43 thoughts on “#Amazonfail Update

  1. The fail here, unfortunately, is the angry mob insisting that heads roll and customers boycott Amazon all based on some scattered pieces of information that are not at all clear. Is it company policy, or a failed computer program? Why get out the torches & pitchforks before you’ve even heard directly from the company?

    I work for Amazon and I can tell you two things you should know:

    1. Most everything is automated.
    That means there is an algorithm working in the background to suppress search rankings for adult titles. It’s likely been tweaked recently and the changes have had unforeseen consequences. More tweaks will be necessary. This is supported by observations that the rankings are disappearing from a inconsistent set of titles.
    2. Amazon supports the GLBT community.
    The culture embraces/supports GLBT at work and in the city of Seattle.

    Simmer down the rhetoric and wait for the facts.

  2. I suspected and still suspect something similar to what Marshall describes, as I’ve been working in that space forever and am somewhat familiar with how these things happen.

    It’s still something Amazon needs to respond to and address ASAP and I don’t see any problem in customers getting angry and expressing outrage about this. It’ll get fixed faster, that way. Everybody wins.

  3. Maybe this will encourage Amazon to be a bit more careful about testing their software before releasing something so potentially controversial.

  4. The thing is, Marshall, as a customer, I don’t care if it’s an accident, I want it addressed – which it hasn’t been. I haven’t heard of any sort of explanation from Amazon, other than the one sent out the authors who’ve complained..

    Also, being told told by an amazon employee to ‘simmer down’ doesn’t exactly endear me to your plight.

  5. “I want it addressed – which it hasn’t been. I haven’t heard of any sort of explanation from Amazon, other than the one sent out the authors who’ve complained.”

    About that: this just came to public light today and yesterday. It’s Sunday. Authors are getting canned responses from a service desk and nothing else. Some managers at Amazon are going to wake up to a headache tomorrow, and then you should see some action on this.

  6. Oh, yeah. And it’s Easter, too. Which I forgot about as I don’t care about it, but a lot of people do. Nobody’s going to react to any of this on a holiday weekend.

  7. I know where you coming from, and I’m trying not to be cranky about it, but I’m less inclined to accept ‘everyone has gone home for the weekend’ as an excuse from a large, international conglomerate like Amazon.

  8. Well, believe it or not, everyone goes home for the weekend there, too. Especially Easter weekend, during which time the term “going home” takes on entirely new meaning. The people who need to deal with this are likely to a be twenty or a hundred or a thousand miles away from their regular home, visiting relatives. And no, they are not checking messages about customer complaints.

    And that’s just the way things go – the robots who don’t take holidays have already responded and obviously made things worse. Amazon’s not even remotely an anti-gay company, and they’ll be on this ASAP tomorrow, I’ll bet you a dollar.

    But twenty gazillion emails and phone calls piled up tomorrow will help that, as will passing this story around, raising the noise level, and generally making this a priority for the company whether they like or not, and one where they know every step will be scrutinized.

  9. Marshall,

    Saying we should simmer down and not complain because Amazon is a good company is like saying we should be content because we can now get married in 4 U.S. states and we should leave “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” alone because some of the Federal Government doesn’t discriminate. [and yes it IS just like it – “we should give them a pass because they’re good on some things” is your argument)

    No, we shouldn’t simmer down. We should make sure that Amazon knows there are people who care about this issue – and that we can be louder than the people on the other side.

    I’m fully willing to accept that the bosses in Washington State need to have some time to get their act together because it’s a weekend and a holiday. But leaving a big stack of notes on their desk for Monday Morning clean-up is a good thing. That moves it higher in the conflagration pile.

  10. RNLee,

    I recognise that this weekend is a time of religious observance and family get-togethers for many, and I’m sure it will be addressed on Monday. [crosses fingers]

  11. “Simmer down the rhetoric and wait for the facts.”

    And if this hadn’t happened, when were they planning on noticing the problem and explaining the facts? What are the facts:

    “That means there is an algorithm working in the background to suppress search rankings for adult titles.”

    And why is that? What Amazon is saying is well, went meant to hide some titles, but there goes the Twitter community finding out we over did it. We’ll fix some of it. Which still leaves erotica writers with no love from Amazon.


  12. I don’t actually think that it’s ok to wait for Monday. I understand the whole “it’s Easter, let’s cut them some slack” model of thinking but, considering that this algorithm change is bound to affect how Amazon will be perceived, wouldn’t they want to have someone on-call? I mean, it’s a huge organization. I don’t think it’s acceptable to think that their changing an algorithm is NOT going to be met with backlash. Surely Amazon’s managers are smarter than that?

    I wrote about it (rough thoughts) but I might need to amend my post with this comment 🙂

  13. They kinda have to address this. They de-listed Brokeback Mountain, for god’s sake. They de-listed Stephen Fry and Harvey Milk and Heather Has Two Mommies, like *the* poster book for anti-gay book censorship in this country, the last decade or so.

    This is not to discount the newer authors who spoke up first, or the greater authors delisted like Baldwin, or classics of gay lit like Well of Loneliness or anything, but…Milk’s bio movie just won Oscars and was one of the Best Picture nominees. Everybody in America knows what Brokeback Mountain is, these days. This will get fixed quickly because if it doesn’t, it could raise a major stink for the company. There’s actual famous gayness on that there list.

  14. “I understand the whole “it’s Easter, let’s cut them some slack””

    I didn’t mean to say “Cut them some slack.” Don’t. Whoever dropped the ball, here, will feel it more if you don’t.

    There’s just no point in people winding themselves up and creating conspiracy theories or painting this as part of a consistent effort on Amazon’s part, which it isn’t. And for all we know, people are getting called home from Mom’s house right now to deal with this.

  15. I work for a small nonprofit. We apparently have something that Amazon does not…it’s a On-Call supervisor designated to be on call EVERY weekend so there is always a supervisor available if there is a problem. I would think that a company as large as Amazon has someone they could call if there was a crisis. It feels like whoever is there doesn’t feel this is a crisis worthy of interrupting anyone’s weekend.

    But this did not just happen over the holiday weekend…this has been going on for at least a couple of weeks. People found out about it over the weekend.

    I can understand them putting certain filters in place. I can understand how they may wish to keep erotic and adult items in a separate section.

    I cannot understand how Heather Has 2 Mommies is ‘adult’ content and yet Playboy Centerfolds is not. I also cannot understand why a search for the term “homosexuality” brings up predominantly books on how to cure, avoid or fight homosexuality.

    There is apparently a very different definition of ‘adult’ when it concerns same-sex vs opposite-sex relationships. That is wrong

    Someone has a lot to answer for…the longer it take to get that answer the fewer customers will return

  16. I’m a web developer so I totally understand that this is likely a script/algorithm error.

    But there is absolutely no excuse for not TESTING. The problem is not just that LGBT customers are angry, but also in Amazon’s own LGBT History Bestseller list, they have removed their own stock and is now only listing 3rd party sellers. They’ve hurt the visibility of their own stock in their own Bestseller lists. Who in their right mind would not test such an algorithm before going live with it?

  17. As of now, this story has hit reporter blogs at the Seattle P-I, Denver Examiner, Daytona Beach News-Journal, Firefox News and it just hit Gawker.

    Yeah, nobody’s going to have any trouble getting satisfaction from Amazon over this, and it’s going to make actual news tomorrow and you may even see it on the teevee before this is all over. Too bad SNL’s a rerun next weekend or it might even rate a Weekend Update quip.

  18. “I’m a web developer so I totally understand that this is likely a script/algorithm error.”

    The error was in changing the script/algorithm to start excluding books. What good is a bookseller who hides the books? What good are sells rankings that don’t reflect real sales? If Amazon doesn’t want to sell erotica, that’s their choice. But they want money out of erotica authors on Kindle without acknowledging us site-wide.


  19. “But there is absolutely no excuse for not TESTING. ”

    I doubt that’s the issue, and obviously, if this filter excluded all gay lit or books on gay issues, the list would be very, very much longer.

    My guess would be somebody either rushed through their work checking for false positives or somebody decided to be cute. That list has a bunch of notable gay work on it that’s not obviously related by keywords, so that makes me wonder.

    Or hell, it could be that somebody deployed an older version of the software and then left for the holiday and has no idea what havoc has been wrought. Engineers do crap like that, all the damn time.

    Anyway, keeping up with the story creeping outward, it hit Something Awful, and believe it or not, the SA goons are largely sympathetic and reasonable and canceling Amazon orders and whanot.

  20. It’s been going on since at least Thursday the 9th, which is when I first saw people talking about it, and checked my own title (which was, yes, de-ranked, although since it’s now out of print it doesn’t affect me much). A number of authors contacted Amazon to ask what had happened to their sales ranks, and got evasive and or auto-generated answers. Easter weekend is not an excuse for an organisation of the size of Amazon.

    It is fairly clear from the pattern of titles affected that simply being listed as “gay interest” is enough to get a title condemned to under-the-counter status. That’s shown by the titles where only one of the paperback and hardback editions has been de-ranked, and surprise, surprise, it’s the edition which was slotted into one of the “gay interest” sub-categories.

  21. Who the *bleep* makes a change to system just before a long holiday system with no managers available to authorize the backout of the change.

    No matter the reasons/reasoning behind it, this was a boneheaded move on Amazon’s part, as both a corporate Person or as individuals who work for Amazon.

  22. “Who the *bleep* makes a change to system just before a long holiday system with no managers available to authorize the backout of the change.”

    Major software companies. All the time. It’s fun.

  23. Um….this is NOT a recent thing. Writer Craig Seymour reports first spotting this with regard to one of his own titles back in February:

    “Of course, I immediately sent emails to Amazon asking about this situation. I also placed several phone calls. But I could never get a straight answer, until February 25, when I received an email stating that “the sales rank was not displayed for the following reasons: The ISBN #1416542051 was classified as an Adult product.”


  24. Yeah, and it was an isolated thing, and he complained and got his sales ranking back. This mass dumping of GLBT books into this “Adult” screening black hole just happened in the last few days.

    This ongoing attempt to screen “adult” material is disturbing, all by itself, never mind this nightmare, which is icing on the cake, obviously.

  25. Iv’e worked for a number of internet companies. Yes things are automated (dur. It’s web pages, no one does things by hand coding anymore for large sites), no, rolling back the code is not, or should not be that difficult. If Amazon doesn’t have a quick fix for a catastrophic grade bug, it’s shareholders should insist on it.

  26. RNLee,

    Please explain why books like Rainbow Boys and Heather has two mommies are listed as adult books? Adult got equated to gay somehow? Even if this is a mistake, I’m not inclined to be very lenient. Especially given what did come up on homosexuality searches.

    If your company was receiving complaints this was happening – that should have been a notice to take a second look.

  27. >That means there is an algorithm working
    >in the background to suppress search
    >rankings for adult titles. It’s likely been
    >tweaked recently and the changes have
    >had unforeseen consequences.

    There shouldn’t be an algorithm of any kind that is suppressing adult titles, period. Amazon is a bookseller – it should not place itself in the role of censor, which is exactly what an algorithm of that sort implies.

    – Jesse

  28. There shouldn’t be an algorithm of any kind that is suppressing adult titles, period.

    Well, there has to be, or when a kid or the kid’s grandma searches for Alice in Wonderland or Sleeping Beauty, they’ll get the dirty versions, too. This kind of filtering is crucial to every aspect of the way Amazon does business.

    What’s disturbing is dropping titles arbitrarily from the sales rankings and making them so hard to find they don’t even come up on title searches. Which has apparently been going on for a while, now, and ultimately, this blunder of Amazon’s may be a good thing, in that it’s shining a light on this ongoing censorship effort.

  29. Automated? It’s more likely that a three-year-old could accidentally finger-paint the Mona Lisa than it would be to accidentally do this specifically to LGBT products. I’m a computer science major and in programming 101, the first thing that they tell you is that computer programs are mindless in and of themselves, they only make the decisions that you program them to make. Rule one is to program “unambiguous” instructions — first-year rules there. This is why this news succeeded on Slashdot — a geek news site — anyone who knows how to program knows that this is WAY too specific to be a mistake. The likelihood is astronomical. Besides, there’s an LGBT author who posted Amazon’s reply to him asking about his own book’s rank and they didn’t deny it.

  30. Doesn’t Amazon allow customers to object to the classification of things they sell? Wouldn’t enough of these objections lead to a non-adult book being classified as “adult”? The wingnuts hate us and will stop at nothing to erase any evidence of our existence. This mighty “algorithm” we keep hearing about may be functioning perfectly, and the fault could instead lie in Amazon allowing customers to affect classifications without human beings first vetting those changes for ones motivated by political agenda or petty personal grievances. This would explain why only GLBT titles are being affected—the wingnuts couldn’t care less about heterosexual titles.

    I also reject the notion that there has to be an algorithm to filter “objectionable” content: That’s utter nonsense. Does no one at Amazon remember that quaint concept called personal responsibility? People should set their own filters to screen out what they don’t want to see and should never expect someone else to do it because they’re either too lazy or too stupid to do it on their own. Be an adult or don’t order online—it really is that simple.

  31. Okay, so there’s a (possibly rogue) algorithm hiding the listings of “adult” books. But that doesn’t address the issue of books being labelled as “adult” just because they have some (non-explicit) LGBT connection ….

  32. This could all be addressed very easily by Amazon.com in one simple way–make the “block adult material” an OPT-IN, something on the order of, “please don’t include items tagged with X in my search,” and NOT the default. Then people who care can censor themselves all they damn please and leave the rest of us alone. The fail here is a system that allows other customers to take away MY choices without my consent. And if that fail continues, then Amazon doesn’t get my business.

  33. Dear Author has found some evidence that the delisting may have occurred based on meta categories such as “gay” and “sex”, so what I suspect happened is that they have an algorithm that helps protect grandmothers and 10 year olds from finding the adult versions of Sleeping Beauty and that GLBT materials are more vulnerable to the algorithm than comparable heteronormative works. (Which is disappointing, but not terribly surprising, since you see the same effect in movie ratings and the like – an onscreen gay or lesbian kiss is almost always rated more “adult” than an onscreen het kiss.)

    Then somebody tweaked something on Wednesday or Thursday without beta testing it and the system went haywire and began mass delisting. That would explain why it suddenly exploded after just a few isolated cases in the past (generally of material that would be considered fairly borderline by most audiences, like the book about the gay stripper). To that extent, I buy that it was a “glitch” as Amazon is claiming, but I think there is discrimination in play as well, and and the affected authors, publishers, and customers deserve a better explanation than they’ve received so far, and an apology. Amazon’s failure to respond in ways that aren’t confused, condescending or both is not helping their cause.

  34. Not sure what to make of this, appears to be the confession of a heroin addicted hacker claiming responsibility for the incident.

  35. Malcolm:

    This has already been dismissed as grandstanding in plenty of places. I have edited out the link so as not to give the guy any more undeserved publicity.

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