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April 13, 2009
Anatomy of the #AmazonFAIL protest
Amazon recently deleted the sales rankings of hundreds of gay- and lesbian-themed books. Writer Mark Probst blogged about the de-ranking and was told by an Amazon representative that the company will no longer include sales ranks for "adult" material on the site.
Reaction was swift: anger over lumping gay-themed books with pornography accompanied by cries of censorship.
Probst's blog post was dated Sunday, April 12 at 2:08 am. In 24 hours, here's a quick look at how things developed:
- Twitter. Users begin using the hastag #AmazonFAIL. It was the number-one trending topic on Twitter search all day. After an Amazon spokesperson told CNET news that the de-ranking was "a glitch in our system and is being fixed," Twitterers responded with a new hashtage: #glitchmyass.
- Facebook. The AmazonFail Group launched, quickly gathering 1,200 members out of the gate.
- Online petitions. Online petitions sprang up protesting the "adult" policy. One gathered more than 9,000 signatures in a few hours' time.
- Google bomb. A blogger launched a campaign to redefine "Amazon rank" on Google. It's working. This page is #2 in the search rankings.
- Hacking. Protesters started tagging the de-ranked books on Amazon site with #AmazonFAIL. At last count, 882 books were tagged.
- Logos. People created logos for the protest.
- Merchandise. #glitchmyass boxer shorts, t-shirts and other apparel are for sale!
- Complaint templates. Customers wanting to complain and who need writing help can use this pre-crafted complaint letter.
The anger of injustice spreads quickly and can take on a life of its own. For a company that helped pioneer using customer comments to sell books in a flattened, democratized context, this sure seemed like a fail moment for Amazon.
(Feel free to post any items or updates I may have overlooked or tell me on Twitter: @jackiehuba!)
- Follow the real-time Twitterstream for the #AmazonFAIL and #glitchmyass tweets here
- The list of de-ranked books that have been tagged by customers as #AmazonFAIL is now 1,1371,335 books.
- Online petition is close to 16,000 signatures.
- Over 335 mainstream media articles related to this story, including Wall Street Journal, Wired, and NPR.
UPDATE: Amazon has released a statement calling the issue a "embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error." The spokesperson said it wasn't just gay and lesbian titles that were affected, but also the error included 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. Amazon also refuted the rumor that a hacker had caused the glitch.
There are still a lot of questions that were not answered here. How did the cataloging error occur? Was it man-made or computer-related? Regardless, Amazon waited too long to address the building outrage with some kind of explanation.This is a great case study for PR professionals on dealing with today's 24/7 real-time Twitter-fueled word of mouth world.
UPDATE: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer says that the "cataloging error" was the result of a single Amazon employee in France who flipped the wrong switch, causing over 50,000 books to be flagged as "adult." This is according to an anonymous souce inside the company.
Other blogs that reference Anatomy of the #AmazonFAIL protest:
I think it was also interesting to see how quickly people started suggesting other bookstores on Twitter, but also that @Powells http://twitter.com/Powells responded really well: clearly replying naturally as an individual who worked for Powells, saying who they would pass suggestions onto. Got retweeted a bunch of times, so can't be bad for them.
Wow, a mob carrying Twitter-torches!
As of Monday morning, 6:00AM central time, Amazon is still claiming this is a glitch. It's as if they think this is merely an image issue, and if they repeat the branding tagline of "just a glitch" enough, it will sink in and people will 'buy' the glitch theory.
It's a shame that the people who run one of the larger information distribution systems in the world just don't get that, yes, information is important to society, and how, when, and where you regulate access to that information makes a difference.
Amazon is more than being flippant when they call this a 'glitch.' Amazon is talking down to the public as if we're a bunch of pre-schoolers who couldn't possibly begin to understand how a database or a computer works. The terminology of 'glitch' is as technical as Amazon dares to get with us neophytes. Not surprisingly, being condescended to in this manner is pissing people off as much as if not more than the original misguided policy that started this whole mess in the first place.
I look forward to the days when alternatives to companies like Amazon are more widespread so that the dissemination of information doesn't have to be trusted to corporate boobs.
transcript of e-mail from Amazon:
It was mistake. It was discovered at 2AM on EASTER SUNDAY. It's not even 8am on Monday morning Washington. This mob reaction is void of any skepticism or rationale... and frightening.
It's been happening for several months, brought to their attention at least back in february, so it wasn't just discovered on Easter sunday. Undoubetedly, there IS an element of technical stupidity here, but I doubt it's what most people would call a glitch. Not to mention the fact that trying to define what is adult and what isn't is difficult at best, and excluding those books from all rankings is a dumb decision.
FWIW, the Google bomb is now #1
Unbelievable how quickly you were able to summarize what is happening here. This is the first I heard of this. It is kinda scary how quick the social web can pass judgement - but also dissapointing that Amazon has not responded.
Please note that some disability books are affected also. Sadly, this angle has been lost in much of the hullaboo, with potentially fatal consequences. (Some HIV/AIDS education outreach programs, for example, intentionally exclude people with disabilities on the VERY mistaken assumption that people with disabilities have no sex. Yet they are at HIGHER risk for HIV/AIDS, not lower. Making it harder to find accurate books on disability and sexuality will not exactly help this deplorable situation.) See more details and links at:
We have seen zero tolerance from the homosexual community. It was totally a mob reaction.
The LBGT failed to stop and think, and automatically when into their reactionary mode, which makes them look far worse than Amazon.
The first question the homosexual mob should have asked before lynching Amazon is, "What is Amazon's motive for delisting homosexual books?" The reality is, Amazon is about making money from EVERYBODY, and they have NO motive to alienate anyone.
It is just stupid for homosexuals to think otherwise. By showing such misplaced paranoia, homosexuals have hurt their own cause. This is not the first case where they went into attack mode before getting any real facts. It's a case of homosexual hysteria, plain and simple.
@Joe: With all due respect, you're wrong sir. What you are witnessing is not reactionary. This censorship started in February (source: http://craigspoplife.blogspot.com/2009/04/is-amazon-homophobic.html).
I'm trying to understand why Amazon does not have the choice to carry the products & merchandise which they want to carry due to their business model. If the GLBT folks want to market their wares, let them start their own site to do so. I shop at different stores and not all of them carry the products that I would like. So I go to other stores that do. I don't go back to the store that doesn't carry an item and attempt to bully them into carrying it. I may make a suggestion if they choose not to carry it, then so be it. Free enterprise at work. I would say the same thing with the eHarmony debacle. Let the GLBT folks start their own online dating site. I believe that those who took the risk and invested their time, effort, finances to develop a site, store, product should be able to control what they choose to market and how they choose to market it. If it doesn't meet your needs, start on your site, product, or store -- take the risk and the personal investment. An extreme example, I would not expect nor desire to see Ebony magazine forced to carry advertising for KKK or skinheads. The KKK can cry censorship, well, so be it. Tell the KKK people to start their own magazine, product, website. I trust you can see the application to the Amazon situation and other businesses.
djp, I don't believe anyone claims that Amazon doesn't have a legal right to opt out of selling any good or service that they don't wish to sell. Your point about eHarmony is taken, however this is not what has people outraged.
People are outraged because of the inconsistent application of the policy. So, a book about Same Sex Marriage is adult content because it acknowledges the existence of homosexuality but sex toys arent? That's inconsistent.
"The first question the homosexual mob should have asked before lynching Amazon is, "What is Amazon's motive for delisting homosexual books?" The reality is, Amazon is about making money from EVERYBODY, and they have NO motive to alienate anyone."
Joe: I think you're on the right track, to ask "what's the motive?" The answer is "bowing to the conservative mobs." The right wing has organized numerous successful boycotts against consumer product companies in this country that have dared to treat queer people as people. Look at the Campbell Soup boycott, look at the Pepsi boycott. Heck, they do the same outside of gay rights, look at the boycott they applied against Pampered Chef which forced Berkshire Hathaway to give up it's entire shareholder-designated charitable giving program.
Amazon.com has every reason to be afraid of the threatened boycotts of Amazon.com by the right-wing Christians in this country, they make up a much bigger and more successful political block than those of us in the queer community.
There's your motive, right there.
Awesome writeup! The ONLY coherent one I've seen on the web.
I don't use twitter, so I just wanted to let you know, re one of your tweets, that Amazon has -not- started re-ranking the books. Rather, for whatever reason, de-ranked books appear under "Books" searches but not "All Products" searches. That explains the search you linked to. If you search for "homosexuality" under "All Products" the first result is still a guide to preventing homosexuality. :/
Twenty-five years ago a national crisis in public relations was deaths from Tylenol tampering. Today it’s an online retailer screwing up their databases over a holiday weekend.
Am I alone in finding the folks who were tut-tuting about this yesterday look a little silly now? Just like with the Motrin debacle, Amazon stumbled in dealing with this issue, but now, 24 hours later, the ship has been righted. Probably, hopefully, they’ve learned how to engage the community more intelligently in the future.
Again, as with the Motrin story, I am starting to sense a disconnect between the latest tempest in a twitterpot and how most people actually act and behave. I’ll be interested to see how this story affects, if it does, Amazon’s sales this quarter.
@Keri, thanks for your comments. I'm not sure the ship has been righted though. They may be restoring the rankings but they never really cleared up how this happened in the first place. Because Amazon has built up so much loyalty with customers over the years, their near-term sales may not take a hit, and people may forgive them But they will not forget this. The brand damage has been done.
Regardless of what you think of the protest, one thing is clear: every company must be monitoring thier brand in social media. Is Radian6 a publically traded company? Quick snap up some stock now!
Gosh, I should think that it's fairly responsible for a large company like Amazon to NOT make reactionary statements. That's what's freaky about social media - any half-informed person can use any inflammatory language they like and, because of its inflammatory nature, it can spread like wildfire... without any regard for the truth of a situation. Journalism standards have been thrown out the window, have bitten the dust HARD, and 98% of the public isn't mature enough to navigate the consequences of that. Including me, I'm sure.
The knee-jerk reactions that take place in the social media circles cause more harm than good, and provide ample ammunition for those against social media. People no longer do research for themselves to discover/uncover the actual truth and events.
Take for example the huge buzz that happened on twitter 2 or so weeks ago about the young independent artist who claimed that a stock art website was charging him $18,000 for his OWN work. Twitter was buzzing, people were angry, blogs were posted, people were ready to storm the gates and string up the Stock art website.... only to find out that the kid lied and he actually did steal the art and hadn't paid for it. And the entire mob was left with egg on their face.
People need to stop constantly "retweeting" without doing any research. We're not supposed to be mindless robots, but the social media realm is location that is great for fostering mindless zombies who take any tweet as the gospel truth with zero background checks.
Just a few years ago, people removed major TV anchors because they ran with stories that were factually inaccurate... and now we just let everyone run loose with whatever made-up facts that they want.
Amazon bowed to lobbyists before - re: Scientology.
While customers have the right to go elsewhere, Amazon is such a giant - and people co-dependent on their array of services - that it's important the organisation acts fairly.
Amazon sells information, and in this age, information is oil. While oil companies have long followed an anti-consumer path, the sooner Amazon is criticised and acted against using consumer power, the better.
This latest event is a great example of the democratising power of the Internet.
I saw a post on a blog that someone is now selling amazonfail.com to "make Amazon pay for their mistake". Seems a bit excessive to me.
I took their word “ham-fisted” to mean that there was deliberate human error at play—perhaps an employee maliciously messed with the algorithm or Amazon initiated some new policy without thinking it through. Of course they didn’t define precisely what that word meant in their statement—that’s just what I intuit.
I have to disagree about their brand being damaged, at least as ominously as you are predicting. When this story broke yesterday, my attitude was “wait and see.” I’ve been shopping with Amazon for more than 10 years, and any time I’ve ever encountered a problem, it has been resolved. In fact, Amazon was the first company to alert me last year after someone hacked my e-mail account and got access to my credit information. So I was willing to extend them some good faith and believe that this error would be corrected.
When I asked around, I found that others have much the same opinion. No one was really interested in grabbing the pitchforks and torches until they knew more. You’ll also notice that thread running through the New York Times reportage today. (But you could accuse me that I am just looking for information that already confirms my opinion.)
To me the worrying thing about this 'glitch' is that someone at Amazon.com seems to have labeled ANYTHING do to with the category 'gay & lesbian' as 'adult', even books with no sexual content at all.
As an example, the hardcover version of John Barrowman's autobiography at Amazon.co.uk does not have a ranking, even now, and it's listed under two categories that include 'Gay & Lesbian' -- Biography>Gay & Lesbian and Gay & Lesbian>Literature>Drama>Gay, whereas the paperback version of the SAME book is ranked. The difference? The paperback isn't listed under a category which includes Gay & Lesbian.
According to Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener (posted at http://humansatwork.com/the-lessons-of-amazonfail/ ) "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."
I can understand (but do not agree with) the issue of wanting to control unwanted 'adult' material coming up in searches. And I can see the rationale for de-ranking books involving sexual practices and erotica. What I find objectionable is the lack of thought behind their selection of what constitutes 'adult.' Biographies of GLTB television & music stars are considered 'adult' if they are listed under Gay & Lesbian, but biographies of porn stars are not? Even if they are under the category Pornography?
To put this in a different perspective, what do you think the reaction would have been if Amazon's 'issue' had affected books categorized as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, Erotica and just about everything in the category African-American?
@Keri, thanks again for your comments. I didn't mean to make the "brand damage" phrase as ominous as it sounded. Perhaps for many customers, like yourself, Amazon cleared up the story, and all is well.
But some groups, especially GLBT, some damage may have been done. Also some people, including myself, aren't really sure that the full story is being told. Much of that is based on the secretive response to this incident. So we may be a bit skeptical the NEXT time something happens with Amazon.
Can you please update your post to reference the fact that it wasn't -just- LGBT titles? I think is a very important forgotten piece of information.
-Apparently he only level headed person around, and a homo too to boot.
Really It was mistake. and discovered at 2AM on EASTER SUNDAY. It's not even 8am on Monday morning Washington. This mob reaction is void of any skepticism or rationale... and frightening.
Please update your post