Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Amazonfail: cyber-censorship, cyber-hype, or YHBT?

What better way to kick-start the internet after Easter break than a good old cyber-censorship row? All the ingredients are there: giant e-commerce company with large share of the market, gays, religion, porn, erotica, geeks, twitter... mix and watch the blogosphere and the twitterverse go "Kablooey!"

During the weekend I started picking up the #amazonfail tag on Twitter, as well as noticing a large spike on the discussion of Amazon in Twitscoop, a site that trends what people on Twitter are talking about. The story seemed both compelling and outrageous. Amazon changed its book-ranking system so that it would filter out adult content. In their words:

"In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude "adult" material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature."
The problem was that there seemed to be some confusion over what constitutes "adult" content, and it soon became clear that it was mostly gay and lesbian literature that was getting the axe, while straight erotica was largely left untouched. The response was a flurry of Tweets bearing the #amazonfail tag, and a number ofblog posts from people angered at the situation. My favourite (taken from this article in The Guardian) is: "THE ANARCHIST COOKBOOK is ranked; THE JOY OF SEX is unranked. In other words, Amazon would rather you make napalm than get laid."

However, things are starting to settle down, and the picture does not seem as straighforward as it did on Sunday. Firstly, Amazon has finally made an unambiguous apology for what it calls a glitch. Secondly, Amazon has started fixing the error, and titles are regaining their sales rank. Thirdly, there is a theory that this might have been caused by trolls looking for lulz, or in this case, mega-lulz. In other words, the glitch was either caused or noticed by a troll or a hacker, and they chose Easter weekend to let it be known through Twitter. Perhaps knowing that anything having to do with religion, books and gays would replicate like microbial beings in a syrupy concoction, these trolls bid their time knowing that Amazon would be slow to respond. Sit back, watch, and enjoy. YHVT.

The most plausible explanation at the moment seems to be a combination of bad coding and bad PR. Lilith Saintcrow posted this from an insider at Amazon:
"Well, this is the real story: a guy from Amazon France got confused on how he was editing the site, and mixed up “adult”, which is the term they use for porn, with stuff like “erotic” and “sexuality”. That browse node editor is universal, so by doing that there he affected ALL of Amazon. The CS rep thought the porn question as a standard porn question about how searches work."
Several things stand out about this story. Firstly, if it was Amazon's idea to sanitise their searches, they should learn that their customer base is both sophisticated and interconnected, so any hint of censorship or foul play will send them running to Twitter. PR and development departments everywhere should have a picture of Barbara Streisand hanging from each meeting room to remind them of how wrong things can go. Secondly, I am not sure whether the whole Amazonfail debacle paints Twitter in a positive or negative light. True, the information about the glitch was widely publicised, and it prompted a reaction from Amazon, but the shrillness of some commentary was jarring and over-the-top. It was almost as if every person on Twitter was trying to outdo the previous one with displays of faux outrage.

As useful as these tools are, we still need to be reminded that sometimes looking closely before jumping to conclusions is a prudent course of action, even in the age of instant information. I have been reading an excellent book by Cass Sunstein called Infotopia, where he warns about the dangers of closely knit cyber-enclousures. Surprisingly, the internet seems to be fostering mono-cultures of little or no diversity, where people with similar opinions tend to stay together and reinforce each other's views and preconceptions; a communal confirmation bias if you will. Certain memes are repeated and enhanced in a form of feedback loop that turns rumour into fact, and innuendo into established truth.

I'm off to find something else to get worked-up about.

Update: When one looks at a search result for the word bouncy, it is not difficult to argue that Amazon may have a point in wanting some sort of filter for adult content. Pingu the Bouncy Penguin and Bouncy Boobs 3 do not belong in the same search page.

2 comments:

SDJ said...

"...mono-cultures of little or no diversity, where people with similar opinions tend to stay together and reinforce each other's views and preconceptions; a communal confirmation bias if you will. Certain memes are repeated and enhanced in a form of feedback loop that turns rumour into fact, and innuendo into established truth."

aka the financial markets ;-)

Andres Guadamuz said...

Touché :)