Lessons to be learnt from 'Amazonfail' censorship row


Amazon’s apparent censorship of gay authors has been a marketing mess for the company, writes DANNY O'BRIEN

PUBLIC RELATIONS can be a tricky business on the internet: there aren’t many other media that can love your company on a Friday, turn savage on you by Saturday, and have gone so far as to coin a new word for their disdain by Sunday.

The senior executives and management at Amazon left for the weekend earlier this month, no doubt subtly buoyed by the largely untarnished reputation their Seattle company has for electronic commerce – especially books. By the time they returned on Monday, the internet was a-twitter with “Amazonfail”: a scandal that may not have been a scandal at all, but was certainly quite the marketing mess.

Here’s Amazonfail in a nutshell. On that weekend, a handful of gay and lesbian writers noticed that their Amazon book pages were not like other book pages.

The vast majority of book profiles on Amazon include, down among the number of pages and reader reviews, a “sales rank” figure. This shows the relative popularity of the book, compared to the hundreds of thousands of other volumes being sold by Amazon at that moment.

A sales rank of “one” means this book is the bestseller on the website. A sales rank of 27,746 is somewhat less popular.

The actual meaning of Amazon’s “sales rank” is a little blurry when you start dipping below the top 500 or so books: out there, a book’s ranking can jump up and down by thousands in the course of a few days.

Despite that variability (or perhaps because of it), many authors hawkishly track the rank’s waxing and waning, and so do their publishers, agents and other market players.

So what does it mean if Amazon doesn’t show a sales rank at all? That’s what the writers were wondering when they discovered that dozens of gay and lesbian fiction and non-fiction were omitted from any Amazon ranking – and even seemed to be removed from the top listings returned by Amazon when users searched the website.

The story of Amazon’s apparent censorship of gay authors spread like wildfire through key segments of their readership online.

Outraged bloggers posted lists of books that had been removed; a veritable baying mob called for boycotts and demanded that Amazon explain itself.

Amazon did, in the end, explain. The omission had been a software “glitch”, an accidental classification made by one of their employees, and the company was working hard to re-include a wide range of books in their rankings – not just gay literature.

But the explanation struggled to catch up with the rumours and damage that had been caused.

It also remained incomplete as an explanation: why would a software glitch target lesbian and gay literature disproportionately, compared to other categories? And why did Amazon even have a system for removing books from its sales rank? Theories abounded, unconstrained by correction or further elaboration by Amazon.

The stories that had spread so quickly over the weekend continued to circulate (and at time of writing still reverberate) around the internet.

It’s not a question of whether the stories are accurate or not: without a consistent story for it to tell, Amazon’s image as a liberal, Seattle bookstore has taken a major hit.

Despite the criticism of an angry, uninformed mob leaping to conclusions, and then leaping off them into angry online denunciations, I suspect that Amazon’s profits barely showed a blip. Despite the rumours, no boycott was seriously planned. And despite the remaining clouds of distrust, Amazon did fix a profound problem with its ranking system.

Amazon admitted, after its nightmarish weekend had drawn to a close, that the problem had been escalated to the highest levels of management. That is a strong and powerful feedback loop between customers and company, even if neither side quite knew what the other was doing for most of the affair.

An open question remains, however. What about the customers who are not so online-savvy, who lack the background in activism and advocacy (and marginalisation) to recognise when they’re being sidelined and kick up an online fuss? Not every “glitch” has a matching firestorm.

It looks like Amazon’s bug may have been sabotaging the visibility of some of its catalogue for many weeks. And, while I don’t want to add too much to the conjecture as to what happened exactly, it does look as though the glitch was a misapplication of a deliberate policy of removing some books from the sales listings: in particular, adult books which sell very well indeed but don’t look so great on official top-10 lists.

Individuals working together on the internet can cast light on all kinds of oddities online.

Established internet companies like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Twitter and Facebook have an amazing reciprocal power to make content disappear by simply omitting to index, catalogue or refer to it.

Both companies and individuals need to be careful with their power; and perhaps both need each other to give us real accountability online.