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Amazonfail Is a Twitter Success

April 15, 2009 07:30 AM
by Rachel Balik
After an alleged cataloging error made books with GLBT content less accessible on Amazon, bloggers and Twitterers mobilized to seek redress from the online retail giant. 

#Amazonfail Explodes on Twitter

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Amazon was not initially able to offer any explanation for the “deranking” that made it difficult to find thousands of books with gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender content on their site. A hacker tried to take credit for the incident, but Amazon’s official statement indicates that it was an accident.

The story broke a few days after blogger Mark Probst inquired about the deranking of his book, “The Filly,” and got a letter from Amazon customer service saying it had been classified as “adult” and had therefore been taken off of sales ranking lists.

Many other writers began noticing that the same thing had happened to them, and their concerns spread over the social network site Twitter like wildfire. The tag “#amazonfail” was used to track news of the incident, and, according to MetaFilter, became the top trend on Twitter. Deranked titles included works by E.M. Forster and Gore Vidal, Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” and the picture book “Heather Has Two Mommies.”

Reactions: The blogosphere’s angry responses; Amazon apologizes for error

Probst published the letter he received from Amazon on his blog, and noted that a number of books that contained graphic adult heterosexual content retained their rankings. He wrote that while he could argue with Amazon that his book was a YA novel and did not contain “adult” content, he was electing not to do so. He wanted all gay books relisted, or he had no interest in appearing on Amazon at all.

On blogs and on Twitter, other affected writers expressed fury and dismay. Author Nicola Griffith angrily (and somewhat profanely) noted that she would stop earning money, simply because her books have lesbian characters. She wrote that she really wanted “a public crucifixion” but would settle for a personal apology. She encouraged people to sign the petition that quickly appeared online.

People also began rallying support for alternative sellers to Amazon. Vroman’s Bookstore is one of many independent bookstores using the amazonfail incident as a reason to turn away from big companies. The California bookstore’s blog warned of the dangers of companies that failed to be transparent, and argued that for one company to have control over an entire market was dangerous and threatening to freedom. The situation appears to have been remedied, but if it had not been, sales to the deranked books would have measurably decreased.

Amazon has issued a statement of apology. A spokesperson attributed the deranking to a "ham-fisted cataloging error," and promised that all books would have their ranking restored. The statement asserted that the classification error had also been applied to 57,310 books that did not contain any GLBT material. 

Opinion & Analysis: The Internet community should be taken seriously

The Lambda Literary Foundation praised the Internet community for its strong response to the controversy. Board president Christopher Rice released a statement, reprinted in part by The Advocate, that proclaimed that the “grassroots power of the Internet has been placed on glorious display for all to see.

TechRadar says the only way for Amazon to remedy this “PR disaster” is to get on the Web—and in the conversation. Although Amazon assures users that the “Fail” was the result of a glitch in the system, rumors continue to abound; there is even a suggestion that Amazon was trying to cater to the religious right. TechRadar notes that even if the problem was an honest mistake, all the GLBT users who were affected will still have lost a great deal of faith in the company. In sum, Amazon, and all other e-commerce companies, need to engage with their users online to monitor public perception.

Related Topic: Twitter's real-world utility

The New York Times echoes TechRadar’s sentiment, suggesting that big companies could glean important information about their customers by looking at Twitter activity and interacting online with users. Recently, Twitter has been receiving attention for its real-world relevance. One man who goes under the name Twitchhiker on Twitter has been successfully using Twitter to raise money for charity. Twitter was also used to report on the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and broke the news of the Hudson River plane landing in January.

The New York Times reports that Twitter is a “surprisingly useful tool for solving problems.” For example, doctors at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit twittered through an entire surgery, explaining the procedure to medical residents and laypeople. Twitter can also serve as an effective way of collecting information from various sources. Companies use Twitter to learn their customers’ preferences; travelers tweet for recommendations and advice while exploring a foreign city.

But all this user-generated activity may come at a cost to journalistic standards. Blogger Mark Moran notes that while we are emancipated from our dependence on a handful of publications, we certainly cannot expect that flood of instantaneous information we get from the Internet community has been fact-checked. There is a urgency attached to breaking stories today that outweighs the pressure for accurate reporting. As Moran explains, “in the race to be first, the race to be best is less important.”
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