Amazon is blaming their PR nightmare on their French brethren. While this still sounds sort of suspicious to me — it reeks of, “I totally have a girlfriend; you just haven’t met her because she lives in FRANCE” — I’ll run with it for the sake of the teaching moment that we have. Let me sooth my own inner conspirist, though, by saying that I find it extremely bizarre that this swath of books were all taken down together, at the same time.
So, you’re a global corporate giant, and you’ve got a PR nightmare on your hands. You learn quickly that the storming of your castle is happening on social networks and media like Twitter and Facebook. If you’re looking to make the situation exponentially worse, here’s what you should do:
There ya have it. And for you folks working the #sorryamazon hashtag? Please. Don’t let those jokers off the hook so easily. This is a giant FAIL on the part of Amazon– everyone makes mistakes (though again, mistakes that affect LGBT, feminist and disability-themed books? I don’t know), but there are a myriad of things Amazon could have done to remedy the ripple effect.
As the day has worn on, more parts of the story are unfolding, and all these little tidbits at the intersection of tech, culture, media and commerce are more than fascinating. This is the kind of story that sends me down the rabbit hole of musing for days.
Let’s start with the tech side of things
According to Jessica Valenti (and her publisher, Seal Press), Amazon reps are claiming that this is a purely internal issue caused by the mysterious “glitch” spoken of last night. I don’t think the reps know what they’re talking about, frankly. What I think is going on: there is a severe vulnerability in the Amazon flagging-for-inappropriate system, and it’s been found and exploited by one or more nerds with too much time on their hands. Amazon’s mistake, vis a vis the brave new world of social media, is two-fold:
There’s a livejournal blogger out there now claiming responsibility for the exploit. I won’t link over, because I actually think he’s full of crap, as do those who’ve attempted to reproduce his exploitative code. It’s a well known practice for those with no skillz to take responsibility for things they have no part of to build up their hacker cred. Please. You know what tipped me off, for the record? The references to wanting to have anonymous sex with women and heroin from Craigslist. Fetishy-objectifying of women is common in the hacker community, for sure, but this guy is just… silly.
This doesn’t mean that someone didn’t come up with something similar– I’m almost positive they did. Which means that Amazon has a serious problem, and they better have a better explanation than the “glitch.”
There’s a bigger picture here: cultural implications
From a tech point of view, recommendation systems and flag-as-inappropriate tools that aren’t built to handle gaming the system are just no good. It’s unacceptable that a masterminding giant such as Amazon wasn’t prepared for this kind of attack. Especially considering how much it affects Amazon’s contract and relationship with the people that provide them with the goods its users demand, and how much users trust Amazon to do the Right Thing.
On a wider cultural scale, as I’d mentioned in the article in the WMC, the cultural implications of these attacks — especially when it’s big enough to get this kind of attention — are huge. Geek culture is one of the last vestiges of an overtly sexist and toxic environment for anyone who’s not a straight guy, most likely white and middle-class. (Not limited to the nerds of computer love, either– check out this post on misogyny and comic books from Amptoons.) When these attacks occur, it reveals not just the hatred that the hackers themselves have for women and LGBT folk, but the wider cultural intolerance we still have running rampant.
Decades of victories in civil rights for women and people of color, and more recently, LGBT folk seeking rights to get married, cannot correct the thousands of years of damage on which our culture is built. When a system of rapid information distribution (oh, like say, The Internet!) provides anonymity, free(-ish) speech and very little accountability, it makes it easy for people’s True Feelings to come out. It’s my feeling that what we see online is a mirror showing us the dark underbelly of what exists.
Some would react by clamping on the anonymity, the level of free speech and the accountability, often all at once. Sure, keeping trolls off your comments section is probably a good idea. Enacting laws making it impossible to operate independently and anonymously online? Bad idea. Very bad. We need to be addressing the root causes of our misogyny, our racism, our homophobia — not piling on bandaids, duct tape and bailing twine to keep people’s mouths shut. Only when it came to the threat of physical danger would I advocate for restriction. I have witnessed friends and colleagues being attacked viciously, and there is no one on this planet that deserves that level of fear stuffed down their throats.
It’s time to get real, folks. These attacks are proof that feminism and its partners in other social justice work still have a long, long way to go. Long way. I’m on board… are you?
Updates on theories, conspiracy and otherwise, are welcome in the comments.
I wrote a quick article about what the deal with Amazon is:
Over the holiday weekend, a firestorm let loose on the Internet: For no apparent reason, books on Amazon.com with feminist, LGBT and sexual-empowerment themes were removed from the sales rankings, numbers that show how well a product is performing on the website.
Angry authors and readers responded by launching a full-on social media assault, using blogs, Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness and to collect signatures on a petition.
Rapid response campaigns not affiliated with any one organization are increasingly becoming the norm in the age of free communication tools. The Amazon incident (dubbed "AmazonFAIL," drawing on usage of "fail" as an indicator of strong disapproval in online cultures) is a fascinating example in part because of the cultural motivation behind and the mechanics of the removal and the implications for sales of "banned" books.