Amazonfail update, now with delicious speculative theories

Update

MOAR THEORIES! Some douchebag on Livejournal is taking credit for the brouhaha, but I’m incredibly skeptical over his claims, because it sounds a little bit too pat and because not only “fag books” were affected (among other things—my bullshit alarm went WOOP WOOP WOOP when I read that post); somebody else tried the exploit and it doesn’t seem to work in the way the douchebag claims.

And now, via Lilith Saintcrow, the Seattle Post Intelligencer blog has a statement from Amazon about how this is a “ham-fisted cataloguing error” as well as some statements about how it may have been a massive editing cock-up from former Amazon employee Mike Daisey, but there are other variations on the theme flying around—Jessica of Feministing heard from her agent who heard from an Amazon rep (QUICK HOW MANY LEVELS OF HEARSAY IS THAT) about how this adult content de-ranking policy was basically an experiment that blew up in their face.

Feel free to scroll below to read my somewhat stale (and rushed—I composed the entry during Con Law II) speculations below. Wish I had more time to write about why Amazon is trying to implement an adult content filter in the first place, because that, my friends, is some sweet sassy bullshit.


The rampant inconsistency of the Amazonfail situation has puzzled me since yesterday. The Wilder Publications’ paperback edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was de-ranked, for example, but the Penguin Classics edition wasn’t. Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality Vol. 1 was de-ranked (and still is, unlike Lady Chatterley, which has had its rank reinstated), but Volumes 2 and 3 weren’t. The incredibly obnoxious A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality wasn’t de-ranked, but Heather Has Two Mommies was (rank has since been reinstated).

Jane at Dear Author, through the power of spreadsheets and analysis, theorizes that the books were likely filtered out using the metadata—and looking at the information, I think she’s hit it bang on. Patrick Nielsen Hayden of Making Light has come up with a plausible explanation of the process that probably led Amazon to instituting blanket exceptions that resulted in the pattern of nonsensical de-rankings we’ve seen. LJer Dely comes up with two other plausible alternative theories, one involving trolls and another involving the systematic flagging of “adult” content by people with agendas. The official word from Amazon, as far as we know, is still that it’s a “glitch,” which falls in line with Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s theory.

I especially appreciated this snippet from the Making Light post:

None of which means that anyone shouldn’t be mad at Amazon, or that Amazon shouldn’t be embarrassed. Rather, it means that this is how the world works. A great deal of racism, homophobia, etc., happens not because anyone particularly wants to be racist or homophobic, but because the ground has been tilted that way by arrangements made long ago and if you’re not constantly on the lookout it’s easiest to roll downhill.

What irritates me most about the whole mess is that if the glitch theory is true, it still means that somebody, somewhere within the organization approved that big sweep approach. In terms of flagging for “adult” content, I can understand (even if I don’t necessarily agree with) filtering out terms like “erotica” or “pornography”—although a commenter on Making Light pointed out that bestiality hasn’t been filtered. But “Gay and Lesbian”? REALLY? This sort of blanket exception didn’t ding anybody’s radar? (And let’s not even go into the wisdom of implementing a policy to exclude “adult” content in first place, because I’m not sure my blood pressure can take it.)

Fail, Amazon. You’re doing it wrong.

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News, The Link-O-Lator

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  1. 1

    Thanks for keeping us updated.

    Last month when I put my name into the search engine at amazon, all 8 of my books showed up. (Some with really ugly covers that I wish I could blame on Amazon.) Yesterday, none of my books showed up, like I didn’t exist. Early today, my latest release showed up. Just now, my latest release and my second release came up.

    So now, I sort of exist. Which is what my kids think anyway.

    Something is going on, over there in Amazon land, but I don’t know what it is yet.

  2. 2
    Lianna says:

    I usually buy my LGBT romance directly from the publishers in the ebook format so that I won’t have to deal with Amazon. I don’t know whether to blame them or not, but it’s sad to see that people who want an easy way to find this material (I personally check publishers sites at least once a week to see what new books are being put out- it’s time consuming, but I’m a book nerd) won’t be able to read some amazing work because they won’t be able to find it.

  3. 3
    AgTigress says:

    The incredibly obnoxious A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality …

    Is there honestly a book called that, in this day and age?  Seriously?  Just picking my dropped jaw off the floor…

  4. 4

    Is there honestly a book called that, in this day and age?  Seriously?  Just picking my dropped jaw off the floor…

    Yes, there is. And it’s still the top result for ‘homosexuality’ in amazon uk, which doesn’t seem to be affected by any of the rest of this crap.

  5. 5

    teh_daly: “GAY CONTENT IS ADULT??!! RAPE SURVIVOR CONTENT IS ADULT?!!?? HOW DARE YOU AMAZON RARARGH INTERNET RAGE!” responded the masses, freely pointing out the continuing availability of straight porn and sex toys in Amazon search results (or dog-fighting books or trashy romance novels or Mein Kampf or anything else that would be found “objectionable” by any reasonable standards). Clearly a double standard was at play.

    My reasonable standards say that trashy romance novels are the best kind!

  6. 6
    SpinachSalad says:

    Hmm.. if by “Fail, Amazon. You’re Doing it wrong” You meant Fail, blogosphere, I agree! Here, bear witness:

    http://pastebin.ca/1390576

    That was posted to reddit sometime yesterday/todayish. There’s be a lot of jumping to conclusions around the internet today; which seems to mean that a single pissed off person who knows how to write a few simple lines of code was able to achieve their goal of raising the internet alarm for a laugh.

    I had to post after reading this bit: “What irritates me most about the whole mess is that if the glitch theory is true, it still means that somebody, somewhere within the organization approved that big sweep approach.” Why does it mean that? Amazon’s is an automated system, someone figured out how to game it. By jumping to conclusions you make only yourself look foolish.

    That’s all I really came here to say :)

  7. 7

    Warriors for Innocence brings down holy Jihad on Six Apart

    I think this is where tehdaly lost me entirely. As well as missing the perspective that Patrick Nielson Hayden brought to this mess, and shifting the blame from amazon onto unamed religious fundamentalists.

  8. 8
    Dark Puck says:

    Warriors for Innocence brings down holy Jihad on Six Apart

    I think this is where tehdaly lost me entirely. As well as missing the perspective that Patrick Nielson Hayden brought to this mess, and shifting the blame from amazon onto unamed religious fundamentalists.

    SixApart used to own LiveJournal.  To quote an article on the subject,

    Six Apart, the parent company of LiveJournal, had received
    complaints from the Christian fundamentalist group “Warriors for Innocence” that user journals were supporting activities such as rape and pedophilia. As the company began to investigate the matter, they issued permanent suspensions due to terms of service violations for around 500 user accounts and communities based upon the interest keywords listed in the profile. The problem with this was that many of the suspended journals weren’t advocating those activities at all… the majority of them were fiction and fanfiction groups, and some were even support groups or public journals written by survivors of rape or molestation.

    Among the banned communities were several photo communities for the gothic lolita fashion as well as a discussion group for the book Lolita.  The fact that so many people were suspended without warning or explanation caused a mass bailout on LJ, and 6A had to scramble to recover from that.  I’m not convinced they entirely did.

  9. 9

    No, I remember the whole Strikethrough debacle well. I just meant misuse of the term jihad = one of my pet peeves. It’s not as bad as when some guy tried to tell me about ‘papist absolutism’… among the muslim ulema.

  10. 10
    jh says:

    as of about 30 minutes ago:
    http://i23.photobucket.com/albums/b359/batchfile/misc/amazonfuckery1.jpg

    why is the ANTI-homosexuality book still at #1 and others at #2, and #3, and 4 and 5…

    while books on actual homosexuality are all in subcategories at #2, i am not sure this is right.

  11. 11
    Tina C. says:

    What irritates me most about the whole mess is that if the glitch theory is true, it still means that somebody, somewhere within the organization approved that big sweep approach.

    The gay/lesbian aspect of this is deeply appalling.  That anything that discusses gay/lesbian issues would be labeled “adult”, is ridiculous, of course.  However, I have also noticed that the items that are sexually explicit (or simply somewhat graphic) that have disappeared are the books that are primarily for women, ie, romances and erotica.  If this is simply a misapplied algorithm, who the hell decided that works primarily intended for the female gaze needs to be regulated and works primarily intended for the male gaze does not?

    I realize that there are other theories—malicious fundamentalists and/or hackers, etc—but I’ve never seen any button anywhere on that site that allows me to indicate that I find a particular book “obscene”, “adult”, or even “inappropriate”, just a comment.  As for the malicious hacker theory, if that’s the case, why did it start months ago (and in some cases, over a year ago)?  If that’s the story that they are going to sell, I would insist on some serious proof.  I am, however, willing to buy that it was a “glitch”, if glitch = someone went way overboard on what is “adult”, but I would like an explanation as to who thought gay/lesbian meant “for mature viewing audiences only” and why, yet again, only a woman’s sexuality needs to be hidden from view.

  12. 12
    Candy says:

    SpinachSalad: I hadn’t heard about the scripted code exploit theory until just before I read your comment; I guess you haven’t read how somebody tested this exploit and it doesn’t actually work the way the person claims it does.

    Thanks for the passive-aggressive smiley, and for not following up on your proposed theory :) .

  13. 13
    Vicki says:

    Candy

    Have you seen this one yet?  Includes fairly rational and detailed comments from Amazon on how it happened.

    http://blog.seattlepi.com/amazon/archives/166329.asp

    If this is the real answer, then people who called or emailed Amazon in the last couple of days got the canned “adult” script response instead of anything specific to the books in question.  Which, knowing Amazon customer service, is quite possible.

  14. 14
    Charlene says:

    I love people who do what SpinachSalad has done here. It’s like the people who find some bizarrely and wildly unrealistic explanation for racism, sexism, or homophobia in a work of art and sneer at anyone who won’t buy that explanation.

  15. 15
    Ninjakitten says:

    Re: the hacking theory—

    I can’t actually find any evidence that there has EVER been a ‘flag as inappropriate’ button or link on Amazon’s book pages.  I checked several from the last year or so in the Wayback Machine, and couldn’t find such a button on a single one.

    Add that to bryant@lj’s even better poke at the claims the declaration rests on, and it looks like attention-whoring on the so-called hacker’s part to me.

  16. 16
    Eden Bradley says:

    I just received an email from Amazon in response to the one I sent them yesterday with exactly the same message that was printed in the Seattle PI. I still don’t know what the hell it means. And my books, while searchable again, have yet to have the ranking status returned.

  17. 17
    Mary says:

    Here is the response that I received from amazon customer service, in response to my irate letter:
    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
    Hello,

    Thank you for contacting Amazon.com.

    This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.

    It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles – in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.

    Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.

    Thanks for contacting us. We hope to see you again soon.

    Sincerely,

    Customer Service Department
    Amazon.com

    Note: this e-mail was sent from a notification-only address that cannot accept incoming e-mail. Please do not reply to this message.

  18. 18
    Kymberlyn says:

    This was a PR nightmare that could have been easily avoided.  When Amazon was initially notified about the so-called “glitch”, they should have taken it seriously and in the immortal words of Barney Fife, “nip it, nip it in the bud.”  Think of all the unpleasantness (and lost revenue I’m sure) that could have been avoided. 

    I’ve been told by the few “apologists” for Amazon, that Jeff Bezos, the CEO, isn’t very good at handling public relations.  Well, now, if you’re the head honcho of a billion dollar empire, I highly suggest that you GET good at dealing with issues like this instead of sitting on your fat ass and waiting for the axe to fall.  It took the combined outrage of thousands of customers and authors to get Amazon to finally DO something.  This is ludicrous, especially in today’s economic climate where people are out of work or counting each penny.  If anything, we should still be pissed at Amazon for stonewalling as long as they did.

    I may go back to shopping with them, but right now, I’m just going to let them stew a little.  Maybe the next time something like this comes down the pike, Bezos will man-up and take care of business.

  19. 19
    Lori says:

    About the theory SpinachSalad linked to—-even with my very minimal knowledge of coding I was about 99.9% sure that it wouldn’t produce the result we saw. I guess my teeny, tiny silver lining is learning that I haven’t forgotten everything I picked up from working at a software company and hanging out with code guys.

    Really though, I’m just glad that Amazon is working on fixing it. Hopefully when this is over they’ll do a very detailed Lessons Learned and improve their system so this never happens again.

  20. 20
    jeepgirl says:

    Ham-fisted!!!  Wow, it sounds dirty. 

    Sorry, couldn’t help myself, I work in a library and I have never heard a cataloging error described as ‘ham-fisted’.

    Also, I didn’t see the ‘sorry’ word anywhere.

  21. 21
    Ms Manna says:

    The ‘adult tagging’ theory fails on the simple test that it doesn’t seem to apply to many of the deranked books.  All three of my books were deranked.  None of them showed any sign of spam tagging.  None of them, in fact, were even tagged with ‘adult’.  The only tag they all had in common was ‘dystopia’ and ‘gay science fiction’, both tags they’ve had for a very long time. 

    I also checked in Google cache, and there is no sign of the mythical ‘report inappropriate content’ button on versions of my books pages from the 6th April.

  22. 22
    Gabrielle says:

    Thanks Candy to keep us upadted. I’d be tempted to believe more in Jessica of Feministing theory than in Mike Daisey’s explanation. He may be right, I don’t know. As a French, as soon as I heard of this “glitch” on Monday morning, I checked first things first the Amazon France site to see if it was affected too.

    But everything worked alright with the “all department” search tool, whether it’s a French book or translated product or imported American/British one from categories de-ranked at Amazon.com.
    Then with Mike Daisey’s insight of the matter and considering from what he writes that this “glitch” should affect the whole Amazon group, at around 2:00am local time this Tuesday I checked back Amazon France.  I ran a series of request searches with the general search tool, seeking several LGBT books.
    It turns up that everything seems to work fine again.

    So I’m a bit skeptical about that translation error. Maybe I’m just one lucky girl and the French site is too dumb and slow to understand the English codes on how to implement that “glitch” dysfunctions. Or maybe I’m such a moron that sneaky “glitch” is tricking me in believing it’s not wreaking havoc with the system by feigning its inexistence at Amazon France?

  23. 23
    Liz says:

    we have all known that amazon had problems with certain things (i.e. monopoly over printing), but this seriously has me scratching my head.  After reading this update to my mother she was appalled to find that Lady Chatterlay’s Lover was deranked.  I must live in some bubble where even the racists/bigots aren’t that bad because i didn’t realize that there were still people like this out there.  There are no words.

  24. 24
    Rainbow Tea says:

    I’m intrigued that the Strikethrough/Monumental Eff Up Of LJ was brought up. (Which, although I was not affected by, soured any love I had for LJ after seven years of service.) I was wondering why this seemed familiar. Nonsensical actions taken by people who after being called out for their stupidity develop vocal diarrhea while running around trying to avoid the anvils of backlash? Oh, yeah.

    I’ve always had an inexplicable distaste for Amazon. This just about killed the slightest inkling I’ve had of using their services. If they’d just lowered their heads, issued a straight apology and began fixing their screw up, it wouldn’t be such a brouhaha.

  25. 25
    Robin says:

    I find this point from Mike Daisey to be extremely relevant:

    More interesting is that everyone in publishing entrusts their rankings and status to a single provider. That’s the story no one likes thinking about in publishing.

    Even if everything Amazon is *currently* saying holds true, there are still bigger issues here relative to the way material is catalogued, the fact that the “adult” issue was already presenting itself publicly as early as February, and the fact that such an “error” showed an interesting pattern of cataloguing that in one sense seemed incoherent, but also had a disturbing ideological consistency.

    Is Amazon homophobic?  I doubt it.  But I do think they’re paternalistic, even with this whole “ham-fisted cataloguing error” or whatever.

  26. 26
    Robin says:

    Oh, and the lack of public notice/apology on the site?  Totally not classy.  Another Fail on Spin 101 pop quiz.

  27. 27
    MichelleR says:

    I’ve sent another letter and asked for a human response and not a form letter. I also tossed in the word supervisor in hopes this would flag something.

    I explained that the form letter didn’t in any way address my larger concern. That I wasn’t complaining only on the GLBT issue, and that I accepted that things didn’t work like they’d planned, but that this was not the point.

    I stated that what I needed addressed was why there was any effort to give a different weight to any writer or genre. Essentially, why were they fiddling with adult books anyhow?

    ***

    I don’t buy that it had anything to do with protecting families or children. Even though there’s a title called Copy Room Cu… well, it’s alliterative. For the most part, kids aren’t really going to see anything too naughty on a results page.  (BTW, my word is result36.)

    Someone on the Amazon board paraphrased Orwell in saying some books are more equal than others, and that expressed pretty well what this feels like. Maybe too many “bodice rippers” and naughty novels were making their lists and de-classing the joint. Add someone who things all gay lit has to be dirty…

    If that’s true, no author can be complacent, and any of the self-pubbed ones really need to be shaking in their boots. They’re spamming boards and selling their stories for a song in hopes of making some lists, but these stories might not be bringing the right prestige.

  28. 28
    Faellie says:

    Problem still not solved, even if Amazon fix the “adult content filter” so that it is non-homophobic (and perhaps even so that it includes bestiality and pornographic pictures of women?).

    The Help pages on “rank” on Amazon state that rank is based on sales.  But if there is any sort of adult content filter on the compiling of ranks, then that isn’t true, is it?  So Amazon will still be telling porkies to their customers.  Same problem with “search” – there’s nothing to say that it excludes the adult.

    And if one did happen to want to see the rank of adult stuff, or search for it, how exactly does one do that?  And what exactly will the “fixed” version of “adult”  include and exclude?

    Until all these issues are resolved and notice of the answers given to customers, using Amazon search and help services will still be a blindfold crapshoot.

  29. 29
    Kaffiene says:

    That’s odd. When I ordered the book, there was no filter in place but it was a while ago…
    My copy finally came today and I’m really excited!!!!

  30. 30
    Gabrielle says:

    What I’m wondering now is do authors/publishers (in short, people who actually make amazon catalogue by providing their products) sign a partnership with Amazon with the contract mentionning the existence of this “adult policy” and the possibility of de-ranking according to Amazon’s own terms? Are they or are they not informed of it or do they just dismiss it with the certitude they aren’t concerned by the “adult policy”?

    I’ve never known as a customer about this policy. And many authors selling their books via Amazon don’t look to be in the know too. Isn’t it strange that we seem to discover that policy only now and not ages ago? Surely the publishers know about this policy, so they must have negociated some specific points with Amazon to keep their products from being de-ranked like these last days, musn’t they?

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