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My thoughts on the Amazon kerfuffle...
So it appears that this weekend Amazon.com had a mishap which got a bunch of people upset, the Twitterverse and blogosphere exploded, and in general a lot of people got kerflumped and Amazon got accused of a bunch of nastiness.

Amazon, now that they've had a chance to look into it, have called it a "glitch", and their response "ham-fisted and embarrassing", and are working on fixing the problem.

Of course, that's not good enough for many members of the Twitterverse and blogosphere, who continue to see it as a sign of Amazon's malice, and not so much a glitch as Amazon getting caught, and don't view Amazon's response as an apology.

(One of my LJ friends did, in fact, describe the letter he got from Amazon as "Amazon grovels" and an "abject apology". This person is, however, both (a) sensible, and (b) in the minority. I leave it to the reader to decide if (a) implies (b).)

The comments I've seen which don't accept the explanation boil down to a few points:

1) The CSR said this was because of an "adult" policy, and now they are saying it's a glitch. Amazon must be trying a cover-up.
2) Things have been disappearing since February, so this isn't a glitch. Amazon must be trying a cover-up.
...and a few others.

The common thread is that there is one, or two pieces of evidence which they don't see explicitly explained by Amazon's explanation (which is terse, preliminary, and sketchy), and assume therefore that the explanation as a whole must be faulty.

What I feel they fail to realise is that full post-mortems of accidents, "glitches", and the like usually tend to show that there isn't a single cause or single point of failure, but that several things go wrong at the same time to cause the disaster. A poorly thought out policy which, alone would be relatively harmless, combines with a lapse of judgement (also harmless on it's own), plus a usually harmless technical glitch, and poof, a disaster occurs.

Here's a few of the "several things that went wrong" I see in the Amazon situation:

1. Conflating of search and ranking: Amazon's codebase apparently links the ability to search for a title and the ranking of a title such that if a title has no ranking, it is difficult to search for, and vice versa. This might have made sense at the time -- perhaps a programmer used the general search algorithms in finding books to rank, or searching is done in rank-order, so highly ranked books would be found quicker (but unranked books wouldn't be found at all), or whatever. Why doesn't matter, but what matters is that it happened. Perhaps when it was done it wasn't done with the thought that Amazon may, someday, want to remove the rankings from select titles, or make certain books hard to find.

One commenter mentioned as evidence for disbelief of the official story that "if it was searching only, or ranking only, I might have believed, but not both". Of course, if (as evidence seems to indicate) searching and ranking are linked in general then this is absolutely backwards. If it were searching only, or ranking only, then that would indicate that the linkage was broken for this glitch.

2. The decision to hide "adult" titles. Given that Amazon's title list, plus wide assortment of other things they sell, includes many things of an explicitly sexual nature (a search for "dildo" in the "Health and Personal Care" department showed me a page with "1-24 of 14948 results", including some results which make me go "wtf?" ("Realistic White Boy Vibrating Dildo with Free Gift Presidential Soothing Shaving Balm Set"... Presidential?)). I can see Amazon wanting such things to not just appear to unsuspecting people. If Bob's boss appeared at his cubicle asking him to order "that book you suggested yesterday", Bob might not want "Teenage Vixens in Bondage, volume 3" to appear in his "Recommended" section when pulling up Amazon's homepage. And I can see Amazon thinking it a good idea to make it not.

Of course, the seemingly sensible idea of making it hard to find explicitly sexual material has side effects, which some might not like. While Bob might not want Teenage Vixens in Bondage to appear accidentally, he may very well want to know that it's available, when he's looking for it. If keeping it off the front page makes it unsearchable in general, then Bob may never find the porn he's looking for, and the author may never get the sale he/she wants.

The implementation of this is unknown. One suspicion is that it's automatic, based on tags and flagging by users; or based on user complaints, etc. Folks have noticed inconsistencies, such as some Penthouse books escaped flagging while other, less explicit works were flagged. To me, this suggests a somewhat haphazard, case-by-case approach rather than a blanket approach. Of course, hiring keyboard jocks to browse through the entire catalog searching for smut is expensive, so a case-by-case approach is somewhat justified.

3. The cultural conflation of the terms "adult" and "sexual" material, especially combined with the near term "sexuality". The books inadvertently deranked in this case were mostly books dealing with issues of sexuality, hence hitting the GLTBQ community especially hard (as virtually all books which deal with GLTBQ issues are going to be tagged with "sexuality", even if there is nothing overtly about sexuality in it).

It has been suggested by a few people that the issue here was one of mislabeling; either someone marking the books "adult" (meaning to them, "not aimed at children") or "sexual" (instead of "sexuality"), or even "adult" instead of "sexuality", and thus inadvertently triggering the filter in 2. This is very possible.

4. Poor communication. In implementing the "adult" filter, Amazon didn't make it well-known what they were doing, as such people just randomly noticed seemingly arbitrary books deranked and complained. At which point, Amazon crafted a statement of policy and stuck it in the 3-ring-binder for its call-center so when people complained, they got the policy statement.

5. Related, call-center cluelessness. Call comes in, person complaining that book they are looking for isn't ranked/searchable, 3-ring-binder says amazon has a policy statement concerning "adult", sexually-explicit books not being searchable by accident, read statement, end call, log it, 3 minutes, ahead of schedule, answer next call... Never mind that the book not findable is "Heather has Two Mommies." a children's book which is not sexually-explicit at all. Never mind that the problem isn't exactly the same as the scenario in the script. The call was completed in good time.

Of course, this claim by a CSR drone that "Heather has Two Mommies" was excluded because of the policy about adult titles is taken by some as official policy of Amazon that they consider that kids book to be sexually explicit, which can only be because it's GLTBQ, so Amazon must be intentionally flagging GLTBQ books as sexually explicit, even when the books clearly aren't.

6. Timing: This all went down on a weekend which includes both Passover and Easter. The Twitterverse and Blogosphere went kablooey, and nobody was in to fix it until Monday morning. Surprising? Not really. But the timing was bad. If this had happened on, say, Wednesday, it'd probably be fixed later that day and not as large an uproar would have happened.

Lot's of room for errors in any of these areas of concern. Lots of decisions which could, and probably did, get made without full consideration of side-effects. Lots of bad luck. And now 57,000 books which have to be re-listed because something -- several things -- went wrong.

Hanlon's Razor states "Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity". Based on what happened, and what we know, I'm far from declaring Amazon malicious in this.

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(Deleted comment)
One story leaking out is that the books were pulled in a jurisdiction where they are legally censored (as in, Amazon couldn't legally list or sell them). Which is a legitimate concern.

Of course, it probably seemed like a good idea at the time to link all the various incarnations of Amazon internationally so that they share data about the books -- including their banned status... Oops.

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