I went away for an afternoon of band practice (1), and when I got back, my Twitter stream had exploded over the matter now hashtagged as “#amazonfail”. Briefly, if you were also out: It appears that, fairly recently, Amazon removed a large number of books from its sales rankings, which means they no longer show up as results in searches for anything other than their specific titles or authors. The books thus affected have been primarily (although not entirely) works with significant GLBT content; as a result, as thousands of people have now pointed out, Heather Has Two Mommies and The Well of Loneliness are now categorized as “adult”, removed from Amazon’s sales rankings, and thus invisible to subject-based search—but The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, American Psycho, and Mein Kampf are ranked normally and visible to all kinds of search. Compounding matters, queries to Amazon have been met with boilerplate customer-service-style answers professing an Amazon policy, hitherto not widely known, of deliberately unranking material deemed to be “adult.” As LJer “tehdely” (2) summarized what followed:
“GAY CONTENT IS ADULT??!! RAPE SURVIVOR CONTENT IS ADULT?!!?? HOW DARE YOU AMAZON RARARGH INTERNET RAGE!” responded the masses.Some people have wondered if this reveals a culture of homophobia at Amazon, or whether the timing has something to do with the recent legalizations of same-sex marriage in Iowa and Vermont. My own guess would be that it has nothing to do with homophobia and everything to do with the fragility of large organizations. I’d bet lunch that the sequence of events, in its simplest form, went something like this:
(1) Sometime in the middle-distance past—maybe a couple of months ago, maybe a year, it doesn’t matter—somebody decided that it would be a good idea to make sure that works of straight-out pornography (or, for that matter, sex toys) didn’t inadvertently show up as the top result for innocuous search queries. (The many ways that this could happen are left as an exercise for Making Light’s commentariat.) A policy was promulgated that “adult” items would be removed from the sales rankings and thus rendered invisible to general search.
(2) Sometime more recently, an entirely different group of people were given the task of deciding what things for sale on Amazon should be tagged “adult,” but in the journey from one department to another, and from one level of the hierarchy to another, the directive mutated from “let’s discreetly unrank the really raunchy stuff” to “we’d better be careful to put an ‘adult’ tag on anything that could imaginably offend anyone.” Indeed, as Teresa pointed out, it’s entirely possible that someone used a canned list of “adult” titles supplied from outside, something analogous to the lists of URLs sold by “net nanny” outfits, which would account for the newly-unranked status of works like Lady Chatterley’s Lover. (As one net commenter observed, “What is this, 1928?”)
If you don’t think this kind of clusterfark is entirely possible, you probably haven’t worked in a large organization. I don’t mean any of this as special pleading on Amazon’s behalf (although, full disclosure, obviously they’re one of Tor’s largest customers, so you may dismiss my views if you so desire). I just find it implausible that Amazon would want to alienate GLBT readers and their friends, who form an enormous and valuable segment of both their customer base and (surely) their own organization. Indeed, I suspect that dozens of Amazon executives and PR professionals will be having hurried meetings in Seattle this Monday morning, and that consumption of antacids at those meetings will be at an all-time high.
None of which means that anyone shouldn’t be mad at Amazon, or that Amazon shouldn’t be embarrassed. Rather, it means that this is how the world works. A great deal of racism, homophobia, etc., happens not because anyone particularly wants to be racist or homophobic, but because the ground has been tilted that way by arrangements made long ago and if you’re not constantly on the lookout it’s easiest to roll downhill.
(1) By the way, if you were planning to see us at Banjo Jim’s this Friday—and do so, it’s a nice venue!—please note that the time I’d previously announced as 7 PM is in fact 9 PM.
(2) Note that tehdely has a theory of what actually happened which is different from my own but (to my mind) also plausible. Their whole post on the subject is worth reading.
UPDATE: From Simon Bisson, some well-informed observations about how this may be “an artifact of architecture and development practices.”
UPDATE: Soft Skull publisher Richard Eoin Nash begins by observing that Amazon arguably has some particular obligations to GLBT people, having been the direct cause of the destruction of their community centers over the last ten years. Stronger words follow.