AmazonFAIL: How Online Social Tools Can Wreak Havoc—and Repair It
| April 13, 2009
The author explains what probably happened over the weekend to threaten sales of LGBT and feminist books on Amazon.com—and how social media instantly jumped into the fray.
Over the holiday weekend, a firestorm let loose on the Internet: For no apparent reason, books on Amazon.com with feminist, LGBT and sexual-empowerment themes were removed from the sales rankings, numbers that show how well a product is performing on the website.
Angry authors and readers responded by launching a full-on social media assault, using blogs, Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness and to collect signatures on a petition.
Rapid response campaigns not affiliated with any one organization are increasingly becoming the norm in the age of free communication tools. The Amazon incident (dubbed “AmazonFAIL,” drawing on usage of “fail” as an indicator of strong disapproval in online cultures) is a fascinating example in part because of the cultural motivation behind and the mechanics of the removal and the implications for sales of “banned” books.
For those just waking up to the scandal, here’s what happened: Amazon has a policy of removing books labeled as “adult” from its sales rankings (which by itself could discourage sales). This, in turn, has a ripple effect of removing books from elsewhere on the site, such as in search results and “related books” listings. The Amazon system is proprietary, so it’s hard for outsiders to determine the full implications of such a removal. Anecdotal evidence from authors searching for their banned books returned wildly different results at different points over the weekend, but it was clear that if allowed to go unchecked, the “adult” label would have a severe impact on sales—if the readers can’t find it, the readers can't buy it.
What kinds of books received this “adult” label? Erotica with gay themes (but not heterosexual themes), rape survivor advocacy and rape culture criticism, and feminist missives were among those suddenly labeled adult material. Soft-core hetero porn (such as Playboy centerfold calendars), hetero-themed sex toys and anti-gay screeds were left untouched. Let the maelstrom begin.
Blog posts sprang up, but the social media service Twitter soon became the hotbed of information gathering and disseminating. Authors tweeted about missing books, readers posted links to breaking news and why-would-Amazon-do-this theories, and a petition demanding that Amazon rescind its adult policy gathered 10,000 names in less than 24 hours. By Sunday evening, Amazon responded via an interview with Publisher’s Weekly that the entire situation was a “glitch.”
As most in the social media sphere attacked Amazon directly for purposely removing the books, technologists familiar with "distributed attacks" (attacks that are carried out by people not belonging to any one identifiable, formal group) started to speculate on the source of the takedowns. They understood that it's unlikely that Amazon itself enacted a homophobic, misogynist campaign to selectively label certain books as adult and thus damage the sales of these books. Blogger Dely at livejournal.com explains:
Now, let's just put ourselves in Amazon's shoes. Keep in mind that Amazon is a smug, fairly liberal company headquartered in f****** Seattle of all places and, last I checked, Jeff Bezos is not exactly a Christian fundamentalist. Why on earth would they suddenly censor only a specific group of content that deals with a marginalized and politically active community? Why would this policy change not take the form of a specific policy, but rather of very discriminately flagging only certain titles as "adult" content? Why would this happen over a weekend?
It's obvious Amazon has some sort of automatic mechanism that marks a book as "adult" after too many people have complained about it. It's also obvious that there aren't too many people using this feature, as indicated by the easy availability (and search ranking) of pornography and sex toys and other seemingly "objectionable" materials, otherwise almost all of those items would have been flagged by this point. So somebody is going around and very deliberately flagging only LGBT(QQI)/feminist/survivor content on Amazon until it is unranked and becomes much more difficult to find.
It’s far more likely that a group of tech “enthusiasts,” let’s call them, organized some sort of campaign over a holiday weekend (when Amazon was likely operating with a shoestring staff) to delist books they found objectionable. When I say enthusiasts, I’m referring to loosely associated hacker-types who enjoy wreaking havoc purely for the sake of the havoc. Rarely do they have a formal political agenda. Often women, particularly feminists, and queer folk are the targets (though recently, one notorious group called 4chan targeted and found a teenager who had posted a video of himself torturing a cat).
It would be easy to dismiss this, and other cases, as Internet-gone-wild making the world unsafe for women and LGBT folk. Somewhat harder to discern, and admit to ourselves, is that the anonymity and freedom that the Internet provides pulls back the curtain on our culture: at work are the illusive mores of misogyny and homophobia that continue to shape our culture and lives.