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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Re: Amazon... Not Again...

Posted by on Tue, Apr 14, 2009 at 1:47 AM

Slog has done a fine job looking at all angles of The Great Glitch, but I think it's still worth asking... what if Twitter didn't shame Amazon into action?

As many have said, the problem wasn't treated like a glitch by Amazon's staff in the first place. But let's not forget, the initial report was filed two days after Probst first noticed the problem. These de-rankings sat live on Amazon's listings for days, and a guy with a direct publishing contact at Amazon couldn't get someone to take action or send a realistic, rational response. This initial result is in line with the statement Mike Daisey made to the PI yesterday:

While embarrassing to the public, it will fade quickly as the changes get reverted. Amazon is no longer the company it once was: it's just an online Wal-Mart. Like any behemoth, there's little accountability inside the bubble.

That expectation of a fading embarrassment does apply to the public. This whole escapade illuminates the issue that Amazon is a money-first corporation that only acts when the bottom line is threatened. Without #amazonfail, what would've happened? You'd see a few complaints climb to the top of Digg/Reddit for all the nerds to see. Maybe Fark would throw up a goofy headline about it. And, of course, there'd be the inevitable online petition.

Those kinds of complaints get sucked into a vacuum of here-today-gone-tomorrow Internet nerd chatter. Yawn.

But Twitter's the closest thing consumers and average users have gotten to creating an online riot in a long time. Yesterday, after typing #amazonfail into the search, packed lists filled the screen with posts all seconds apart, and screen refreshes kept 'em coming. This was before any mainstream media had jumped on the story. no less. Twitter's combination of brevity, semi-anonymity, and topic tracking is ripe for social tidal waves like yesterday's.

That's the only reason Amazon reacted—sorry to ruin your hopes of a newly evangelized Amazon, Loveschild, but Amazon cares about your family-friendly hopes as much as they got sad for the gay nation. In case that wasn't obvious, let's remember that their proper, human response was run through the corporate PR wringer for a full day before finally landing. The question, though, isn't why Amazon took so long to identify and fix what they called a "glitch." The question is this: Can Twitter do it again?

I just finished watching Milk and can't help but think about the angry, controlled riot—or the illusion of one—as an effective show of strength and resolve. What if the months before Prop 8 were filled with #isupportALLmarriage? What if people use Twitter to push consumer rights issues like #endlengthycellphonecontracts or #0gTransFatisalie? Would such attempts wind up inevitably sucked into the Internet-overhype vacuum? Or can the next overwhelming, organic call to arms supersede Twitter's yet-to-burst bubble—and finally scare Internet-fearing, power-wielding jerks into putting down the form letter and acting like fucking human beings again?


Comments (14) RSS

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What if people hadn't freaked out on Twitter? Probably nothing different.

Do you think Amazon employees might have been, you know, off work over the holiday weekend?

Almost 60,000 products were affected. The problem would have been fixed anyway.

But, keep banging the drum. I'm sure all this manufactured outrage is bumping up your page views.
Posted by grendel on April 14, 2009 at 4:27 AM · Report this
The same thing would have happened. It would have taken longer. And gay people wouldn't have looked like computer illiterate McCain supporters trying to make phone calls on their Ipods.
Posted by kathygnome on April 14, 2009 at 4:42 AM · Report this
HELLO?! HELLO?! I can't seem to get this.. HELLO?! Martha, all I can hear is that rap music. HELLO?!
Posted by grendel on April 14, 2009 at 4:56 AM · Report this
I understand where you're coming from but there needs to be accountability on the Twitter side of this as well. Even now, when it's very clear what happened, there are still people who don't believe it was human error that caused this. There are still people who are trying to find reasons to boycott Amazon anyway. I personally have very little use for Twitter but, despite its benefits, this is a stunning object-lesson in how misinformation, rumor, hysterics and plain old bullshit can propagate with blinding speed across a social network.

Everyone's patting themselves on the back for how fast this grassroots movement over Amazon started and worked, but no one's pointing out that what it did at such speed was form a lynch mob of people who refused to believe facts. Amazon's crime was to have a few points of ineptitude over a holiday weekend. That certainly isn't a good thing -- but we're now seeing how hard it is to stop this train once it's in motion.

Yes, it is an interesting thing that this kicked off and got moving over blogs and Twitter much faster than major media sources could have covered it. What no one is saying is that the reason for this is that major media sources are much more inclined (though certainly not always) to vet their sources and check their facts, and that takes time.

I understand that LGBT rights are a very hot-button issue right now. It's only natural that tempers will flare and I don't blame people for getting up in arms over what might have happened. The problem is when they get up in arms over what they don't know. It's when people demand boycotts on the basis of their own imaginings. It's when they demand technical explanations they couldn't understand and then, when being given them, decide they're bullshit anyway.

Amazon took so long to respond because the problem took a long time to identify and fix, and there was no possible right answer to the mob which was baying for their blood. Their dumbassed customer-service department made them look like liars by handling an inquiry wrong; they didn't want to take the risk of making a statement without knowing exactly what the problem was and what its solution would be.

Ultimately, all I'm saying is this: You are right, a tool like Twitter, a movement like this, has great potential to assist in accomplishing great things. But it is at great risk that we ignore its dangers as well. While we ask what might have happened were this done for Prop 8, it is disingenuous not to also ask what might have happened if this had been not Amazon but a small online bookstore which might have been obliterated by misinformed boycotts and Google-bombing.
Posted by JSP on April 14, 2009 at 7:20 AM · Report this
JSP: And you know the facts? We don't have the facts. Amazon doesn't owe us any transparency. And the only fact I can see here is that Amazon would have done nothing without the twitterstorm.
Posted by BlinkyMcChuck on April 14, 2009 at 8:06 AM · Report this
We are not fooled.
Amazon is a willing tool of Religious Right Homophobic Bigots!
It is a vast conspiracy to oppress gays!!
Everyone is OUT TO GET US!!!
Posted by credulous slog regular hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahah on April 14, 2009 at 8:23 AM · Report this
What I know is that it is now clear in the aftermath that Amazon was not guilty of what the Twittering hordes assumed they were. There are a lot of possible explanations for what has happened and the non-hysterical have had no difficulty assembling them into a coherent timeline which has been ignored by all the people who'd rather have their complaint.

You say that Amazon would have done nothing; what is your basis for this? Where is your control group? You call it a fact - in truth it is speculation, and that is symptomatic of what caused this whole insane thing to happen. You might be right, and you might not. But speaking of facts, let's look at these:

Amazon paged its employees on Sunday, as soon as the reports started filtering in, with links to the #amazonfail Twitter feed, informing them that the most severe category of operational crisis was occurring and they needed to fix it. Let me reiterate this: They pulled their employees away from Easter dinner to address this problem.

There were previous issues - two or three, one from a few days ago and one from two months ago. One of them started the furor, and one of them did not, and they were both given the wrong answer by inept support staff who didn't understand the question and are only allowed to send out form letters.

What you're saying is that Amazon would have done nothing about a problem if they didn't know it had happened. I agree. It's not unthinkable that bad database design and human error would have created this problem and then escaped their attention - until they had cause to notice it. That could have been a Twitter feed, an email, a well-placed phone call - who knows? I don't. It could have happened a lot of ways, but it happened this way. Is your problem that they don't have an alarm which indicates when LGBT-related content is filtered out of ranking and some search results? How many databases have you had to maintain before?

I agree that there was cause to inform them of the issue. I agree that in the current social climate, filtering out LGBT content is cause for questions. I also agree that the mistakes they've made suggest that their operating procedure for database design and maintenance needs a lot of work. I do not, however, agree that they deserve all the ire being flung their way.

Whether you realize it or not, you are agreeing with me. You say, "We don't have the facts." We have more today than we did yesterday, though, and yesterday, people who did not have the facts at all were demanding that Amazon be boycotted, Google-bombed and basically run out of town on a rail.

The statement "I don't know" should be the impetus to keep a cool head and learn more. It should never, ever be the basis on which to take decisive action.
Posted by JSP on April 14, 2009 at 8:32 AM · Report this
What would get accomplished if people got up from their computers to get something done? How often do people sign an online petition and then feel like they made some sort of difference when in reality the petition accomplishes nothing? What happens when twitter protests become as common and as ineffective as online petitions? Is the internet a good place for accomplishing change and social justice? Or is it just like protesting in the flesh in that most protests get little coverage and little turn out. It is only in those rare moments that the right combination of news interest and populist rage come together so that something might happen.
Posted by charlie k on April 14, 2009 at 9:23 AM · Report this
What it this Twitter of whence you speak??
Posted by Keekee on April 14, 2009 at 9:25 AM · Report this
Tempest in a teapot.
The Stranger didn't save the day here. There was no day to be saved.

If anything, this represents one more stupid display of indignation and outrage on the part of the Stranger, so that they me be perceived as carrying the torch of righteousness.

The Stranger only fueled speculation. I had to go to the Seattle PI in order to find out details.
Posted by Ackham on April 14, 2009 at 9:29 AM · Report this
@8: Would it have been better to protest at Amazon's front gates? Just askin'.
Posted by Jigae on April 14, 2009 at 10:06 AM · Report this
Homosexuals are super-paranoid.
Posted by hankhawk on April 15, 2009 at 2:40 PM · Report this
It might be worth reading Darren Barefoot and Clay Shirky on this incident:……
Posted by Derek K. Miller on April 17, 2009 at 12:16 PM · Report this
I'm starting to lose weight ... and besides exercise doctor advised me to take special medications ... like these:
Posted by Makoron on November 11, 2010 at 6:39 AM · Report this

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