Amazon.com oops: Prejudice is tough in the Twitter age

Over the weekend, Twitter exploded with some incendiary accusations: that Amazon.com had stripped most books with gay and lesbian authors and content of their sales rank status. The effect was to effectively eliminate many titles from searches and lists of bestsellers. "Gay" books were made virtually invisible.

Although reports of the prejudicial databasing have been circulating since February, few were paying attention until blogger Mark Probst wrote a post about the phenomenon. He managed to reach a live person at Amazon to ask what the heck was going on, and he posted her official response:

"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."
So Amazon admitted it, and the response was immediate and justifiably enraged. Over Easter, readers combed the Amazon site to see what had been purged of visibility. Many of the newly hidden books were not the least bit explicit.

The victims included Ellen DeGeneres' book about her relationship with her mother, James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, Maurice by E.M. Forster, and Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. Even Heather Has Two Mommies was deemed appropriate for adults only. Yet, as one commenter on Probst's site pointed out, a collection of Playboy centerfolds was still ranked, and so was (straight) pornstar Ron Jeremy's autobiography, so the book company's ploy about "adult material" was perceived as outright bunk. A distinct anti-gay bias seemed plain, said the Tweeters.

The stripping of sales rank gave an incorrect impression of which books were most popular, thus guiding customers to books with a distinctly conservative social agenda. Gay blog Queerty reported that if you searched for the word "homosexuality," the first book to be returned was the anti-gay tome A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality.

In a coup for Twitter saturation as well as for social equanimity, a petition demanding accountability appeared on Facebook, and as of Monday afternoon had amassed 15,000 signatures. Gay and lesbian writers (and let's admit it, some of history's most famous writers have been gay or lesbian) began announcing Amazon.com boycotts on their own Twitter feeds. I know one writer, a winner of a prominent 2009 fiction award, who Twittered "Goodbye Amazon.com. It was nice knowing you while I (foolishly) thought you were inert."

This afternoon, the owner of the domain AmazonFail.com put it up for sale on eBay. (So far, no bids, but on Twitter, #amazonfail and #glitchmyass are still bursting with outrage.)

The message sections of Towleroad, an influential blog covering gay issues, were flooded with irate customers directing gay customers to shift their business to major booksellers such as Powell Books, a well-known Oregon bookseller. "F--k Amazon," one wrote. "Powell's 'world of books' has LGBT themed books galore."

Towleroad was quick to point out another glaring problem with labeling all gay material as adults-only. "This kind of double-standard happens not only across the Internet but across media," wrote the editor. "Towleroad, for example, although we carry no pornographic content, is widely blocked as 'adult' by many corporate filters simply because we write about gay issues. It's the same reason magazines like OUT and The Advocate are often placed among porn titles on newsstands when they clearly don't belong there."

Sure enough, Amazon put out a new explanation today: a complete reversal from its earlier response to Probst. Now, it's not admitting deliberate exclusion, but merely a "glitch" (albeit one without a known cause or a prognosis for repair).

"Amazon's policy of removing 'adult' content from its rankings seems to be both new and unevenly implemented," wrote the Los Angeles Times.

A few religious voices added to the din. "I am glad that Amazon has removed their ranking," wrote one commenter to the Christian Science Monitor. "I am tired of the gay culture being able to influence our children in their way of life and I am to consider it NORMAL. IT IS NOT. Thank you Amazon for fulfilling a long over due standard." But then, just a few comments later, were angry posts like this one: "I short sold NASDAQ:AMZN this morning and am doing pretty well as of now."

A "glitch," by the way, is also what Ticketmaster recently blamed on the bait-and-switch that resulted in Springsteen fans' getting charged ten times the face value of a concert ticket. Admitting a "glitch" is to the world of web commerce what "we take this matter seriously" is to corporate communications: an empty busy signal from harried press representatives who can't be seen to admit out-and-out guilt.

A "glitch" that hides anything tagged with gay themes: that's a pretty specific "glitch," Amazon. That kind of "glitch" doesn't sound like an accident. It sounds to me as if someone within Amazon's programming department decided to export his or her worldview to everyone else and classify anything gay and lesbian as off-the-margins.

Sure, a few may cheer over this. But that lack of nuanced and inclusive vision will end up costing Amazon. Companies that do business online are finding that negative reviews of their services can spread like wildfire through the same circuits, and if execs aren't on hand with a cogent rationale, the P.R. damage could be extreme.

Amazon.com has become so large and ubiquitous -- in essence, it's a microcosm of our population -- that all customers now expect they will be fairly represented among its wares. After all, without Amazon, many Americans wouldn't have easy access to books.

If Amazon.com had de-listed all books having to do with black people or Jewish culture, this story wouldn't have taken two months to gain traction. But as long as it's still legal in America to fall in love with whom you want -- or read whatever you want -- then it will be difficult for a company, especially one that makes its money trading in information, to justify this kind of prejudice.

No doubt Amazon would have preferred to have kept this debacle quiet, but Twitter ended that. Now the company will be forced to make a decision no company cherishes making: whether to publicly embrace equality for its gay users and stoke the ire of its social-conservative customers, or to do the opposite. No matter what Amazon decides, only one thing is certain: one side or the other is going to be furious.

When a company can't win no matter what it does, it's called "a P.R. nightmare." For Powell's, though, it's a dream come true.



Update: A self-identified hacker stepped forward to claim responsibility, saying he exploited a vulnerability in Amazon's product ratings system, through which customers rate books and flag them as objectionable. Getting flagged enough times apparently strips a product of its ranking.

Case closed? Not nearly. Soon after, Amazon finally issued a fuller statement: "This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error," it read. "It has been misreported that the issue was limited to gay- and 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."

While I don't fully buy the hacker's confession, Amazon's statement also doesn't quite do it for me. Why was Ellen DeGeneres on that list? Is she "erotica"? And Heather Has Two Mommies? There's something Amazon isn't telling us. If the site was indeed hacked, that's not a vulnerability Amazon would want to advertise.

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