Why amazonfail matters

Monday April 13, 2009 @ 12:16 PM (UTC)

By this point we’ve reached the existential phase of the amazonfail debacle, where everyone has acknowledged something happened, has vented their anger, and is now asking underlying questions — how and why did this happen? Who did it? And of course, should we still be concerned?

While Amazon’s “glitch” response is inadequate, it does seem to indicate that they’re planning on fixing it, which seems to me to have caused a certain wave of relaxation in those angered by the removal of GLBT literature, feminism and disability texts, and more. Yes, it’s very unlikely that Amazon did this deliberately. Yes, internet outrage at this point does little good (except possibly to Powell’s sale numbers). I’m just not sure people should be standing down yet. Even when it’s fixed, there are causes for concern. As explored in this Making Light post and comment thread, there are definitely plausible scenarios this occurring because of inadequacies in the meta-data provided by publishers and Amazon. (This post at Dear Author gives great specific meta-data breakdowns that may show why Playboy escaped the purge and Heather has Two Mommies did not.) However, as writer Lawrence Schimel said over at Making Light, somewhere, someone had to decide that “gay=morally objectionable” (‘adult’) in order for this to unfold. And as other commenters, such as albatross, mention there, Amazon didn’t give consumers a choice of filtered versus non-filtered searches.

And that’s what’s really troubling to me. Amazon has made an empire on selling everything all the time: KitchenAid mixers to people in pyjamas at 2 am, esoteric camera repair manuals to some dude on his lunch break, three books and a racquetball racket at the same time. They’re so huge that sales rank on Amazon is a crucial metric for a book’s performance. They chose to protect consumers from ‘potentially offensive content’ in a lazy, slipshod, and reductive way that stigmatized the mention of homosexuality and transgenderedness as much or more than explicit heterosexual acts, not to mention violence. They chose to remove their sales rank, important to publishers and authors, in order to change what consumers see. But before they did it stupidly, they chose to do it at all. They decided that an Amazon consumer didn’t get any say in whether they saw the plain search results or the Bowdlerized search results. They decided to abridge the full functionality of their website without notifying customers or letting them have a choice. They decided we are all children, and they know what’s best for us.

For a company that made its fortune on selling anything and everything, that’s a stupid decision. For a company that sells books, it’s wrong.

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