Smith and Waterstones do, but when Amazon do something similar it causes outrage all over the Internet and is featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, on here in the UK on Channel 4 News and the BBC. When Amazon does something significant (even if only bu accident) it is NEWS. And that’s because what Amazon does matters to people.

  26. Well there are still obvious problems with there tagsystem. Why is coming out as gay adult but “curing” someone from it is not (a conclusion from what disappeared from the listings)?

  27. Sofie:

    What I suspect has happened is that books that are about coming out are tagged as “gay interest” (or whatever words they use) because it is LGBT people that they sell to; whereas books on “curing” LGBT people are tagged “religious interest” because it is religious people that they sell to. If someone, either maliciously or by accident, decided to tag all “gay interest” books as “adult” then they would not catch the ones tagged “religious interest”.

  28. Thank you for covering all sides of the story with this. It’s refreshing to see it all laid out.

    Amazon owes an apology for sure, if only for their lame attempt to handle the situation. They came out looking stupid rather than squeaky clean.

    The #amazonfail insanity on Twitter was just silly. Honestly people, don’t you have better things to do than spout the same things over and over? Yes, we get it, it’s an outrage, but demanding Amazon be boycotted and burned at the stake isn’t going to fix anything. Some people were calm and logical about it, most were not and it was embarrassing to see the mob-rule mentality explode like that.

  29. Jon:

    It is all part of the process. Some people will always want to be on the winning bandwagon.

    What is interesting is to see how little understanding there still is out there of what happened. Initially we got a lot of people assuming that there must have been deliberate targeting of individual books by individual humans. Now that people have grasped the idea of a batch update of the database we are starting to see “it was the computer what did it” stories, as if no human intervention were required to create and launch such processes. Sometimes we don’t understand our toys very well.

    Oh, and I suspect that if Amazon really didn’t have any defenses against wholescale intentional manipulation it would have happened by now.

  30. Why is an apology so important?

    It would be nice, sure, and it would surely be good business to do so, but either I accept their explanation or not. I don’t need them to say I’m sorry. I’m not that fragile.

    In the meantime, there are much bigger fish to fry–like getting gay marriage legalized in every state!

  31. DC:

    You are right that there are bigger fish to fry. However, within the context of this single issue, an apology would send a message that Amazon are indeed contrite about what happened and will seek to prevent it happening again; lack of an apology suggests that they are not contrite, which in turn suggests that what happened may have been more deliberate than they make out. It isn’t about being fragile, it is about what impression they give of how seriously they view what happened.

  32. Cheryl,

    Nice point.

    Still, if it was just a glitch (and it appears that it was) and Amazon doesn’t apologize for it, it really won’t bug me that much–but that’s just me. If it wasn’t deliberate, I don’t need an I’m sorry from them.

    Now, for all those who attacked Amazon for being evil…don’t they now owe Amazon an apology?

  33. Hi Cheryl,

    If it was an accident, and they attacked Amazon via Twitter or on their blogs for being evil, etc., they should consider apologizing. It goes both ways.

  34. Would this have happened if a bookstore had made the books harder to find? Not on this scale, it’s true, but proportionately?

    When the local bookstore in my town significantly decreased their stock of GLBT material and made it harder to find – you bet we noticed. The news spread in our local community to a degree for the bookstore’s clientele proportionate to the outcry in Amazon’s clientele.

    In the case of our local bookstore, however, it wasn’t a glitch and the outcry did not cause them to change policy. Ultimately they chose to integrate the books into other sections and remove the GLBT section entirely, causing us all to go to Amazon…

  35. None of the “glitch” excuses make any sense. What are the Ockham’s odds that a simple, single coding mistake – much less one done by someone not American – would just *happen* to erase queer-positive, and *only* queer-positive, content? While leaving behind the anti-gay books? That a deliberate programme to remove “adult” material would, while striking out books with *no* sexual content whatsoever, in fact leave in vast reams of adult – but safely heteronormative – books? Not to mention the fact that it didn’t *just* happen over the long weekend, but has been going on sporadically for months now.

    I call an Enron. Or a Rose Mary Woods.

    (And Kramer-the-outer, don’t start. Just don’t.)

  36. bellatrys: What are the Ockham’s odds that a simple, single coding mistake – much less one done by someone not American – would just *happen* to erase queer-positive, and *only* queer-positive, content?

    If you believe Amazon’s explanation, it wasn’t only LBGT titles; those were the books with a coherent, loud constituency that noticed a subset of the missing titles and immediately complained loudly about it. According to Amazon, there were well over fifty thousand books, in a number of categories, equally affected, without attracting any particular outrage.

    On the other hand, there clearly was a tool already on hand to remove titles from the primary rankings and main search results, and Amazon has not been at all clear as to the intended uses of that tool, nor how widespread its use was before the “glitch.”

    I would say mild suspicion is justified, but the screaming hysteria of the weekend did no one any good. Of course, on the Internet, everything is either “fail” or “win,” with no middle ground.

  37. Andrew:

    Question for you. Given that, as you say, everything on the Internet is either FAIL or WIN, would you have preferred what happened, or no protest at all?

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