Amazon: Possibly not evil?

The Internets have been full of panic and outrage today over Amazon allegedly instituting a new policy that any book with GLBT content now counts as an "adult" title and therefore cannot be included in its sales ranking.

Unsurprisingly, Amazon claims it's a glitch and is being fixed, and that there is no new policy. (It's unclear whether they're saying there's no new policy for GLBT content, or whether they're saying there's no new policy at all. If they intended to leave GLBT titles alone but derank erotica, that's unfortunate too, but it's a different kind of unfortunate.)

I imagine we'll know more by tomorrow. But it certainly seems to me quite unlikely that Amazon, a company headquartered in one of the most liberal cities in the US, and a company that has happily sold GLBT books for years, and a company that got a score of 80% on the HRC's Corporate Equality Index (rating companies' policies and practices regarding GLBT employees--the two areas where Amazon didn't do as well have to do with gender identity, which is unfortunate but at least suggests they do well with GLB employee issues) would suddenly decide to consider all GLBT titles to be smut.

Mark Probst has an email from an Amazon rep claiming that it's not a glitch--but first-line customer-service people often don't know what they're talking about when they claim something is company policy.

I just called Amazon's customer service number (1-800-201-7575) to get more information. The guy I talked with said that he couldn't give me any information, and that they're telling customers to check the website over the next day or two. That, too, is annoying and unfortunate; on the other hand, it means that they're no longer leaving their PR on this issue in the hands of first-line customer service people, which means they may have some kind of unified message to present.

Anyway, my real point in this entry is that this kind of thing happens a lot these days:

A change occurs in a major corporation or organization's website, and suddenly the Internet is ablaze. People start calling for boycotts and petitions and canceling of memberships. Within hours, outrage has engulfed the civilized world.

And then the corporation or organization finally notices that something's wrong, and it turns out that it was a glitch, a misunderstanding, a case of poor phrasing, or some other mistake. The thing that everyone was outraged about turns out not to have been intentional, and the company fixes the problem, and life goes on.

The Internet is great for spreading the word fast about truly outrageous awfulness. But it's also great for spreading the word fast about things that turn out to have been mistakes. Sometimes it's important to spread the word about something even if it's a mistake; other times, waiting until the company has made an official statement on the matter might result in less stress for everyone.

Many years ago, I posted a web page recommending that people not forward mass-forwarded emails; in that page, I wrote, among other things:

Here's another good rule of thumb: if you receive a piece of email which demands that you panic without thinking, it's probably not a good idea to follow instructions.

The situation is a little different now, with blogs and Twitter and Facebook and so on, but the general principle, I think, remains relevant. Often in today's panic-inducing situations, you can easily verify that the basic claim is true (it's easy to check for yourself that certain books on Amazon aren't ranked), but it's harder to verify that the reason for that situation is that the company in question is composed of pure evil. Generally, the only way to determine the company's Evil Quotient is to wait for the company to make a statement about what their intent was.

And if it turns out that Amazon really did intend to de-rank books like Brokeback Mountain and Giovanni's Room, then I'll be happy to join the protests--I agree that that would be outrageous (but it sure does seem implausible to me). (Heck, I'll even be happy to join the protests if it turns out they really did intend to de-rank Aqua Erotica, which seems more plausible to me.) But for now, I'm gonna wait for them to explain what they intended to do, and to fix the problem if it was unintentional.

5 Responses to “Amazon: Possibly not evil?”

  1. jere7my

    Just last weekend, there was a Bandwagon Event — word got out that a graphic designer was being sued for $18,000 by a stock art company for using his own designs. O noes! He sparked a storm of outrage on Twitter, which generated thousands of angry emails to the company and about $2000 in legal aid donations.

    Turns out the artist probably misappropriated the artwork (all of which was designed by respected artists) and has gotten dinged for improper usage before. A lot of angry emailers have turned suddenly sheepish, but a lot of people are still mad at the company, either because the news hasn’t spread in the same wildfire way or because their opinions became entrenched before they’d heard both sides of the story.

    Also, LiveJournal is going out of business a few months ago. Did you hear?

  2. Laura

    For a lot of the reasons you outline, I’m willing to believe that this is all either a genuine mistake or due to an outside group with a political agenda gaming Amazon’s system. However, having Amazon’s official response be nothing but “it’s a glitch” with no explanation or apology, in both form responses to the thousands of angry emails they’re getting and as an official release to the AP, is pretty unsatisfying. The longer they delay before taking responsibility for this ‘glitch’, explaining what happened, and telling us how they’re not only going to fix it but prevent it from happening again, the less I trust them.

  3. Jed

    Jere7my: Wow–I missed that entirely; thanks for the links.

    And 🙂 Re LJ.

    Laura: On the one hand, I completely agree with you that Amazon’s PR department is handling this very poorly; they shouldn’t be refusing to comment further beyond saying it’s a glitch that’s being fixed. I’m disappointed in them. I imagine they’ll make a clearer/firmer statement sometime in the next couple days, but I would have preferred that they move faster.

    On the other hand, my experience with PR departments leads me to think that their goals are not always what the rest of the world thinks they should be. The blogosphere tends to believe that outrage in the blogosphere is incredibly important, that (for example) Amazon will go out of business if the blogosphere en masse takes its business elsewhere. Whereas I would venture to guess (without any evidence at all) that Amazon’s PR department is much more concerned with what the mainstream media reports, and that even there, they may be more likely to keep things low-key and figure that as soon as the problem is fixed and the news cycle moves on, the issue will go away.

    I would much prefer that companies actively engage the public, and be transparent about this sort of thing, and err on the side of too much information rather than too little. But in practice, I would guess that if Amazon fixes the problem, a week from now 90% of the people who are swearing to take their business elsewhere will be buying from Amazon again–and even if they don’t, I suspect the numbers aren’t sufficient to make a really big dent in Amazon’s bottom line.

    But again, I have no evidence for any of that, just talking through my hat, so I’ll stop now.

  4. jere7my

    The blogosphere tends to believe that outrage in the blogosphere is incredibly important…

    The blogosphere also tends to believe that real corporations in the real world should move at the same accelerated rate as blogtastrophes. On Making Light, I just read a comment saying “A company like Amazon should know that internet time runs a lot faster than real-world time”. I saw the same thing when LJ was “going out of business,” and time and time again during the presidential campaign: “It’s already been four hours! The fact that they haven’t responded implies a conspiracy!”

    While it’s true that corporations could generally do a better job dealing with internet activity, there are irreducible limits on how quickly they can move. It would be irresponsible for a big corporation like Amazon to send out a press release before the important people have gotten together for a meeting to sign off on it, and as someone who’s tried to schedule meetings for groups of academics I know it can’t always happen as quickly as bloggers would like. (Heck, as one of four organizers of a vacation for thirty people I have trouble getting joint approval on a response within 48 hours.) This is a holiday weekend, and the problem is a technical one; I can imagine both those things But because blog comments and tweets cycle so quickly, an intolerable urgency builds up — and boils over — before a reasonable amount of time has had a chance to pass.

  5. Jed

    Hear, hear–I agree with everything you said here. Well put.


Join the Conversation