Amazon Fail : Motrin moms Redux?

The title of this post and the idea of writing about the matter should be credited to Gus Fosarolli, a good friend of mine who has been reading on the matter. So what is Amazon Fail? So, it seems (from what I can read) that Amazon has shifted their algorithm for ranking of LGBT literature on the basis of supposed sexually-explicit content. But it appears as though heterosexually-themed content that actually DOES have explicit sexual depictions is NOT ranked lower.

UPDATE – Via Todd Sieling, who pointed me out to Darren Barefoot who in turn, pointed me out to Clay Shirky’s write up on the fact that #amazonfail wasn’t actually what the collective belief was (i.e. that it really was a technological glitch and not a human one). I am still on the fence on that one (simply because I don’t have the actual empirical evidence that it was actually that, a techno glitch), but I concur with Shirky (and Barefoot) in that we shouldn’t be so rushed to judge.

UPDATE – The Seattle PI indicates a response by Amazon saying it was an honest mistake, and that the algorithm caught a lot of books they did not intend to.

UPDATE – Now some guy who supposedly is a hacker is taking responsibility. And – somebody is denying that the troll’s code actually works. So, it seems Amazon Fail is still a supposed glitch.

UPDATE – I’m amending this post with early, not-fully-ruminated thoughts on PR crisis management. I have been pondering about #amazonfail – is it unreasonable to expect responses from Amazon, on Easter Weekend? A few responses I got:

From Kate TrgovacToday, yeah, I think it is. Easter 2010 (or xmas 2009), probably not. Between this & Motrin Moms, it’s a new era.

From Tara Robertson don’t do crisis mgmt PR, but their business is web based and this was a major mistake, they need to respond.

From Karen Cook PR team undoubtedly huddling in Amazon’s boardroom crafting appropriate response.

From Nobilis ReedThe world is now 24/7. Why do you think @werner has a Blackberry?

Raul’s early lessons for PR crisis management, brand management and brand monitoring

Bear in mind, it’s 2009 and we live in a web-based era, let’s face it. Internet 24/7.

1.- DON’T deploy anything new (business, algorithm, process) without ensuring that you’ll have AT LEAST ONE, high-ranked individual with enough PR/tech savvy to be able to address potential backlashes.

2.- DON’T assume that a boiler-template email response will appease customers.

3.- DON’T assume that just because it’s a weekend or a holiday, you can get away with anything. As mentioned above, the Internet is 24/7, particularly because the business is web-based, as indicated above by Tara and Nobilis. I agree with Kate that we are in a new world. However, I do think that Amazon should have learned a lesson from the Motrin Mom’s case.

End Update

UPDATE # 2 – I’ve included an open letter to Jeff Bezos by Publishing Talk – Jeff Bezos is the CEO of Amazon (AMZN).

I’ve been tracking the Summize search for just a few minutes, but the pace at which the results are coming out is definitely out-pacing me. I concur with Gus. It seems as though we are witnessing another Motrin Moms in the making.

This is why crisis communications and PR/social media teams are so important – for when people screw up. As someone who fights for LGBT rights, I take issue with anything that denies basic rights and discriminates. I’ll have to read more to see whether that was the case with Amazon.

Anybody who knows more about the topic, feel free to drop a comment. In the mean time, here is the definition of Amazon Ranked (yes, it’s tongue-in-cheek)

1. To censor and exclude on the basis of adult content in literature (except for Playboy, Penthouse, dogfighting and graphic novels depicting incest orgies).
2. To make changes based on inconsistent applications of standards, logic and common sense.

UPDATE – Commenters on my blog have started to describe in more detail what is going on with the Amazon Fail. Thanks! Keep’em coming. Also, my friend Tara Robertson wrote about the fact, her post includes links to action (send an email to Amazon, sign a petition).

UPDATE – Mark Probst’s LiveJournal includes the response from Amazon – following quote directly from his blog

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.

Hence, if you have further questions, kindly write back to us.

Best regards,
Ashlyn D
Member Services
Amazon.com Advantage

UPDATE – Morozov’s post on the politics of anti-corporate cyberactivism. As someone who conducts research on citizen activism (see my research blog), I (Raul) am always fascinated by these mobilizations. Now, the thing is – these mobilizations occur online, in the comfort of our homes/offices.

Related posts:

  1. The return of the Fail Whale
  2. No Motrin Moms effect on CRTC’s decision on net neutrality
  3. Rogers Wireless Pay-As-You-Go customer service = FAIL
  4. When all my abilities fail
  5. The World Urban Forum: Urban Sustainability Redux

Comments (14)

BreeApril 12th, 2009 at 1:10 pm

Found this post from #amazonfail on twitter. And actually, what they’re doing is a bit worse than that. Amazon is removing the rankings from all books they classify as “adult” (so far that seems to include erotic romance, books with GLBT themes and some non-fiction sex titles including books about feminism and having sex with disabilities) so that they no longer show up in bestseller lists at all. The purported reason for doing so is so they will not show up in “general” searches of the website.

So now an author who writes exclusively GLBT or erotic romance titles may appear not to exist during a search of All Departments (the search that you perform if you type a word/title/author into the search box on the front page.) If you simply pull up amazon and search for one of the books whose rankings have been removed, amazon will act as if this book does not exist, and suggest similar titles. The only way to find it is to get into the right category first and then search, or be linked directly.

Fiona pitt-KethleyApril 12th, 2009 at 1:16 pm

My anthology The Literary Companion to Sex seems to have been taken off ranking. I think the word sex in the title was enough. while there is a small amount of gay sex in it there is a great deal more heterosexual.

raincoasterApril 12th, 2009 at 1:36 pm

Why in god’s name would they not have an option to see the list including or excluding mature content? Erotica sells quite a LOT; are they trying to put themselves out of the business? Abebooks FTW!

raincoaster’s last blog post..Happy Easter!

RaulApril 12th, 2009 at 2:49 pm

Thanks all for your comments. Also, I’ve amended the post to reflect my questions and perhaps some early lessons for PR crisis management and web-based business management

Fiona Pitt-KethleyApril 12th, 2009 at 2:52 pm

Abebooks was bought by Amazon – alas, there is no good alternative

taraApril 12th, 2009 at 8:19 pm

As an online business Amazon is making money on a holiday, so they need to be responsive to their customers on a holiday.

Good point about not rolling out changes over a holiday weekend when there’s no one around to fix stuff, or address the PR disaster, if things go sideways.

tara’s last blog post..Amazon fail

John PettittApril 12th, 2009 at 10:36 pm

The response we got from Amazon was that it was a ‘glitch’

http://carnalnation.com/content/4937/3/breaking-amazon-calls-glbt-issues-glitch-promises-fix

They get points for answering press email at 10PM on a Sunday – not enough points to wipe out the deficit for doing it in the first place.

John Pettitt’s last blog post..Breaking: Amazon calls GLBT issues a ‘glitch’ – promises fix.

EmmeApril 12th, 2009 at 10:39 pm

This is going to make a fascinating case study in business practice and ethics. Can’t wait to see what Amazon has to say tomorrow.

RaulApril 12th, 2009 at 10:48 pm

The biggest beef I have is with what I mentioned above – why roll out a new algorithm that can possibly have sensitive consequences?

Cathy BrowneApril 12th, 2009 at 11:11 pm

First, as an individual, I am appalled at Amazon for introducing this practice.

As a PR professional for more than 20 years, what concerns me isn’t the lack of crisis management now – it’s the apparent lack of forethought before this was even put into motion. One of the most important fundamentals of PR is anticipating all of the consequences of any action – and ensuring that management understands and accepts that they will need to be ready to respond swiftly and intelligently.

Given the various reactions of Amazon spokespersons (including blaming the removal of the rankings as a ‘glitch’), that very critical PR activity either did not happen, or was ignored. Unfortunate – and thoughtless, in either case.

davidApril 13th, 2009 at 2:55 am

This is my view on their public burning….

http://thelostagency.wordpress.com/2009/04/13/amazon-burned-at-the-stake/

JeremyApril 13th, 2009 at 9:03 am

The debunking of the hacker claim is BS… im not saying the person claiming responsibility is telling the truth of course… but so what if the code posted is buggy? He was writing an account of the incident not a howto.

Each step/gotcha he seemed to address… everything seems viable.

Jeremy’s last blog post..Hacking Internal Networks using IE7 & IE8

Omega Point » Blog Archive » #AmazonfailApril 13th, 2009 at 1:39 pm

[...] In his blog post on the subject, Raul (Hummingbird604) compares the move by Amazon to last year’s “Motrin Moms” debacle. He also raises the question, is Easter Sunday a good time to be organizing a protest? Absolutely. Is Easter Sunday an okay time for Amazon PR to take the day off? Obviously not. [...]

Josh LavoieApril 17th, 2009 at 11:43 am

I must say I’m very impressed at your ability to remain open to the possibility that the ratings scandal was caused by a “glitch”. Although you’re quite right in the fact that we do not have the empirical evidence to prove this one way or another it seems unlikely that a glitch could cause such an acutely targeted loss in ranking data. An organization like Amazon would have extensive backup and restore capabilities that could, and should have been used to restore any lost ranking data. Additionally, if the rankings downgrade was the result of a new search algorithm it seems that it would be virtually impossible to accidentally, disproportionately affect LGBT content. If they did something along the lines of a keyword search how could they miss all of the heterosexual romance novels with “raunchy, raunchy, raunchy” in the comments?

I have great respect for your ability to keep an open mind on this matter, it’s certainly something that I haven’t been able to manage!

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