Sunday, April 19, 2009

#Amazonfail a success

At Fagadget we are huge Clay Shirky fans. He is one of the smartest people we have met and he knows a thing or two about how today's communications tools change the world. We cannot recommend his book "Here comes everybody" enough. (We are also happy that Clay has managed to secure strong marketing support from Amazon, not only maintaining his high sales ranking and a very competitive price versus

In a loving and supportive way, we have to respectfully disagree with the conclusions that Clay Shirky comes to in his recent post on "The failure of #amazonfail".
Clay, like us, was early to the #amazonfail #amazonrank twitter conversation, likely alerted by the same initial post by @scobleizer (Robert Scoble). Clay describes what many of us felt...the "emotional pleasure" and "intoxication" of the #hashmob (thanks Nicolas Carr).

Having read much of the aftermath there seem to be two conclusions that most people come to in this debate:

a) Amazon was wrong/ stupid/ failed because they had all the wrong checks and balances but were not fundamentally LGBT biased and we all acted like a rampant lynch mob. (my take on Clay's conclusions)


b) Amazon's algorithm was created by the company and a built in LGBT bias shows a systemic bias within the organization. Even when alerted by authors and publishers of this fact, their reply was 'gay = adult, so suck it up!' which reinforces the fact that the LGBT bias is systemic within Amazon. (my take on Mary Hodder's take).

I want to offer up an alternative conclusion why we all felt intoxicated and good about this event. This has nothing to do with why the #amazonfail happened but everything to do with what it achieved.

Firstly, the community identified the problem and in #amazonfail saw a way to increase awareness of the problem that would elevate it beyond the lowly person in the customer service who could not see the importance of this issue. Such gatekeepers in hierarchical management systems are increasingly irrelevant as we can speak for ourselves to the people that matter and if unsatisfied with the result can elevate it to a higher authority without their permission or supervisor!

Secondly, what was intoxicating was the shared mission of righting an obvious wrong. The conclusions of most commentators tend to focus on how successful we were in righting the 'wrong' that caused of the problem - LGBT bias within Amazon or a bad algorithm/french programmer. However, the real 'wrong' in this case was not the cause of the problem but the consequence of the problem and we were very successful in overturning that - restoring the representation, profile, livelihood and income of LGBT writers and publishers. I think there is good evidence that this is what mobilized us into action and turned a simple blog post by Mark R Probst into a movement.

Most of the initial blogs that picked up on the story did not focus on why this was happening but simply built up an impressive body of evidence that there was indeed a problem.

Many of the active participants not only joined petitions but identified people who could help e.g. @werner the CTO of Amazon for example, received many supportive emails alerting him to the problem. Authors and publishers reached out to their contacts, not only to make a stink but to bring this to the attention of the leaders of the company as lower down communications systems had obviously failed.

We cannot know all of the motivations of the individuals who joined in #amazonfail, just like we will never know the motivations of Amazon for developing such an algorithm or responding to authors the way they did. What we do know is that with the help of "read/write" technology the community identified the problem fast, verified the existance of the problem, mobilized to let other interested parties know the problem, contacted people who could fix the problem and within a period of 24 hours had the solution in hand and being fixed by the people who owned the problem. That is what felt good. This was not a lynch mob.


jon said...

Excellent post! For more of my thoughts on why it wasn't a mob (and links to other discussions about "internet mobs") please see #amazonfail and we’re not done yet: links and perspectives.


Mia said...

I heartily agree with you that the "emotional pleasure" and "intoxication" which CS thinks so dangerous (and I shared as well) should be seen as a valuable and commendable development. I'll add that much of this intoxication came from a consciousness of the platform's newness: speaking for myself, I've not been on Twitter all that long, and this was the first time I used and followed hashtags. It was intoxicating to see the tweets upon tweets (finally, in Twitter time; instantaneously, in traditional media time) initiating a response from mainstream news sources. I felt that we were participating in not just making the news, but making the way in which we make news new. Corporations will respond to this by making their PR departments pay more attention to Twitter, and probably mainstream news sources will as well.

Where I part ways with you is in considering the issue successfully resolved. Many of the links provided in jon's post above show that there are many unanswered questions about this "glitch." In addition, many of us expected (not even demanded) a rote apology, and Amazon's pseudo-statement (it was not official, it was not a press release) conspicuously left out the words "sorry" or "apology." What disturbs me the most is that the aftermath of this event will be detrimental to the position of the LGBT community (and the other groups affected). I am concerned that it will be seen as a case of the boy crying wolf, and the next time we fight for something, we'll be branded as hysterical and oversensitive--let alone, that there may in fact have been a real wolf in this case. I've set out these views more verbosely in my own post, at

Percival said...

Very insightful post! It's been fascinating watching this situation unfold not only on Twitter where it originated, but the analysis on various blogs and mainstream media.

Speaking of mainstream media, though, I think this whole thing just highlights the necessity of mainstream news sources and how the rapid speed of Twitter can be dangerous to the public. While most people were measured, yet indignant, in their Tweets, the lack of credible information about the situation before the outrage spread like wildfire caused many people to jump to their own conclusions and into a lynch mob mentality.

I think you're right, Mia, in that this has bigger implications not for Twitter and social networking itself, but how the mainstream media interacts and overlaps with it.

I saw "Here comes everybody" and thought it looked interesting, but I wasn't willing to shell out the $15.00 for a brand new copy. Maybe I'll peruse Amazon's used books for it?? :D

Mike Cane said...

Hey, it's Sunday. A week later. WHERE is Amazon's FORMAL POLICY STATEMENT?

Diana Hunter said...

I'm with Mia (above commenter) on this one. The one issue many seem to ignore is that Amazon did NOT apologize for ANY of this. There was simply a statement made acknowledging that there was a problem.

While the GBTL community was hardest hit, erotica (including erotic romances) also took a beating last week. Thankfully I have a publisher who stayed on top of this and got Amazon to restore our rankings fairly quickly.

I, however, will not restore the links from my own webpages that, until Sunday, pointed to Amazon. If I am not worthy of an apology, even of the form-letter variety, I am not worthy to send my little traffic Amazon's way.