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April 13, 2009

Amazon’s very bad day
Posted by Patrick at 08:46 AM *

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:

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: Commenter Bryant (see comment #73) debunks an LJ post claiming credit for gaming Amazon, and goes on to make some very sensible remarks about Twitter, heuristics, and reputation.

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.

Comments on Amazon's very bad day:
#1 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:01 AM:

Romance blog Dear Author has a useful look at which category metadata tags are being de-ranked, including plus some side-by-side comparisons on books where one edition got hit and another didn't.

#2 ::: Joe Clark ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:02 AM:

I don’t think any reader in the history of human civilization has thought of themselves as “GLBT.”

#3 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:07 AM:

Well, people rarely think of themselves in terms of abbreviations, since we are all indeed unique snowflakes, at least to ourselves.

However, F. M. Busby once observed that "without digressions, nothing would ever get said," and the same is arguably true of breezy shorthand formulations like "GLBT."

#4 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:11 AM:

Julia (#1), that's very interesting, and a bit chilling, given the enormous pressure on publishers these days to pre-tag our every book with more and more precise metadata.

#5 ::: vashtan ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:24 AM:

What amuses me is that, while transgender biographies (for example) are deranked, many books "hidden" by being unsearchable, you can take your fill of bestiality porn on amazon:

#6 ::: Laurie Mann ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:26 AM:

While my first thought is to "blame Amazon," my second thought (now that I've had some time to sleep on it) is to wonder if either customers could be exploiting a weakness in Amazon's book rank/book search to screw with the "adult" content or if there are some rogue programmers at Amazon, who, like the pharmacists who "morally refuse" to sell you Plan B whacked the software themselves.

As a person who's spent lots of money at Amazon during the years, I sent Amazon a letter threatening to boycott, and have been getting semi-apologetic E-mail from an Amazonbot.

#7 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:29 AM:

Patrick @25, it was one of the first things that I personally thought of when the pattern of what was getting censored became clear. My sole print title briefly hit the top and top 10 of various gay-orientated specialist bestseller charts on Amazon UK last year, and watching the data on the book's page and related pages over a couple of days made it clear that they used the category metadata to automatically do a lot of things with their search functions. I'm sure it occurred to quite a few other people as well. But Dear Author has done an excellent job of collating the data across several titles to provide the hard evidence to support the conjecture.

It would also tie in with what you suggest as a likely scenario, because all it needs is for someone to include "gay & lesbian" as one of the metadata tags to be filtered, and there go a lot of books. That doesn't even need to be a malicious intent to censor; it could be some poor grunt pulling an all-nighter and simply not thinking about what they're doing.

#8 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:30 AM:

Patrick @4, I mean. My typing's gone to pot.

#9 ::: Ken ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:30 AM:

VERY plausible. Good post.

#10 ::: John L ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:33 AM:

Laurie Mann and I are apparently thinking the same thing; that it would only take a few people in the proper positions of authority (and who think the same way) to get this kind of nonsense done even in a large company.

#11 ::: Lawrence Schimel ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:34 AM:

Amazon deranking of titles for moral reasons has been going on since at least August 08:

Whether or not it was bantown trolls or something else, the problem stems from Amazon allowing gay=morally objectionable.

#12 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:37 AM:

In general, don't attribute to malice what can be readily explained by stupidity -- and really, any large enterprise has a never-ending supply of stupidity in specific, absentia and aggregate.

#13 ::: ebear ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:37 AM:

This pretty much jibes with what I think is probably going on, yeah. Some combination of algorithm issues, thoughtlessness, lack of foresight, and lulzers, in varying percentages.

Shake and add internets.

#14 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:38 AM:

Ours is issued to us in emailed attachments every morning. Via Outlook and Exchange Server, of course.

#15 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:38 AM:

I find tehdely's theory entirely plausible.

Four weeks ago, apparently, the same thing happened on a smaller scale. I expect that was someone testing the system to get the exact number of complaints that will trigger the automatic removal. After the proof-of-concept run, one month later, the real thing hits on a holiday weekend.

Incidentally, if you want to remove a given user review from Amazon, all you have to do is get enough people to hit the "report this" link on that review. The number of clicks you need is nine. It's all automated.

#17 ::: don delny ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:41 AM:

first time commenter's (#11) tinyurl link goes here:

#18 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:44 AM:

Don, #17 -- Lawrence Schimel has certainly commented on ML before; we've known him for years. He may be using a different email address this time.

#19 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:47 AM:

A bookselling-industry insider, who prefer to remain anonymous, remarks in email:

Your theory on "Amazonfail" on Making Light strikes me as almost certainly the correct perspective (though I read the argument for "Bantown"-type trolling and I guess one can’t rule it out).
Basic corporate nervousness (with lots of opportunities for mutually-amplifying paranoias at the mid- to upper-management levels) combined with a widespread poor ability on the part of non-experts to predict how modifications to one’s indexing of search results will play out (and poor understanding of the easy confusion that a catchall label like "adult" is likely to embody) make the kind of scenario you describe, in my mind, super-plausible.

#20 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:47 AM:

#11: Yes; and firing the person that actually turned on the filter (as I suspect will happen) won't comfort anyone.

#21 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:49 AM:

As is usual, it's not the "crime", it's the cover-up. Amazon has two stories out, no explanation as to why they have two stories, and no explanation as to what exactly happened.

And while such mistakes are common in large companies like Amazon, what's also common is companies outright lying about what went wrong in order to save face. And Amazon is doing that, and it's insulting to customers, and they probably don't care in the long run. God knows I've been the message bearer for that sort of corporate lie in the past.

#22 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:52 AM:

don @ 17, I recognized Lawrence Shimel's name right off, with a little jump of "squee! author!" Author published by people whose food I've eaten, for whatever that's worth.

That said, his formulation the problem stems from Amazon allowing gay=morally objectionable cuts to the heart of the matter. Even though the rest is likely poor database programming, allowing THAT notion to inform the program structure is deeply objectionable.

#23 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:56 AM:

While I have no trouble imagining Amazon to be clumsy (not to mention ethically kinda flaccid), I do have trouble imagining them going out of their way to deliberately (as opposed to accidentally) alienate a chunk of their customer base.

And I have no trouble at all imagining that a certain kind of malicious "purity crusader" would take positive delight in inconveniencing, embarassing, or causing outright harm to a retailer who will sell anything to anybody with no questions asked (other than "can you pay for it?"), and deliver it to them in a plain brown plausibly-deniable box.

#24 ::: Edward G. Talbot ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:59 AM:

Excellent post. Regarding the following observation: "A policy was promulgated that “adult” items would be removed from the sales rankings and thus rendered invisible to general search.

It would not surprise me at all if this was a technically driven decision at least in part. From an IT standpoint, it was probably much easier to remove the rankings to short-circuit the search than to make more substantial technical changes. One more thing to add to the list of mistakes.

#25 ::: Connie H. ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:01 AM:

My speculation is that since the ranking system doesn't get run on every item every day -- less often for titles that sell like 2 copies a year, if that -- that the problem started out as a small glitch that only affected a couple thousand books, and only showed up in the general Search function, which if you're missing a title you don't know, it's hard to notice it's missing.

Then as the new rating algorithm was finally applied to more and more items as time passed, you finally got into enough numbers that authors and publishers noticed something was up -- and the biggest reranking may have run just before a holiday weekend.

Oh, it's going to be an "interesting" Monday for the Marketing and IT departments at Amazon, all right!

#26 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:03 AM:

I am wondering about trolls. This has a "let's you and them fight" feel to it, and that's a trollish sort of thing.

#27 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:05 AM:

Myself, I think it's one more argument for live sysopping and moderation. No matter how plausible the claims that some software will make a community self-moderating, that just flat isn't possible.

#28 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:08 AM: hasn't even had time for a coverup yet. I can make a guess at how many customer service people they have in on an Easter Sunday, and I'm somehow not surprised that they're getting their stories crossed.

After all, if it's something like Patrick guesses, it's both a 'glitch' and a 'new policy': a 'new policy' to quietly unrank straight-up porn, and a 'glitch' that a lot of books that aren't straight-up porn got caught in the filter.

It's not even 9:00 a.m. in Seattle yet. Frankly, I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, at least until midmorning Seattle time...

#29 ::: Laurie Mann ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:09 AM:

The problem with Amazon's responses to this could be a left-hand/right-hand problem. It's a pretty big company after all.

#30 ::: Anticorium ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:09 AM:

I have to admit that I would be one of the people scoffing at tehdely's theory of an organized trolling campaign. Except, you know, after seeing two hundred Guy Fawkses rickrolling the Church of Scientology, I now accept on principle any theory involving boredom, spontaneous organization, and the lulz. (And I'm not entirely sure I'm kidding about that.)

I also tend to believe that it's not that Amazon designed for "gay=objectionable" so much as "flagged as objectionable by the wise and trustworthy crowd so much smarter than any mere company, I mean, we totally read Clay Shirky=objectionable". If dairy products could produce so much drama that the dairy flag on a product deflagged it, the complaints would have taken out books about cows and we'd all be talking about #cheesefail.

...or, it comes to mind, #sporefail with the drm tag....

#31 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:12 AM:

I don't think blaming everything on outside "trolls" will be a good move for Amazon (though it's certainly tempting for them). Patrick's explanation seems right: different divisions of the company had different definitions of what an "adult" tag would be. The problem is why gay/lesbian related items got tagged together with porn, and that's a management issue involving human decisions. Whatever triggered the filter at this specific time isn't relevant; the glitch was destined to happen once the tagging choices were made and entered.

#32 ::: CharlesP ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:12 AM:

I've posted this basic idea a few other places discussing the #amazonfail phenomenon, but like to contribute it where I can because the furor over this seems to be largely that people think Amazon did this intentionally. I wish I could remember the exact quote, but it goes something like "Never attribute malice as an explanation, when incompetence will do."

Patrick has laid forth an entirely plausible explanation, let me give you another.

*disclosure, I used to work for Amazon a decade or so ago*

As Patrick laid out, somebody was given the edict to unrank things that are more "adult" in nature, but built an algorithm that used a combination of original meta data, tags by users, ratings by users (or "offensive material" button clicking in the review area), or any number of other factors. Amazon uses these sorts of algorithms to tell you "you might also like this". They are almost always trying to improve this process as I understand it.

If you put that scenario together with a religious conservative group with an interest in making it more difficult to find these items, it's just a matter of time before somebody figures out how to game the system. There are creationist vote-bot networks that have plagued evolution videos on youtube, it doesn't seem unlikely that there have been individuals within a community that disapproves of LGBT literature who have put an effort into figuring this sort of thing out.

I think either Patrick's explanation, or mine, lay forth a very likely scenario for how this happens AND that it is a "glitch". Corp Comm people aren't going to give out large amounts of information regarding the means of the system not working as planned, especially while fixing it. A glitch could be two internal projects which inadvertently killed ranking for these titles, or code designed to improve something being gamed by outside groups (one assumes Amazon didn't INTEND for the system to be gamed).

As an aside, in my time with Amazon the culture was very far from anti-LGBT. That was a decade ago and corporate cultures change, but I don't think they changed that much.

#33 ::: John Chu ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:16 AM:

Right. it's totally possible that Amazon got gamed, or Amazon got its internal wires crossed. It simply doesn't make business sense for Amazon to deliberately offend a segment of their customer base, or make it harder to find a book you are explicitly searching for. (Certainly, the timing makes me think they might have gotten gamed.)

If they got gamed or crossed their own wires, I hope they learn what slipped past their pre-release testing and plug that hole. Either way, Lawrence Schimel's point stands. A root cause is allowing "GLBT == morally objectionable" in the first place.

How ever this came about, the damage is unfortunately done, but not irreparable. I hope Amazon will be forthright about what happened, apologize, then explain what they've done to prevent this from happening again. Whatever anyone did to cause this breach of trust, honesty is the best way to reestablish that trust.

I'm much more interested in how they will react than I am in further outrage about what they've done to their website. (Ok, I vented my own personal outrage on my LJ yesterday. I'm sadly not as angelic and generous as I'd like to be.)

#34 ::: Laurie Mann ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:18 AM:

CharlesP - But isn't one difference with Amazon now vs. 10 years ago is that Amazon site visitors have more ways to influence rankings and the like? In the past, you had to buy books or write reviews. Now, can't a mob of users decide that something is objectionable, if enough people mark it that way?

#35 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:24 AM:

"QA? We don't need no steenking QA!"

#36 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:27 AM:

is there a way to get material such as The Protocols of Zion, The Turner Diaries, Left Behind, Birth of a Nationand other hatemongering and/or extemist religious bigotry content given the the same or equivlent radar-removal/marginalization treatment imposed on GLBT and other materials this weekend on Amazon that the pseudoChristain hatemongers find offensive?

Do not do unto others as you do not want done unto youarself.

I am NOT a pacifist.... See the Book of Esther towards the end of the story....

#37 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:31 AM:

#35: "Testing? The programmers are supposed to get it right the first time; that's why we pay them!"

But this isn't a programming issue. The system did what it was told to do.

#38 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:33 AM:

I sent Amazon customer service an email last night threatening boycott. I suspected incompetence rather than outright malice because they're in the business of selling books not morals, but the end result is the same.

This morning I received a response saying that it was a "glitch". Sorry, glitch is the wrong word. Still, with all the bad publicity they've managed to garner in a single day, I'm willing to wait and see how they deal with this.

There is a tendency among programmers and other technical types to think that anything can be automated. Think of all the brain-dead censorship on a lot of forums (see The Clbuttic Mistake), or the hope that machine translation would be a simple matter of programming if only we could figure out the right approach. I'm with the members of the community here: human interactions can not be automated.

#39 ::: Stephen Frug ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:42 AM:

The many ways that this could happen are left as an exercise for Making Light’s commentariat.

Not an exercise: this weekend I was searching for books on Amazon, and typing in the name of a historian brought up a porn video as result #2 -- presumably someone of the same name (or two people, one sharing the first name, one the last) worked on the video. (I searched for a number of different historians' works this weekend, and I'm no longer sure which name brought up the video, but IMS it was "Alan Lawson".) I don't know if the timing of this result was incidental, or if this weekend's events were related.

#40 ::: Meg Thornton ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:43 AM:

I'd be with a lot of other people in categorising this one as a SNAFU (situation normal - all f***ed up) rather than a conspiracy, an exercise of censorship, an exercise in discrimination or similar. Then again, I'm a former public servant (as well as a former helldesk minion) which means I've had plenty of opportunities to see this kind of thing in the making, as well as deal with the process of cleaning things up.

I strongly suspect this started out as someone's "good idea" involving a lot of person-time to try and ensure only the most egregious examples were removed from the search in one particular section (I'm betting computer games or music, those being areas where there's a *lot* of cross-over between adult and juvenile shoppers), and then it being broadened out through the existence of a few irritated letters from concerned members of the public about legitimate concerns (for example, a few months back on Shakesville, there was a certain amount of concern voiced about being able to find "rape" content through Amazon's search capabilities; teaspoons were waved and letters were written). Unfortunately, as the scope got broader and broader, it got harder and harder to apply the human filtering required, and eventually some software wonk was told to "write something which will do this for us" rather than have someone go through the whole HR rigmarole involved in hiring more people to do the job. So the software wonk did, and it was tested (again, probably in the original departments where the human oversight version had started, because they were most experienced in dealing with the issue... thus starting from a pre-filtered list which wasn't as liable to have issues in the first place) then rolled out over the holiday weekend (and possibly not even intentionally so - it may have been added to a start-up list for the various servers, then triggered by an unscheduled reboot or something similar) to every other section.

Then someone went looking for something which just happened to fit the missing criteria and couldn't find it, even though it had been there yesterday... and the manure hit the windmill.

PS: CharlesP - you're thinking of Hanlon's Razor, which states "never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity".

#41 ::: Kip Manley ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:46 AM:

@CharlesP, #32: granted, and I don't think anyone castigating Amazon as teh EVIL thinks they've always secretly been a hotbed of Dominionist activity. But complaints re: nonsalacious and unlacivious queer material being removed as "adult" have been flying since at least February (and the backrooming of "morally objectionable" material with no opt-in or opt-out option has been noted since August of last year). Whether it's system-gaming or a weirdly specific software glitch or massive bureaucracy fail, Amazon's had plenty of internet-scale time already to note an issue and its possible repercussions and attempt to deal with it or at least respond to it before it shitstormed out of control. No matter the cause, Amazon was stupid; and systemic stupid at this scale becomes pretty indistinguishable from evil.

#42 ::: Kip Manley ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:48 AM:

I meant to say "unlascivious," of course. It was a software glitch! Stupid squiggly red lines.

#43 ::: halfawake ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:51 AM:

If your explanation in #2 were correct, then books like ""Can Homosexuality be Healed?" would also have been removed.

But they weren't.

#44 ::: don delny ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:52 AM:

Lawrence Schimel, (and PNH)
My apologies, I put two and two together and got five. Looking back on it, my comment makes grammatical but not logical sense. :(

#45 ::: Manny ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:53 AM:

Has anyone found any traces of astroturfing being organized as a mass effort? Or is the current best possibility bots?

#46 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:57 AM:

I think that Kip Manley at 41 is right. We're curious about the why and how of the situation, but in the end unless the answer is malice (from within or without), it doesn't matter. The end result is what matters, and the end result looks pretty evil. If they've been doing this on a small scale for a while that's disturbing enough. The fact that it got way out of hand yesterday means that there's something seriously wrong going on on one level or another.

A company like Amazon should know that internet time runs a lot faster than real-world time, and yet I see no press releases. Nothing publicly posted by them is even suggesting that they're looking into the issue, just private responses saying that it was either about "adult content" or that it was a "glitch".

#47 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:59 AM:

It's not too late for Amazon to add clearly intentionally bad behaviour to whatever happened so far. After all, some cynical execs might still decide that they'd rather lose LGBT people and their friends as customers than bigots.

#48 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:00 AM:

@43: "Can Homosexuality Be Healed?" wouldn't be on the list of "offensive" books, because to the list compiler such a topic isn't offensive.

So, was someone at Amazon the list compiler? Or, as suggested, did they get it somewhere else and did they know the list compiler's definition of "offensive"?

#49 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:00 AM:

Halfawake #43, you may be right, but my guess was that books like Can Homosexuality Be Healed? were what was left in the search category after the allegedly controversial/"adult" stuff was flagged. That their presence was a residue of a bad process, not a deliberate choice.

I could be wrong. For the Nth time, the point of this discussion isn't to establish that Amazon is free of blame or mustn't be criticized; the point is to better understand how things like this happen.

#50 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:01 AM:

I'm having a bit of trouble following this, particularly because it hasn't been made clear how the works that are being deranked are being identified. It's possible that, due to the outrage factor, there is some bias as to which works are being so identified, and that the range of affected works may go farther afield.

OTOH, a potential pressure point hasn't been brought up: it's possible that the NetNanny companies have gotten enough complaints that they told Amazon it was in danger of getting listed by them if it didn't do something.

Part of me is wondering how badly failed the thing is. Getting HH2M to show up, for instance, isn't that hard. OTOH I almost never use Amazon's more open-ended searching features, so I'm not sure I would see the difference.

#51 ::: kouredios ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:05 AM:

@43: See this post by Dear Author, which explains why that's not true. Also linked in comment #1.

#52 ::: David Stewart Zink ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:09 AM:

It's weird that people imagine Bezos's politics have any influence, though they will likely influence the response. All it takes is one person in the chain of command interpreting or inventing an order to get this. The great thing about religion is that one's obligation to god or whatever dominates all earthly obligations.

They could have bought a banned book list, though that would take retardation since we all know what those are like.

They could have implemented the requirements of some region on too wide a basis.

(Or we COULD see what TWO days of contemplation and inspection reveal ;)

#53 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:15 AM:

C Wingate @50: This has been brewing since Thursday night, at least the bit of it I've seen/been involved in. (And I do have a direct involvement in it, as I know the two authors whose books triggered the storm.) And one of the things done first was to to do some digging to see which books were being affected.

Alex Beecroft noticed on the 9th that the ranking widget had been removed from her book "False Colours", which was due to be officially released on the 13th, and naturally was a bit worried about it. Various people had a look, both at hers and at others, got worried, and started spreading the net further afield. It looked as if LGBT was being targeted, so samples were checked to see if it was specifically LGBT, if it was erotica and LGBT was simply being swept up whether or not it was actually sexually explicit, and what books *weren't* being de-ranked.

One of the things that's turned up is that some books are being censored in one edition but not another, and the common feature seems to be what genre metatags they've been given.

The books by Alex Beecroft and Erastes are the opening titles in a new gay historical romance line which is being published by a mainstream press and intended to be shelved in the romance section in bookstores, targeted at women who read romance. Original character slash, as a lot of people here would know it as. They are *not* erotic romance and do not have explicit content, which is why the Whisky Tango Foxtrot reaction when it became apparent that they were being censored for adult content.

#54 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:17 AM:

I can't discount the possibility of someone at Amazon implementing a "banned books" list to filter out "objectionable" material. Note that my company, a media and entertainment provider, implemented a net nanny program that blocked all URLs deemed to be "entertainment". Like the NY Times Book Review.

#55 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:24 AM:

Lawrence #11 and others:

I disagree. The problem wasn't that amazon's software or processes allowed "gay=objectionable," it's that they decided that it should become harder for me to find books they find objectionable, whether Heather Has Two Mommies, the latest Gor book, or the Turner Diaries.

I get the desire to let people not get hit in the face with stuff they don't want to see, and not to feel like they need to protect their kids from using amazon searches without supervision. Something like Google's "safesearch" seems like a sensible way to handle that, though I suspect the one-size-fits-all approach to what is objectionable doesn't work all that well in a big and varied world.

But it needs to be possible and easy for adults to turn off, so that we can find what we want. Amazon seems to me to be reasonably competent at running an online bookselling operation; they're not remotely qualified to serve as a filter to keep me from harmful information. If they start trying to play such a role, they will find that I and many other people find someone else to buy books from.

#56 ::: FrancisT ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:28 AM:

I with Simon Bisson on this. I think at root Amazon have hit a scalability problem that has now nastily combined with their perceived monopoly to smack them in the teeth.

More at this blog post I wrote earlier today.

#57 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:32 AM:

Now that I've read the Dear Author post (which I should have done to begin with, I apologize), this looks a lot like garden-variety incompetence. As Patrick says in his post, if you're not careful you can be inadvertantly racist and homophobic. This hit me over the head when I read one of the commenters on that post claiming that of course gay and lesbian content was adult.

Questions of bigotry of the commenter aside, if someone is unfamiliar with what the tags signify, then one might think that the gay and lesbian tag applies to raunchy sexy sexy rather than anything dealing with gay and lesbian themes. Couple a misapprehension like this with how filtering on tags might work (filtering on "erotica" doesn't catch "erotic photography") and you have your half-baked result right there.

#58 ::: LizT ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:37 AM:

Following is the answer I got back from Amazon early hours EST today. The "Glitch" response.

Thanks for contacting us. We recently discovered a glitch in our systems and it's being fixed.

Thanks again for contacting us. We hope to see you again soon.

Best regards,

Sethurajkumar M.
We're Building Earth's Most Customer-Centric Company

#59 ::: Andrea ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:37 AM:

It's not only GLBT-themed books that are being affected. It is also disability-themed books, including at least one sociology text!

More details at

I've now posted the following text as a tweet. Others may please feel free to copy/paste this text as their own tweets also. It links to the above two blog posts on the disability angle of this mess. The hashtags are to help ensure that your tweet will show up more easily under certain keyword searches in

#amazonfail on #disability too. Please RT both and #glitchmyass #glbt #disabled

#60 ::: CharlesP ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:38 AM:

Thank you Meg, I always forget the name by the time I have chance to use it again (and I seem to use it a lot).

@34 yes, they've gradually implemented many ways for users to refine what is recommended and such. Which is why I think that this is more a means of "we turned a few things on that allowed us to be gamed" than "we don't like gay people" thing... the corporate culture was never one that was anti-gay, but it has always been "customer-centric" and if they thought they had developed a means of helping remove "blatantly offensive" material from coming up when you were searching for a historian (a la #39) it would "fit" with their general goals.

I'm not saying they shouldn't be taken to task for this, but that the "it couldn't be a GLITCH!" mentality seems to be driven more by knee-jerk taking of offense than really looking at what is likely to have happened (and that "it's a glitch" is likely Corp Comm speak for "this wasn't our intent but we don't want to say more"). I don't want to put words in her mouth, but Mur Lafferty has a piece on this over on her ISBW blog and it seems she's pointing out we may be missing the bigger picture here. It's not about amazon hating LGBT, it's about censorship and we need to point that out (and if I'm right that it was a combination of corporate screw-up and outside forces then we need to talk more about the cultural drive to censor than we do to talk about the corporation screwing something up).

#61 ::: Naomi Kritzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:39 AM:

A bit of Amazon history I haven't seen anyone mention:

Back in 2002, there was a kerfluffle over Amazon carrying pro-pedophilia books. I think this probably started with Judith Levine's respectable (if controversial) book Harmful to Minors, but shortly after getting all bent out of shape over that, some people noticed that there were some honest-to-God pro-pedophilia books listed on Amazon, including Understanding Loved Boys and Boylovers.

This was largely a controversy on the conservative blogs, I think; I knew about it because it also got heavily discussed on parenting message boards. Specifically the "boylovers" one -- I mean, people were not fans of Judith Levine but no one was calling for her to be censored. There were definitely people who thought the boylovers book ought to be pulled from Amazon.

Amazon actually got sued over this. I don't know if this lawsuit went anywhere at all; I'm guessing not, since I didn't find anything about this beyond "USJF sues Amazon."

After all this, Understanding Loved Boys and Boylovers is still on Amazon.

It's there, but despite the most utterly neutral category metadeta you could ask for (sociology/general, sociology/marriage & family) and a handful of not terribly inflammatory tags (boylove, boys, and damaging -- one iteration of each), that books has no sales ranking. So while I think the "books were delisted based on metadata" theory is really likely, it wasn't JUST metadata. Clearly some books were delisted by hand.

Harmful to Minors -- also de-ranked, despite its wonkish, scholarly metadata.

I would be really curious to know how long those books have been unlisted -- whether it goes back to 2002 or 2003, or whether it's more recent.

I'm bringing this up NOT because I think there's any comparison between books about "boylovers" and any of the books that have been mentioned in the last day, from Lady Chatterly's Lover to the Drag Queen of Elfland (never mind Heather Has Two Mommies). But, I do wonder if it was that controversy in 2002 that made them realize that they could avoid a lot of trouble by making certain things harder to find. And this makes me wonder if USJF are the right-wing villains behind this latest set of problems, or if this was pre-emptive stupidity rather than stupidity in response to other stupidity.

#62 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:46 AM:

albatross @ 55: The problem with your objection is that Amazon did in fact label gay as objectionable, and then proceeded with this as if it were a reasonable thing to say. There were many other books of heterosexual porn that were not deranked, so the search terms did not include "sex" overall, but specifically "gay" plus "sex".

I think we all agree that the list of "Things I Don't Like To See" is highly individual, and should be left up to the end user to define. It's not the responsibility of the company to provide censorship, which is what they just did.

Any acts of censorship on the part of Amazon would be intolerable. Adding the gay bashing makes it even more intolerable because it's another example of embedded systemic homophobia. And that must be eliminated.

#63 ::: C. Sän Inman ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:46 AM:

Josh Jasper (#21) pointed out what I had to say: two stories = some level of guilt, even if it's only lying about what happened.

I do find this plausible, and while it occurred to me, I should have taken it as a more serious possibility than I did. Thanks for bringing it up, and for linking to tehdely's explanation.

#64 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:47 AM:

It's not OK to consider gay content adult, unless it's adult by the same criteria that apply to straight content.

It's not OK to consider gay content more objectionable than straight content in any way. If a book about a girl having a crush on a boy is OK for 8th graders, an equivalently-mushy, no-more-explicit book about a boy having a crush on a boy is OK for 8th graders.

Making these not-OK distinctions has a name: it's called "homophobia."

I remember when a gay-owned convenience store was sold to a (straight) family in Hoboken. The new owners removed all the gay porn magazines from their racks, but left the straight porn magazines. And it wasn't for rack space: the slots where the gay porn had been remained empty for weeks.

"Some people consider gay porn automatically more obscene than straight porn," said one of my friends.

"Yes, they do, and that's called homophobia," I replied.

The tehdely theory is interesting. If he's right, all I can say is Two Can Play At That Game. What fun! We can get rid of all the stupid Intelligent Design bullshit books so they won't come up when you search for Evolution! Crowd-source your censorship and see what you get!

Amazon better fix that problem quickly, or nothing much is going to come up on any topic. They could fix the problem tehdely describes by allowing only logged-in users to object to books, and checking IP addresses during the login process, to make sure only one ID from any given IP can log in in the same clock hour, or something. "Or something" I leave to the web techies.

#65 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:47 AM:

#33: Right. it's totally possible that Amazon got gamed, or Amazon got its internal wires crossed.

Or both... consider that gaming by haters or lulzers is an uneven, but basically continuous, pressure against any system they have in place. Whenever the "Amazon Queens" slip up in defending their system, the gamers are all-too-ready to take advantage of the breach.

And off on a tangent: How would folks here say the number of "guardians" needed scales against the number of "babies" that have to be monitored? Logarithmic? inverse-quadratic? Something more complex? My intuition is that there's a "hard minimum" that's at least logarithmic, but I have a sneaking suspicion that in a crisis, the needs can jump to at least inverse-cubic.

#66 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:51 AM:

Me at 64: see also Ginger at 62, making better points more concisely.

#67 ::: Pope Lizbet ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:55 AM:

I don't see why - even in an interdepartmental transfer - the first impulse would be to tag nonsexual GLBT literature as "Adult". Instead of, IDK, the Playboy imprint..,still holding strong with actual pornography for sale, ranked.

There's just too much here that stinks, and Amazon has lost my trust.

#68 ::: Leighton ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:57 AM:

This claim of responsibility is beginning to spike on Twitter:

Anyone here have any opinions? I'm not sophisticated enough at coding to know whether it's plausible, or just a bid for attention.

#69 ::: OG ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 12:06 PM:

#68: It doesn't explain the deranking of the disability-related books.

#70 ::: Renatus ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 12:09 PM:

Leighton @ 68: I'm inclined to go "Err?" at that claim of trollery by paragraph 3, as there is no link labeled 'report as inappropriate' on Amazon's books. There are 'report this' links on reviews, but nothing of the sort on products. Now, I could have totally missed something, being as I have no login for the site, but I believe I detect the sound of someone speaking through their headwear.

#71 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 12:11 PM:

Xopher @ 64:

They could fix the problem tehdely describes by allowing only logged-in users to object to books, and checking IP addresses during the login process, to make sure only one ID from any given IP can log in in the same clock hour, or something. "Or something" I leave to the web techies.

You can't automate intelligence. Any automatic system can and will be gamed. All this would do would cut down on sockpuppets being used for censorship purposes, not stop censorship in general. Whether someone at Amazon is tasked with deciding what's objectionable or whether it's left up to the 'wisdom' of the crowd, only I can decide what's objectionable to me. Anything else is censorship.

Google is in a different position; porn sites historically have packed their search metadata with just about every word in the dictionary and then some, so without some sort of hard filtering all you'd get for any search would be porn results. However, Google makes it obvious that their SafeSearch feature is on, in between or off, you can change the setting easily, and if SafeSearch is off they don't block raunchy websites if that's the sort of thing that you're looking for. They're not trying for censorship, they're trying for relevance, and that's all the difference.

As I said before, a lot of technical people think that if they come across the right approach they can automate moderation, human interaction, and the like. It's an understandable instinct, and I know I'm prone to it (ask me about the name filter I'm planning to implement for the mud I'll get around to writing one day), but in the end there has to be a human in the loop.

Pope Lizbet @ 67:

If one group tells another: go, implement adult filtering by tags, but the second group doesn't look at every single tag in the list (and there are a lot), and the second group goes with its assumptions of what the tag means rather than what it actually means, you wind up with some weird situations. See my post @ 57 for some ideas.

#72 ::: Torrilin ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 12:16 PM:

Amazon uses these sorts of algorithms to tell you "you might also like this". They are almost always trying to improve this process as I understand it.

Very understandably. Their current system takes great joy in attempting to sell me 6 different kinds of vacuum cleaners, another round dozen each of various kitchen tools, baby things, first person shooters, and a wide range of other stuff that I don't want.

I wanted *one* vacuum cleaner. Which I bought. From them. I neither need nor want two, and I don't need suggestions on new ones. The one I bought is less than a year old, and is still under warranty. If I bought a given kitchen tool, I really don't need a dozen each from a different manufacturer... and if I needed a dozen, I would have already bought a dozen. From the same manufacturer. I don't *have* a baby. Nor do I want one. Nor do I know any. And no, buying X-box points and a copy of Morrowind does not mean I want to buy every first person shooter ever released.

Their suggestions feature is appallingly bad. It's got a lot of deepseated and very gendered assumptions about what a customer must want. I feel sorry for any single guy who makes the mistake of buying a cookbook and a cast iron frying pan from them... He'll be stuck with baby items and romance novels for months. (I get a new flood every time I am faced with biking 15 miles to Target and back in the *hopes* that they have the item I need in stock... or buy from Amazon and get the right thing delivered.)

I kind of dread what will happen if I ever buy bike stuff from them. No amount of explaining to them why this "feature" is a problem seems to have an effect.

#73 ::: Bryant ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 12:19 PM:

#68 --

a) The code is buggy; I can't get it to run as written. In particular, he uses the -dump parameter to links. That causes links to dump a formatted version of the document, which does not contain any URLs at all.

b) He says that URLs of the form generate a complaint. However, if you go to a URL with that format, you get a 404 page. It's possible that Amazon just pulled that functionality this morning, but there's no sign of that URL in their help system that I can see after a quick once-over.

Conclusion: bogus.

#74 ::: Lisa Spangneberg ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 12:23 PM:

I don't think it's a "glitch" in the ordinary way. Honestly, at this point, having made myself dizzy looking at books and the associated metadata (not all of which customers can see, even in the HTML source) I think this is sort of what happened:

1. Corporate decides to bury "Adult" products by removing them from sales ranking.

2. Corporate and IT do not sufficiently identify the products' metadata--or define "adult." This is the first stage of WTF?

3. Actual live database SQL search is outsourced, and/or tagging procedure that preceded sql query and command to remove is done by outsourced non native English speakers. Second WTF? This might explain some of the very odd metadata for some books, and the odd spelling of some metadata.

4. I can't see why else books like "Heather Has Two Mommies" would be in the list of titles to be removed from sales rankings.

5. I do absolutely believe Corporate wanted to remove "adult" materials from front page lists. I don't believe glitch." I do believe stupid SQL queries and bad metadata. I don't believe Amazon has a list of "books to remove" compiled by humans, or that someone is clicking books individually. This was done directly to the database. I can't for the life of figure out what criteria for the metatdata--or even what metadata they used. My friends in Amazon editorial tell me they have a lot they don't show to us.

I don't think there's an anti-queer, anti-feminist, anti-disability agenda. Just human stupidity. Amazon wants to sell books, not change the world.


#75 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 12:34 PM:

This edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover is not stripped of sales rank data:

There are lots of books where one edition is stripped of sales rank data, but another isn't. I've gone cross-eyed trying to figure out the differences, and honestly can't. Which is why I'm now leaning towards internal metadata, possibly customer supplied, in whole or in part.

I applied last year for a job at Amazon, but then decided not to take it. The flagging system result is ultimately passed to a human being who makes a yes this record should be permanently altered in this way, or not. If it needs to be altered the person writes a request describing the rationale and the change, and it then goes to someone with editorial access. I very much got the impression that Amazon liked live humans making decisions, and even more, that Amazon was in the business of selling books to make money.

This situation, while it is clearly based on poor decisions and poor metadata, was done en masse, via a sql query(ies). There are far too many books involved for it to have been done "by hand."

#76 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 12:36 PM:

I'd be surprised if amazonfail isn't being discussed in anti-GBLT circles, but a fast googling doesn't turn anything up. Any ideas about where to find it?

#77 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 12:40 PM:

Xopher @ 64/66: I like your stories, though. Tag team!

#78 ::: vein ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 12:41 PM:

So how does this explanation make deeming all GLBT adult/obscene okay?

#79 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 12:46 PM:

vein, read the thread. It doesn't, and everyone is saying it doesn't.

#80 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 12:48 PM:

Heather Has Two Mommies is one of the books the pseudodecency league types use for their hatemongering sloganeering. I remember massive kerfluffle about it from years ago, when that alleged chickenhawk from Topeka, KS and his co-conspirators showed up in the area playing Christian Dominionist agitator games with their hatemongering picketing in one of the local participated-in-that-battle-in-April-1775 Middlesex towns.

The intolerants regards ANYTHING that "promotes" homosexuality and non-intolerance of it, as obscence, intolerable, and demanding extermination. Hence, any books which appear to be from at least the title promoting (in their perceptions) homosexuality, are anathema, and they strive ceaselessly to exterminate them and awareness and promotion of them.

Actual -content- often matters a lot less to them, them the surface appearance/impression...

#81 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 12:48 PM:

#78: No one's said it's okay. Even if "gay/lesbian == obscene" was an unintended result, it's still not okay.

#82 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 12:50 PM:

Now why is an old Carly Simon song stuck in my head?

#83 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 12:51 PM:

Lisa @ 74/75: A glitch is understandable if (and only if) all sex-related items are deranked. In this case, only non-abled, non-het sex were deranked, and the books actually affected were often not about sex (i.e., porn, etc.) but about human sexuality, non-hetero variety. A glitch doesn't contain embedded homophobia.

A glitch may have been combined with an agenda. That I can believe. However, the early responses of Amazon's customer service representatives (that this was the new policy) also points to an overriding agenda more than a glitch.

#84 ::: Dan Nexon ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 12:51 PM:

#68/#73 -- I googled my own book and called up the April 6 cache of the page. There's no such option on the page. To avoid irrelevant self-promotion, I'll provide a link for the cache of Matter.

PS: All I'm doing is replicating something someone did on another LiveJoural comment thread; so not my idea.

#85 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 12:52 PM:

Vein @78: It doesn't. What it does do is suggest a couple of mechanisms by which it may have been the result of cock-up at either individual or corporate level rather than malice at corporate level. Which doesn't exclude active malice at individual level exploiting a cock-up, of course.

Amazon still need a good shouting-at for the whole debacle, but the goal is to shove them in the direction of fixing it, should it be cock-up. I'm rather more inclined to give Amazon the benefit of the doubt in this than I would be the RWA board in yet another round of "redefine romance".

#86 ::: Chris Bridges ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 12:52 PM:

The metatags theory holds water for me. My book (funny erotica stories, het) was deranked, but only the paperback version, which was in the Books > Literature & Fiction > Erotica category. The hardback, which was not assigned to a category at all, remained ranked.

Sometime around 10:30 this morning the sales rank returned to my paperback. Personally I think it's because I demanded they also derank Twilight (for brutal necrophiliac sex) and the Harry Potter books (cuz Dumbledore was teh gay, Rowling said so!).

I'm curious to see what this does to everyone's Recommended Books lists, since we spent all day yesterday searching for gay books...

#87 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 12:54 PM:

Ginger @ 83... Il y a anguille sous roche.

#88 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 12:55 PM:

It strikes me that this was a massive corporate cock-up more than anything else. It also strikes me that the quick and passionate response to it has probably sent a very clear signal to Amazon.

#89 ::: FungiFromYuggoth ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:01 PM:

Nancy - try "amazon". I don't want to put the direct links, just in case anyone would check the referer and follow back.

The discussion is brief, shallow, and superficial.

Having read what was on the other end, I also have you to thank for (indirectly) introducing me to the term "gaystapo". Oh, my paws and whiskers...

#90 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:01 PM:

I'm waiting for the new book: Heather Has Two Righteously Pissed-Off Mommies Who Blasted Amazon For Their Corporate Fail

#91 ::: Ellen Eades ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:05 PM:

I'm guessing your theory is correct. I note that Nancy Garden's most recent book, Good Moon Rising, was featured on Amazon's Daily Blog this morning in the upper-right corner of their home page. It has not been deranked. Also, M.E. Kerr's YA story, Deliver Me From Evie, retains a ranking. Both of these authors strike me as really good targets of a deranking, so the fact that they aren't is interesting. Nevertheless, amazon has some explaining to do regarding its policies, and its response to Mark Probst's deranking and others.

#92 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:09 PM:

James MacDonald @ 27: I think it's one more argument for live sysopping and moderation. No matter how plausible the claims that some software will make a community self-moderating, that just flat isn't possible.

Which is why making it possible to sue the mod if one bad thing slips through moderation is a bad idea. It encourages low quality automated moderation, or a complete lack thereof, as shown ages ago on USENET.

Jon @ 31: I don't think blaming everything on outside "trolls" will be a good move for Amazon

Aside from looking like an excuse, blaming it on trolls says, "We are easily intimidated, run around like headless chicken when scared, and lack common sense. Anyone wants to sell us a bridge?"

#93 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:13 PM:

Serge @ 87: Ça me prend la tête.

#94 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:14 PM:

David Harmon @ 65: I suspect it's directly proportional to the total of the lines of communication between any one "baby" and any other.

#95 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:16 PM:

Neo-pagan sex related books, some straight, are also being delisted.

#96 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:16 PM:

Ginger @ 83:

That's not true. Het stories were de-ranked too.

The filtering by tags theory looks like the most plausible to me right now. The outrage of the matter is that, in what looks to be the implementation of an incredibly inane policy, some tags that were far broader than the policy were targeted ("gay and lesbian"), and not all tags relevent to the policy were targeted ("erotica" but not "erotic photography" or "nude" to take the example from Dear Author). Season to taste with the fact that not all books or editions of the same book are tagged the same way.

I don't know how they decided on the tags to filter, but when you have a huge list of them, not necessarily in alphabetical or any other sane order, you will miss some.

Either that or it went something like this:

"And this is how you update a column based on a condition: 'UPDATE BOOKTABLE SET RANK = NULL WHERE TAG_ID < 100;'"

"Thanks for the lesson, Bob, but isn't this the live database?"

#97 ::: Rebecca Ore ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:17 PM:

The only common thread is that publishers listed the books as glbt (as Aquaduct did for Centuries Ago and Very Fast. The book was not linked to Rebecca Ore the former Tor and Harper Collins SF writer, but came up on general searches just fine until sometime around the weekend. And had its rankings at least week before last or so. No customers had tagged the book. The book is now listed with my other work, but on the last page of the things by Rebecca Ore. Aqueduct and I complained about that and it was fixed as of Sunday night, but not completely un-"glitched."

No customer metatags were necessary for the rankings being dropped and the book not showing up in the general search.

My books always did sell better when they were labelled over 18 only, so I'm actually kinda amused.

#98 ::: Evan Goer ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:24 PM:

This guy is claiming to be responsible for the whole thing.

Aside from the bile, this quote caught my eye:

"I know some people who run some extremely high traffic (Alexa top 1000) websites. I show them my idea, and we all agree that it is pretty funny. They put an invisible iframe in their websites to refer people to the complaint URLs which caused huge numbers of visitors to report gay and lesbian items as inappropriate without their knowledge."

So he's saying that his friends at those "high traffic" sites colluded with him to take advantage of a XSRF flaw in Amazon's site. That's an interesting claim. If it's true, I wonder how many of those sites have gone to the effort to remove those malware iframes from their HTML source? (And of those who did, how many are still cached in Yahoo! or Google?)

#99 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:28 PM:

His LJ tag is brutal_honesty, which sounds like I_like_trolling to me. Does LJ have any way to complain about another user? I suppose having 100,000 people post "eat shit and die" to his comments would just encourage the little shit.

Not that I think he really did it.

#100 ::: K. G. Anderson ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:30 PM:

Patrick's post is the best and most plausible explanation of the Amazon screwup I've read yet.

#101 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:30 PM:

Ginger @83: In this case, only non-abled, non-het sex were deranked, and the books actually affected were often not about sex (i.e., porn, etc.) but about human sexuality, non-hetero variety. A glitch doesn't contain embedded homophobia.

The largest common denominator of books with sales ranking removed is GLBT.

But het books--Alex Comfort's Joy of Sex--have been removed from sales rankings too, though not in all editions.

So while there's some heteronormative problems, quite a lot actually, with the definition of "adult," I really don't think there's an anti-queer corporate agenda.

I'm pretty sure about it. Jeff Bezos is a bookseller who wants to make money.

This kind of tactic is not going to make money.

I think it's bad data, bad decisions about glossaries and thesauri, and a poorly thought out process that started months ago, with a major roll-out on a nice quiet weekend.

When everything got snafu-d.

#102 ::: Peregrine ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:32 PM:

My issue is both with the "glitch" and Amazon's response.

Whether deliberate or not - and I admit to HIGH skepticism on the 'not' part - Amazon is far too big to not have at least SOME sort of protocol dictating that when sh*t hits the fan, placate the masses and hit the panic button to get Someone With Authority involved ASAP.

Their response was to tell authors - not even general users, but AUTHORS - that it was part of a new policy. If it was a glitch, if it even had the remotest possibility of not being deliberate, the response should have been, "We're looking into it, please be patient. We will let you know as soon as we know."

Whether or not it was, in fact, new policy, Amazon's response fell far beyond the pale for the biggest online book retailer. The way they failed to handle this is what made me pull my account. I don't want to do business with a company this big who doesn't have their act together.

#103 ::: Zeynep ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:34 PM:

If you don’t think this kind of clusterfark is entirely possible, you probably haven’t worked in a large organization.

...or read Schneier's Beyond Fear, which has a lot to say about security in terms of interlocked systems. I read the book fairly recently, so I kept flashing back to it as I read tehdaly's and your interpretations of the chain of events. (This was not a "security" issue, unless you want to cast it as "protect the innocent little eyes of underage customers from the evil of 'adult' content," which makes the terminology and the ways of thinking compatible with security questions.)

#104 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:34 PM:

Xopher @ 99:

Yes, they do, but you have to do a little digging to find it. I'd give you the URL, as I used it the other day, but, alas, I can't see LJ from this computer.

Bryant @ 73 goes over why he thinks that the guy is just a troll.

#105 ::: Evan Goer ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:36 PM:

Ah, I did skim the thread, but I missed Bryant @73. Thanks, Keith.

#106 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:36 PM:

Kate Harding, in a generally sensible piece on Salon:

I strongly suspect that "glitch" is actually Amazonian for "We have no idea what happened -- can't talk now, busy shitting our pants!"

#107 ::: Leighton ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:41 PM:

Thanks, all, for the debunking -- I wondered about that.

#108 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:44 PM:

It looks like Patrick called this -- and Amazon is in the process of retracting and blaming it on an unspecified glitch in their systems.

#109 ::: CharlesP ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:49 PM:

@106 is disturbingly similar to how I recall major issues going down when I worked there (when you put that "ships in 24 hours" thing on a product you get antsy if something, anything, is down for 25% of that time). I would hope the process is more robust than it once was (in 99 we were still flying by the seat of our pants it seemed... and I wasn't even in the corporate website side of things), but it's a big complicated web site and I'm sure to some degree there has been a fair bit of "did we do this, or was this done to us?" going on... tracking down all the changes made in the last few days to decide if it was a set of internal decisions working together, checking traffic patterns to see how/if ratings/rankings/taggings fluctuated in the last few days.

#110 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:50 PM:

Oh. I guess that link is old news to everyone here. I didn't see the link referenced directly in the thread. Sorry.

#111 ::: StephanieInCA ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:51 PM:

Amazon's homophobia here is obvious and certainly shouldn't be dismissed, but I think this also raises some real concerns about the future of digital publishing and censorship: Making Books Disappear

#112 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:58 PM:

As I noted at chang's link: If they really want to hide the porn, why don't they have a specific tag for "pornography"?

Ah, but then they might have to take responsibility for such tagging, and expecially explain why (e.g.) "Hustler" gets the "Porn" tag but "Playboy" squeaks by with "Erotica".

#113 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 01:58 PM:

re 76: I suspect that's because it isn't their issue. The flap is being driven, so far as I can see here, by people whose own ox has been gored or at least insulted, as I'm seeing a lot of traceback to authors who noticed their book had lost its ranking. It's being given energy by communities which are very sensitive to insults. It has crossed over into the MSM, if you can count a CNET article linked on CNN's main page MSM (update: it has now popped up on CSM). The disability side of this is picking up steam more slowly, but it seems to be working on exactly the same principles.

But the ECR is not, I suspect, regularly checking ranking on the same titles, if for no other reason than its members didn't write those books*, so it's not surprising that they haven't reacted. And if there other classes of books which also suffered, if they don't have similarly sensitized communities behind them, it's not all that unlikely that nobody has noticed yet they've been affected.

I'm finding this much more interesting (and so did someone at Foreign Policy) in terms of the reaction than whatever went wrong.

*well, except perhaps under well-concealed pseudonyms

#114 ::: ktli010 ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:01 PM:

I agree that this *may* be a snafu, but I'm wondering what this audience thinks about this livejournal post of an Amazon programmer taking credit for maliciously setting this up:

#115 ::: Zeynep ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:02 PM:

Xopher @99: His username is actually "weev"; brutal_honesty is just the community he posted that entry to. (I do not follow that community and I have no idea what the general tone of discourse there is.) In his personal journal he links to the same tehdaly entry our hosts have linked to and says he finds it very insightful.

I do not have enough technical expertise to even start attempting to evaluate whether the method he claims in the brutal_honesty entry is plausible. The tone of the entry reads to me like he was explaining how it could be done, but in a too-sarcastic way.

#116 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:05 PM:

Xopher, #99: LJ does have a way to report a user for abusive behavior; some troll who spammed a bunch of communities with gory photos of mutilated rabbits over the weekend got banned PDQ. But I'm not sure if "claiming to be responsible for Amazonfail" would qualify as bannable behavior.

#117 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:08 PM:

To copy something I just posted on Twitter: the last time we had a direct democracy with mass participation and the ability to take immediate action was around 500BC, in Athens.

You might want to look into how that ended:

Twitter is a powerful tool for communication, but it is best to take the time to understand a situation before declaring war. We don't yet understand this situation, and quite possibly nobody at Amazon yet understand how this came to happen. It may have been a glitch. It may have been a mistaken policy. It may have been an attacker from outside (someone has claimed to be this attacker, though others have disputed his claim, but it still seems the most likely to me.

Remember the order:

1. Investigation.
2. Trial.
3. Execution.

Skipping straight to stage 3 is a bad, bad, bad idea.

You couldn't hurry this process in Athens 2,500 years ago, and you can't hurry it now. This should be a salient warning of the dangers of leaping onto an outrage bandwagon before you know what happened.

Whether Amazon should have responded over the weekend is a question for their PR. I don't see that we were in any great danger because Amazon had removed some books from their search listings for a few days; it's certainly the kind of thing that could wait until Monday morning for an explanation.

Twitter is a very very powerful tool for gathering agreement. While this case is a trivial issue, we should remember that previous experiments in direct democracy led to the creation of the system of justice we have now: a system that is slow, trusted by all parties, and bound to fairness and truth rather than the sentiment of the mob.

Direct democracy is good. But history is littered with examples of democratic systems that destroyed themselves with rash actions.

#118 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:08 PM:

Brutal Honesty's post read like satire to me. A joke on how someone could have done all this. There's no way I would read that as actual.


#119 ::: Kip Manley ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:14 PM:

@Jacob Davies, #117: This isn't a democracy. This is a customer service issue.

#120 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:17 PM:

People characterized the brutal_honesty post as full of "bile," and I wasn't in the mood to read anti-gay rants, so I didn't go there. I was going on the assumption that it was a real claim of responsibility, even if an implausible one. A lot of people seem to think it was serious too.

And I wasn't thinking his claim, satirical or serious, was a reason that would convince LJ to ban him. I was thinking along "taste of his own medicine" lines. But now I won't bother.

#121 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:18 PM:

Bryant, who posted comment #73 debunking the LJ post that claimed credit for gaming Amazon, has an LJ post of his own which expands on the debunking and makes some otherwise sensible comments about Twitter, heuristics, and reputation.

#122 ::: Tom Scudder ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:18 PM:

Throwing out a random theory that I haven't seen yet:

Amazon decides to make a amazon-for-homeschoolers (or similar) site, proceeds to write up filters that will work for that demographic. Perhaps plans to have it implemented by some deniable Christian bookstore partner somehow, perhaps not.

Amazon then lets the code go live on the main site. Oops.

#123 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:18 PM:

Emily H. @28
It's not even 9 a.m. in Seattle yet

Chris wakes up later than usual in an anandamide and phenylethylamine haze, dreaming of teaching ice-hockey to Cubans. Instead of worry beyond the usual fear of weekdays--just how long has the radio been playing?--there's a background happiness, an extra strong oneness with the Customer. Not just the life-customer still sleeping in bed, but all Customer, prime and unprime. Even the weather cooperates with the mood, the sky the color of unbound books, a mosaic of clouds with bright-white boundaries.

A glance online changes it all. "Silverfish! I better get in now, before the boss does. Jeff but this is going to be an illiterate day."

To help with speed Chris ignores the three Starbucks that usually would supply liquid and calories on the drive to the ferry. To avoid distraction, Chris takes an outside bench instead of tea and newspaper inside, and gives the situation a review. Did this come from last weeks updates?

"Chris, good, you've seen? We're making a team of teams for this one. Go straight in."

The meeting starts, and all sit in expectant silence, contemplating Customer. No one is moved to offer feedback.

"You returned idiots, what is going on?"

The team's manager walks in, staring at each person in turn before noticing the walls--the blank, unwritten whiteboard walls.

"You're. All. Uncaffeinated. Aren't you? I don't even have a breadstick's worth of people here, do I?"

They gaze back with the calm of the fulfilled.

"Unshipped! What to do, what to do, we can't let him know." Her unshaking hands betray her- she's just as undrunk as the rest. "OK. Plan. One by one I need you to go to the med kit and make yourself some instant. Don't be improbable. Got it? Starts with you, Chris."

No one moves.

The manager grabs the intercom phone. "Wizard, this is Dorothy, calling a Code... Yes, I already know we're in a Code Noclicks, I'm calling a Code December... Yes, December. Four teams down with Tin Man... I tried. Completely incapable of oiling themselves."

#124 ::: Dan Nexon ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:22 PM:

#118. Since a number of people, using the magic of Google cache, have demonstrated that there was no such function on an Amazon product page (at least for books), we can pretty safely say he's having a big laugh at some credulous individuals' expense.

The "it disappeared right after I did it" gambit was nice try, though.

#125 ::: Alma Alexander ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:24 PM:

I just posted something on the matter on my own blog at LJ - but for the record - *this is not a brick-and-mortar business which was heavily shuttered and left echoingly empty over a holiday weekend*. Amazon's URL was live all the long weekend long. This means that someone was in the hot seat on duty SOMEWHERE. THe fact that this wasn't caught (someone was suddenly tagging books that were anything from a few years to a couple of DECADES old with a mass attack of "Adult" tags, and nobody noticed? REALLY?) and then the fact that nothing is being said about it other than a few evasive maneuvers seemingly thrown out there to hold fire while a mad scramble in the backrooms somewhere is going on - as somebody said it up-thread, by this stage it isn't the crime, it's the cover-up.

This is an online organization. They don't have to wait until the holiday weekend is over to have a meetings of the big boys - this is a crisis of fairly large proportions, and these folks are net-savvy enough to do email conferences or chats or even a phone-conference if all else fails. There needs to be an unequivocal statement from Amazon's management about this whole matter, like, YESTERDAY. They need to get their act together. And if they have to hire an extra warm body whose responsibility will be to monitor potentially malicious taggage from the Moral Majority, well, that's good for the economy, isn't it? It's another person with a job. So it cuts a little into the profit margin. So what? Would Amazon seriously come out telling me that this is better than having a large percentage of your customer base mad enough at you to threaten a comprehensive boycott? Trust me, the loss of profit will be MUCH greater if that is allowed to gather any sort of momentum.

Damage control. They need damage control, like, NOW. I give them until Wednesday morning, if they really really really need a "workday" for getting any work done (despite the fact that they are open for internet business 24/7, as it were, for people who want to throw money at them - did you ever get a message that said, sorry, Amazon is closed now, come back at 9 AM tomorrow morning...?). After that... the cover-up gets to be way bigger than a cover-up. It becomes not so much a denial that anything really bad actually ever happened to tacitly supporting that really bad thing that actually happened. If this is truly not Amazon's policy they need to come out and deal with the fallout before they really go to the wall for it.

#126 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:24 PM:

And remember, Socrates was presiding over the session of the Athenian assembly the day that the Athenian generals were sentenced and executed. But even he was unable to persuade the Athenian mob to keep from taking action right away. The fact that our society - in this case, our proto-direct-democracy that exists online - has people of great moral sense and impeachable ethics does not mean that it will always act justly.

Luckily, we're only talking about a few listing of books on Amazon. But imagine that this was a few decades more advanced, and a combination of right-wing trolls & military-industrial-complex astroturfers had managed to turn the hostage-taking in Somalia into a matter of great national outrage through Twitter.

Before we create that system of direct democracy, we had better remember the reason for the checks and balances that are built into our system to slow rash actions. There is a reason only Congress has the power to declare war. A President acting off the instant opinion-poll that is Twitter might rashly declare war on Somalia when he finds a 90% majority in favour of doing so. Not our current President, perhaps, because he seems to be a man of great patience and wisdom, possessed of a judgment that makes him think before he acts. But a rash President, driven by instant opinion polling? I think we can all see that it might happen that way.

We need to remember to slow down. To refrain from judgment until we understand the situation. To give defendants the chance to speak to defend themselves, even if that means waiting a few days for them to get their story straight.

I'm genuinely concerned that in the (justified) enthusiasm for mass participation, tools like Twitter and instant opinion-polling are going to recreate a system of direct democracy without learning any of the lessons from past experiments that showed that we need ways to slow down mob sentiment; we need to remember to take the time to think about whether our initial assessment of the situation was right; we need to remember that just because all our friends seem to think something is true, that doesn't make it true; we need to remember that, as they say on Battlestar Galactica, "All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again". We haven't magically created a system where everyone is instantly wise and contemplative and fair. We're the same old humans we always were.

#127 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:25 PM:

From what people have reported, I do see some deliberate intent. It might be a phased rollout of a flawed system. It's suggestive of internal causes that there seems to be a tie with publisher-supplied meta-data.

An obvious conclusion: publishers are going to want Amazon to give them a good explanation. This is an opening for anyone wishing to challenge Amazon, because Amazon have not merely tried to put up a safety barrier, they've apparently shut off search access. This is Amazon not selling books.

Give them time, but if I were a publisher caught by this false accusation (and that's what it amounts to), I'd expect to see a pretty good grovel coming in the mail.

And I'd be wondering what meta-data I'd supply to the market. It sounds as if the tags were relevant and useful, but Amazon look as though they don't speak the same language as the rest of us.

#128 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:25 PM:

In terms of the sort of stuff that someone* would find objectionable, I would have to say that YA homosexuality-themed material like Probst's book would surely top the list.

I'm suspecting that part of Amazon's unresponsiveness is that whatever did this didn't just hide information, but also lost some. I'm particularly suspecting that it actually deleted the ranking data. Otherwise I would expect that they would just put the code back to the way it was on Wednesday, things would be more or less the way they were, and summary executions, er, firings could be carried out on a more considered basis. The fact that they haven't done that suggests that they can't do anything that simple.

*e.g., the ECR

#129 ::: hapax ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:27 PM:

I'm actually leaning towards the clueless metadata glitch theory myself, except for one thing -- as near as I could tell, all of the Kindle editions of titles had the exact same "objectionable" metadata, and they all retained their sales rankings.

Unless somebody thinks that this incompetent programmer actually put in a line of code specifying "Except for KINDLE!!!" or some such (I'm no programmer, obviously), how could this have been automatic?

#130 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:31 PM:

#119 This is a democracy. We are democratically discussing the behaviour of another entity in our democracy, a corporation formed for the purpose of providing return to investors that also provides a valuable public service in being the de facto provider of information, reviews, and ratings about all the books and media we possess. Amazon is - in some sense - our annotated Library of Congress.

Before we rush to decide that Amazon Is Evil and head over their headquarter with pitchforks and burning torches, faces flush with the pleasure of our own righteousness, we had better remember that that same pleasure in presumed righteousness is what brought down all the democracies of the past.

Of course, this is only Amazon. This is only a test. But we had better start learning some lessons about how to handle online democracy, because it's coming down the pike at us fast - in the form of rapid opinion polling, Twitter, blogs, instant messaging, text messaging, email, and ubiquitous mobile phones - and in our rush of enthusiasm for this wonderful opportunity to build a new democracy - and it is a glorious opportunity, believe me when I say that I think that - we had better look at the lessons of the past before we repeat them.

This was just a test. The next one will be real, and people will die as a result of a mob sentiment building on Twitter before an investigation of the facts can take place. Don't laugh. It is coming, faster than you think possible. As I say: this was just a test. The next one will be real.

#131 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:31 PM:

#129: You're presuming that Kindle "editions" are seamlessly linked to their print siblings at every level. Knowing what I do about the rollout and first months of the Kindle program, I doubt that very much.

#132 ::: cah ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:33 PM:

#129: "Unless somebody thinks that this incompetent programmer actually put in a line of code specifying "Except for KINDLE!!!" or some such (I'm no programmer, obviously), how could this have been automatic?"

Incredibly simply actually, assuming that the records for Kindle books are stored in a different location (table, database, etc) than the hard-copy books. If that is the case, then it's actually more work to write the code to apply to the Kindle editions than it is to write it to apply to just the books.

#133 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:39 PM:

I have to say, I think what Jacob Davies is saying has some merit.

This is from the Bryant Durrell LJ post that I linked to before, and it comes after he's put forward his technical reasons he disbelieves the person who claimed responsibility for the whole kerfuffle.

[I]t's an interesting bit of trolling, actually. He's piggybacking on some of the same tendencies that led the original story to turn into a Cause with a capital C. If you're not a geek, the Internet is just this weird magical place where stuff /happens/ and anything's likely if it's expressed with authority.
His post is even better because there's nothing inherently implausible about the idea of hiring a bunch of third-world sweatshop people to screw up a user-generated tagging/complaint system. Amazon doesn't appear to have made that mistake, but you need to check before you can be sure.
To make it even better, Twitter was the main vector of communication about the Amazon stuff. Twitter is lousy for any communication which takes more than 140 characters; it strips logic leaving us only with reputation capital. The #amazonfail tag got a lot of reputation capital, initially from upset people and later from sheer volume...
But you can't tell from a Twitter post whether or not something's authentic. You gotta do your own research and thinking. Some people do; lots of people don't. No matter what Amazon did or didn't do, intentionally or not, there is absolutely not enough evidence right now to draw any conclusions other than "it's bad that this happened." Our troll used the same transmission technique, because who's gonna take the time to read his post and think about his claims?
(Addition to that: seriously. Why do you believe him? Why do you believe me, for that matter?)
Good times. At some point we're going to have to figure out how to overcome a thousand years of conditioning: for a very long time, saying something loudly required a great deal of effort, so at least you knew someone really believed what they were saying. These days, no effort at all, but we still have that kneejerk reaction. (This is not an Internet problem. I blame LaserWriters.) Man, doesn't it just seem antiquated that Speaker's Corner used to be a huge deal and a symbol of free speech?
The really interesting thing about the troll is that he's right even if he didn't do it. The vulnerability he describes exists anywhere you make automated decisions based on third-party input.

#134 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:43 PM:

One of the many things that puzzles me about this--let's assume it was in fact an effort to remove "adult" content from the top search hits and front page--

This is a stupid way to do that. The problem of defining adult has already resulted in prolonged trials. It's a matter of opinion.

The smart thing to do would be to allow users to decided what they do and don't want to see.

They already have user prefs; most of the infrastructure is in place.

Use third-party metadata from LOC and the British Library--data that Amazon already has in place and receives already--for the filtering settings, and let users decide what to filter.

There's just no sense in this snafu, at all. It's stupid all the way down.

#135 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:43 PM:

And I should emphasize: I would be disappointed, though not especially surprised if Amazon had in fact taken this action deliberately. (After all, my local Borders doesn't put books with naked people face-out on display; I wish it felt brave enough to do so, but I know the reasons it doesn't).

I do think we should be careful not to tolerate backwards steps in openness, but we can stand to wait a few days to determine whether something was an intentional step back before we go for the pitchforks. And we should remember that Amazon itself is a great force for openness and democracy, in that it provides a way for anyone, anywhere, to browse and order any book they might want. (Local censors may step in. But it's still better than it was before Amazon.)

But right at this moment neither we nor (it seems) anyone at Amazon has any idea what happened. We can surely stand to wait a few days before coming up with a list of conspiracy theories.

I am a programmer. I know that even gigantic systems with many safeguards can have glitches or vulnerabilities to malicious actions. It is not at all implausible that such a thing has happened here, and so there's no reason to get so riled up about this so fast. Give them a working day to respond, at least! Sure, we live in a 24/7 world, but Amazon employees are people just like the rest of us. Perhaps the person who could explain this was hiking all weekend out of cellphone range. Perhaps they were just at home with their phone turned off. We don't have the right to demand 24/7 responses on matters that can wait for a weekday, and I for one can tell you that I don't want to move to a world where everyone must be on call and ready to be held to account 24/7. I like weekends, thanks very much, they're one of the finest inventions of the human race.

#136 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:46 PM:

#132: With good database design, the unique Kindle information could be placed in a different table without affecting common Kindle-book information. But it does look like they are doing a search-on-book-table then search-on-Kindle-table then search-on-whatever.

I suppose one could test the hypothesis by examining the non-platform-specific data for Kindle vs book (other than this "adult" thing).

#137 ::: cah ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:49 PM:

#136: Well yes, but I assume we both know how often good application design actually occurs in systems of this size compared to how often something new actually just gets bolted on in a poorer-than-it-should-be manner. :)

#138 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:50 PM:

#137: And we see the result.

#139 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:52 PM:

I wonder if this was in any way connected to Neil Gaiman's recent boggling that searching for 'girl scout cookies' on amazon found slutty girl scout halloween costumes and speculums (and no cookies).

Tom #122 that's a similar guilt-by-association smear on homeschoolers right there.

#140 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:52 PM:

C. Wingate @ 128:

Amazon could at least restore from backup if it were the case that they actually deleted the ranking information. It might take them a day or two to get the tapes from an off-site facility, but the backups are there.

This doesn't excuse any unresponsiveness, though. It's amazing to me that this internet-based company, which has always focused on the power of the internet, and whose head natters on and on about the wonders of internetty Web 2.0ness, still hasn't issued a formal public response to this.

Lisa Spangenberg @ 134:

Amazon's search facility has always seemed rather broken to me, no matter how much they try to tell me it's improved this week. This seems like a hackish way to stop items from turning up in a general search that will still allow them to turn up in a specific search. It's the wrong way to do it if you want to do it properly, but it works, FSVO works.

#141 ::: Tom Scudder ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:54 PM:

139 - Apologies. Call it "Amazon for Christian Bookstore customers", if you like.

#142 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:56 PM:

Lisa Spangenberg @ 134... If you and I had been given the task of adding an 'adult' filter, what is the first question we would have done? We'd have asked for a definition of 'adult'. Next we would have responded that we see potential problems with that definition. Then, once a definition of 'adult' had been agreed upon, we'd have run the whole thing thru a test environment the contents of which are close to the real thing.

There are some incompetent programmers out there.

#143 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 02:58 PM:

KethS, #140: "It's amazing to me that this internet-based company, which has always focused on the power of the internet, and whose head natters on and on about the wonders of internetty Web 2.0ness, still hasn't issued a formal public response to this."

Jesus Christ. It's still before noon on Monday in Seattle. All the web-2-point-ohness in the world doesn't make human beings into supermen.

I mean, yes, they should have got something out there by now, but it's not amazing to me that they haven't.

#144 ::: Larry ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:01 PM:

I work in IT doing application integration among other things and I've seen this sort of thing happen too many times.

If some of what I've heard is true and Amazon lets the devs do support then I can see something like this happening easily. What if their manual system got too far behind? I can see someone thinking "let's automate the process for a one time input".

Then they decide in their wisdom to do it over a holiday weekend figuring that would be a good time. When you are messing with SQL all sorts of hilarity and insanity can occur if you are not careful.

This is why devs are the worst testers and support personnel. They are too close to it to be objective. Unless they can do some kind of rollback on the data this is going to be a monster to undo. They could make it much worse if they are not careful.

#145 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:02 PM:

#142: And once the "adult" filter is implemented, and the appropriate checkbox to activate it placed on the appropriate data entry screens, it can be used to mean anything that you want - which may not be what the person next to you think it means.

#146 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:02 PM:

It could be that Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud has finally emerged through sentience way the heck past the apotheosis point into an overmind that, sadly, turns out to be a bluenosed prude. Emergent behavior from keyword memes as cellular automatons is inevitable. The next step, of course, is an automated rating system for humans, that makes entire social communities and ethnic target groups disappear. Former non-automated methods in that customer demographic target zone have been so inefficient in the past. Our new keyword overlords will be swift, precise and totally lacking in compassion.

#147 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:05 PM:

I don't think anyone who actually did this would be quite so stupid as to say so publicly, on a highly-traceable forum like LJ. Sheesh.

BTW, let me reiterate that feminist and pagan books appear to be affected, as well as GLBT books.

#148 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:06 PM:

Jacob Davies, good comments, and I especially appreciate the link to the Battle of Arginusae. There's a story I've been trying to track down for ages that, if I remember it correctly, is related. How I think it goes: A Greek city, probably Athens, won a victory and voted on whether to kill all the men in the losing city. The vote passed. Two days later, they realized that was wrong and sent a second ship to say, "Spare them!" Whether the second ship made it, I can't remember.

Ring any bells?

#149 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:08 PM:

re 140: I would not assume that. I work on a similar sort of system which we sell on a COTS basis, and we've had clients do things to their databases which we could not directly undo because they had continued processing forward for a while before the problem was detected. Transaction-recording systems are particularly vulnerable to this. It's likely that they will eventually be able to make things right, but my guess is that the transformation is (for whatever reason) proving to be nontrivial.

In response to several people: The format of Amazon's webpages makes me suspect that the various features are supported by largely independent groups, and that the pieces are simply strung together without a great deal of coordination.

Question to the masses: Just exactly how bad is the deranking for the effected books? I didn't push too hard, but I didn't see much effect on searching when I tested things out. Can anyone quantify the real consequences of this?

#150 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:09 PM:

Inge @#94: I may have been unclear... I was thinking of the books (or rather, their listings) as Amazon's "babies", which need to be watched because external (user) actions can affect any of them individually.

That is, Amazon ought to have actual humans keeping an eye on their catalog listings, to make sure that individual or groups of books (etc.) have not been targeted by partisans or pranksters. Likewise, if they're going to use metadata tags for large-scale filtering, they need humans making sure that the metadata is both consistent, and correct!

And yes, this mess is going to cost them big-time. Just considering my own example, I've never bought much from Amazon, mostly because I've spent my life in major cities and/or university towns. Thinking of them as simply an online bookstore, I figured I could easily buy books from local stores.

Today I've learned that they actually sell quite a variety of electronics and other things, well beyond the Kindle (which I knew about). Had I learned that under better circumstances, I might well have considered trying them out for such purchases as I usually make from "PC Connection".

Unfortunately... in the course of chasing links from this very discussion, I've been reading about draconian user bans for "excessive returns", which included cutting off service to already-purchased Kindles. That's already made me much less likely to shop with them -- and crystallized my vague concerns about the Kindle's DRM.

Now multiply me by a few thousand other people....

#151 ::: Larry ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:09 PM:

KeithS @140 ; Tape restore may or may not be possible depending on their architecture. I am assuming this is all stored in some kind of database. That would mean restoring either a dump or a transaction log. They'd then need to rerun the log or apply the dump. Depending on when they caught it the amount of data to restore could be ridiculous.

They may need to shutdown the system for this level of restore. They may need to rerun some kind of processor to import the data into the app. We don't know enough about their arch. to just say "restore from tape." I am guessing their search has some kind of cacheing engine for performance. If so they'd need to rebuild that cache from scratch potentially versus just an update.

Also this was a holiday weekend. A lot of people were gone for the combination of Easter and Passover. It might not be a bank holiday in the normal sense but a lot of people take off on Friday for this weekend.

This is why you never do major work on a holiday weekend btw, support can be a bitch to get heh.

#152 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:10 PM:

Re #148: The second ship beat the first by a few hours...but damned if I can remember the name of the defeated city.

#153 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:13 PM:

#143 "It's still before noon on Monday in Seattle."

Exactly. And the geeks who can figure out what happened pretty often roll into work around 11. Bleary-eyed. Not that enthused about digging through the database to respond to a mob that is baying for their heads as censoring Christian-dominionist anti-American evildoers. I mean: I've been there.

If this was a technical glitch, and there are excellent reasons to think that might be the case, it may take some hours of digging through databases and application logs before they can know exactly what happened. Really big computer systems are complicated. They don't have a big red button marked ROLLBACK that puts them back to how they were at noon on Friday; millions of orders and database updates have been made since then.

Relax. If Amazon meant to do this, you can have a nice show trial on Friday and spit-roast them for the weekend. If it was an accident, you're going to look pretty silly for deciding it was a Giant Evil Conspiracy.

We really need to get better at this direct democracy, citizen-participation thing before we're looking at the smouldering, glassed-over ruins of Mogadishu on a Monday morning and wishing maybe we *hadn't* said "If they won't give us our guy back we should just nuke them."

I know we're out of practice. Real, direct, democracy has been out of our hands for centuries. But let's not fuck it up this time.

You wanna be in charge of your country? For reals? You want a citizen-led direct democracy? That's great. It is wonderful. It truly has the potential to be a new dawn for freedom and individual liberty for the human race, truly, truly, truly. But... patience is a virtue. It can wait til Monday afternoon to find out what happened at Amazon. It can wait until two pirates in a liferaft stick their head out the window and the other one is seen pointing an AK at our guy before we take those shots. Maybe we don't need to nuke Mogadishu, after all.

This is just a test. I know that the underlying issue is relatively trivial. But we had better start learning fast.

#154 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:14 PM:

PS: Of course, that's after accepting the current disaster as a probable mistake, which I'm sure they will correct ASAP.

#155 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:22 PM:

Re #148 - Found it: Mytilene -- even remembered the spelling.

Maybe I'm not losing my memory.

#156 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:25 PM:

I'm finding it interesting to watch this Googlishly. There is no evidence at all as far as I can tell for any conservative awareness that this is going on; conservative media* don't show up in Google News, and conservative websites don't show up in the first dozen or so pages of web hits.

*unless you want to count CSM as conservative

#157 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:26 PM:

It's amazing what can sneak into a production environment. Years ago, back when ATMs were just a few years old, a programmer told me the story about what happened to the ATM network when a change moved into production that wasn't adequately tested.

So, for four hours one morning, deposits made through ATMs were being posted twice, and withdrawals weren't being posted at all. If anyone in the customer base had know that, they could have treated an ATM as their own personal slot machine.

And this was in the day when these transactions happened on IBM Big Iron, in COBOL and CICS. The level of complexity in today's distributed environment is not just a different ballpark, it's a different game being played on another planet.

#158 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:26 PM:

C Wingate @149: Cut-n-paste of useful paragraph from a Dear Author post, because at this point I'm too tired to do a good job of composing my own:

"Why is this is a big deal?

It’s not because customers put any stock into the Amazon Ranking number. It’s that the Amazon Rank affects a books’ visibility on the bestseller list, on the “If you Like ___, you might like __ feature” and so forth. It is akin to the bookstore removing the books from the shelves and requiring you to go to the Customer Service desk and ask for the book or author specifically. Visibility is a huge factor in sales and anyone who doesn’t believe that is kidding themselves."

It has much wider ramifications for visibility of a book than simply whether it's visible on a direct search on title or ISBN within the books department.

#159 ::: Kip Manley ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:27 PM:

@Jacob Davies, not to minimize your excellent points (I for one am always for Taking a Deep Breath, which doesn't explain why I also like Shooting My Mouth Off, but), but: please do not yourself minimize the entirely justifiable outrage.

This situation isn't just Amazonfail Easter Weekend 2009, though a perusal of the Twitter channels might certainly make it seem so. This particular phenomenon in isolated instances has been noted as early as February of this year; when the author(s) in question contacted Amazon, they were informed this was now policy: to hide "adult" material from certain searches.

Already we've got a cluster of fail: whether you agree with the policy or not (which itself was noted as being operational in August of last year), two months ago Amazon had several notices that their definition of "adult" wasn't working the way it ought to have done.

That they went ahead and did whatever they did over the holiday weekend merely compounds the failure already in place. Certainly we all have to wait and see what happened and how and why, but Amazon the System has already clearly and demonstrably failed and badly.

--If anything, claiming Amazon as a quasi-democratic entity further justifies the outrage. What you see us seeing as our public commons has been polluted. Certainly, they ought to have been far more careful with their quasi-public trust.

But that would put a whole new utopian spin on Too Big to Fail, and not even I am that pollyannish.

#160 ::: Chris Bridges ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:30 PM:

Jessica at is reporting that according to her editor, a rep at Amazon said it was not a glitch.

"Basically he said that amazon has been experimenting with the way they dole out content specifically so that people who are searching Harry Potter or whatever won't run into links to products that might be offensive.

"...It's super fucked up, but apparently he's saying that Amazon is a bully when it comes to stuff like this and it's all about sales for them and it's not about censorship. [He said t]hat they love you, love Seal, but that this is mandated from their bosses, who essentially want to be Walmart.

"...He also said no human is responsible for the decisions per se, and that it's all about tagging and feeds which are constantly being tweaked. He does think that amazon will retweak the tags based on the uproar that happened over the weekend."

She stresses the hearsay nature of this, and that reps may not know everything that's going on. But still.

#161 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:31 PM:

Patrick Nielsen Hayden @ 143:

You're right, I let a little bit of a rant loose that I shouldn't have. To clarify, I didn't mean an explanation, detailed or not, and I don't expect one, just a short announcement on their website that there's something that's gone wrong and they're working on it. They do have customer service reps working, but given the holiday they may not have someone in the right position to actually put up a formal notice.

I try to work on charity, and in this case I failed miserably.

Larry @ 151:

I was responding more to the point that they're being unresponsive because they may have deleted the data and I was unclear about that. It might take them a while to restore it, but it's not gone forever. I do take your point that it might not be easy, though.

#162 ::: cah ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:32 PM:

#159: I don't think he's claiming Amazon as a quasi-democratic entity, but rather Twitter and the like.

That said, it's perfectly possible that the report made back in February never made it to the developers or anyone else responsible for the given piece of code. (Given that the response from the Customer Service rep really sounds like somebody who has no idea what's going and is trying to do their best with a bunch of pre-written answers.)

#163 ::: ktli01010 ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:32 PM:

#143, #153

Thanks to everyone for helping to debunk the LJ link. As a former programmer at Amazon, I saw Perl and thought it might be possible, if buggy.

But I don't buy the "it's early in the morning in Amazonland" argument. At all.

First, there are always devs on call. ALWAYS. That's why the blackberries were invented. Amazon operates in all timezones (their customer service is in India, plus all their European sites), and most of the tech staff have an on-call rotation. All levels, all types. All on call for just this kind of situation. The only reason they wouldn't act is because they didn't get the go-ahead to roll back from leadership.

So, accordingly, if Jeff Bezos and Amazon's decision-making leadership didn't get an FYI-the-Internet-are-blowing-up email from their PR team Sunday morning, they should be fired, along with the project manager for Project Adult Content, as well as a couple of devs and testers who maybe sortof should have put this through the logic test before pressing the big DELETE ALL GAY RANKINGS button.

Someone should probably write that on a sticky note for next time, and affix it to Jeff's forehead.

#164 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:37 PM:

This post on the specific category metadata pretty much satisfies me it was someone who in formulating the database query and commands to remove sales ranking, for whatever personal reasons, equated GLBT with "adult" or at least something to filter.

Dear Author on Amazon using category metadata.

#165 ::: Larry ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:38 PM:

Chris @160: It could still be a glitch even with that explanation. I am sure they are trying to tighten up the search. I don't really fault them for trying to make searches as accurate as possible. I am also fairly certain that someone royally screwed the pooch trying to make it fully live.

Keith @161: Well they may not have the data. Considering how important the ranking stuff is I would be surprised if they did not do a backup of some kind. The bigger issue is how far they'd have to roll back. they may do weekly backups with incrementals. Depending on the timing they may have lost some of the "good" data.

They also probably need time to figure out what the hell went wrong before they restore. If it's systemic then they need to undo whatever caused it before rolling back the data. If you load good data into a bad system the system will just munge it again.

Whatever the cause I for one want to know what happened. It's as much professional curiosity as anything though.

#166 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:41 PM:

Ok -- I've been all over Amazon's website, and I can't find a "contact us" that isn't email. Does anyone here have a phone number for them? I'd like to call and tell a real person why I won't be buying anything from them anymore.

I'm getting very tempted to see if there's a way I can close my account, if I can't speak with a human...

#167 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:41 PM:

And I apologize for repeating myself here, but it's because this is one of the hazards of a direct, participative democracy, and I truly am terrified that mob action is going to cause some really awful things to happen before we get the hang of it:

Those angry people who call for immediate action, and keep making such calls, seem like the ones who are Doing Something About It. We're human. We like the idea that someone is paying attention to our concerns. So when we have two people - in this case, the Twitter angry mob and the Amazon corporate dinosaur - and one of them is crying for blood and the other one is incommunicado because they can't figure out what happened, it is natural to want to side with the angry mob.

Those who don't want to side with the angry mob generally don't bother saying anything - usually because they think the underlying offence is trivial. But that further creates an atmosphere where the only people talking are the ones who are pissed off, and the only people they're reading are the other people who are pissed off, and as they say, Cooler Heads Do Not Prevail.

Like I say: this one is a test. It is trivial. The next one will not be trivial. We will have The People - as expressed in those people who are posting on Twitter and blogs one sunny weekend - and they will, unlikely though it may seem, all unite behind something that Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time.

Think about this: another 9/11 on a Saturday afternoon. Another President - not this one, I think - who is rushed to a bunker, scared for his own life. The media - left, right, center - working themselves into a lather about the need for an immediate response. Perhaps the country the terrorists came from is obvious.

It's 6pm on that Saturday, and the media, Twitter, and the blogs are in a frenzy. The people with cooler heads are sitting at home, saying nothing, because they are waiting to understand what happened before they pass judgment - but that just means that all of the visible online discourse that Saturday is baying for blood.

A foolish President - and we have elected fools in the past, have we not? - takes a rash action in response to that "public pressure".

That would be: Bad.

The evening of 9/11 *I* might have nuked Kabul, if my finger was on the Button. I was PISSED, and I *knew* who was responsible - those assholes in Afghanistan who were providing a place for bin Laden to hide. I am not kidding or exaggerating here, and you all know it, because I think many of you know that you *were* that angry that day, and if you weren't, you know a lot of people who were.

When that happens and "everyone we know" is on Twitter calling for the President to nuke Kabul - and we *know* this will happen, and sooner than you can imagine - those with cooler heads need to remember to SAY - out loud - STOP. Slow down. Think it over. STOP. Slow down. Think it over. STOP.

We need to say that over and over again until we are sick of hearing it. The voice for calm needs to be loud and strong in the face of an outraged mob. If you are a level-headed person of reason, remember that you need to say this, when this happens, as you know it will: "Stop. Slow down. Think it over."

You can see that this is coming. This system of direct democracy and participation is building itself ever more rapidly, and is ever more pleased with its own successes. It should be pleased. This is a wonderful opportunity. But... patience is a virtue.

This is only a test. This was a trivial issue. The next one will be real. Let's think about it in advance so we don't fuck it up. Please. I don't take pride in the thought of coming back here and reading these posts with some city in the Middle East a glassy ruin and knowing I was right.

This was only a test. The next one will be real.

#168 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:41 PM:

Jon Meltzer @ 145... Of course, the checkbox for the "adult" filter could have one of those what's-this? popup window that'd explain what's that's supposed to mean. Anyway, my point is that it looks like some people cut corners somewhere in the development process. Also, it is very disturbing that nobody vociferously objected to the overly wide definition of adult.

#169 ::: cah ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:43 PM:

#160: I dunno, given that a glitch really just means "it did something it's not supposed to do", to me that description sounds like the very definition of one.

The problem is that Jessica seems to be assuming that hiding the books at all is what would be a glitch, whereas Amazon appears to consider the glitch to be that it's hiding them in more than just the specific circumstances that it's supposed to.

#170 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:43 PM:

I want to know so I can figure out whether I should stop ordering things from them.

And I'm not talking about gay-oriented stuff. I've never ordered that from them. I'm talking about books on Middle Egyptian and like that. I mention this to point out (not the first here to do so) that offending a "gay customer" doesn't just cost you "gay sales."

#171 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:47 PM:

#168: I would say that the developers cut corners and didn't object to vague definitions because they wanted to keep their jobs, but that gets into an entirely different discussion and I don't know if our hosts want that in this thread.

#172 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:47 PM:

re 158: I can understand that people are talking about those effects, but what I don't see is any quantification. I looked up HH2M (both editions), and I didn't see anything strikingly unusual in what it was offering up for "may also like". It appears to me that within the apparently problem tag categories, it isn't having that strong an effect. Now, it's possible that it may affect such offerings of "problem genre" books when they share another tag with a "non-problem" book, so that the cross-genre suggestion won't be made.....

I think they've started fixing the problem. Searching on "Brokeback Mountain" shows that the book entries do have sales ranks, but they are down in the "we've sold maybe one copy of this" numbers (#617,505 in Books for the hardcover, for example).

....anyway, the "also bought" linkages don't seem to be strongly affected. What I'm suspecting is that this is tending to be more of an insult than an injury situation, though it doesn't seem that anyone has solid evidence either way.

#173 ::: FungiFromYuggoth ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:51 PM:

Lori Coulson @166 - Gethuman says 800-201-7575. From what I've read, Amazon's customer support drones are even more longsuffering than the standard because of how difficult it is to find their number, and the resulting increase of customer irritation.

Serge @168 - I don't think a definition of "adult" that includes Heather has two Mommies but that excludes the Turner Diaries and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is "overly broad", just "incorrect".

C. Wingate @172, I pray you consider that what you're seeing now - after the complaint - is not what people were seeing over the weekend, when they were complaining.

#174 ::: Larry ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:53 PM:

@172: I wonder if they are going to just turn on the rankings for those books as a short term solution and try and run some kind of query to reapply the old stats.

@176: I see what you are saying. I don't know if you can compare the two so easily though. This is a much different scale of events.

#175 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:54 PM:

Lori Coulson @166 -- there's a number listed on this site -

but I can't vouch for whether it's accurate, actually useful, etc.

#176 ::: Kip Manley ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:54 PM:

@cah #162: Nah, he compared Amazon to the Library of Congress. Also, one of the first things you do when you're going to tinker with something like this is you mosey down to customer service and say hey, you know, we're going to tinker with something like this. Anybody hollers about something like that going wrong, you ping us, okay? So that would be absolutely no excuse, or rather, further evidence that Amazon had been Stupid Stupid Stupid.

#177 ::: kate ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:55 PM:

@lori --

Amazon customer services phone number: 1-800-201-7575

An Amazon corporate phone number, which may not be as relevant: (206) 266-1000.

#178 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:55 PM:

Will, #148: Mytilene's Reprieve. I couldn't find the lyrics online, but the link goes to CDbaby where there's a sound file.

David, #150: Keeping that metadata both consistent and correct is a much larger problem than you might realize. Hell, I have trouble keeping my LibraryThing tags (arguably a metadata system) consistent and correct, and that's just one person and a couple of thousand entries.

Jacob, #153: While I agree with the gist of what you're saying, there's a real smarmy "Why am I the only adult in a world full of children?" tone to your phrasing (not in just this comment) that's very off-putting. Less lecture and more content, please.

#179 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:56 PM:

I'm glad you understand me, Larry, but I'm not sure how you could before I posted!

#180 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 03:56 PM:

#159 was a really thoughtful post, and I appreciate the points it made.

Yes, outrage *would be* justified if this was an intentional act by Amazon. And yes, we should demand an explanation. But we should not pass judgment til we get the explanation.

And there is another *very very* important thing we have to remember: even if Amazon did this deliberately. Even if this was an outrage. Even if their explanation was prompted by the outrage. We. Still. Need. To. Slow. Down. We cannot get drunk on the self-righteousness of having forced a major commercial entity to bend to us, just because this time we happened to be right. We need to look at this outrage with a *clear head* and see what it presages for our civilization. I know overwrought claims of the miraculous powers of online democracy have been made for twenty years (at least), but this is the first time I've seen a storm gather so fast and so hard with such little self-awareness.

"If anything, claiming Amazon as a quasi-democratic entity further justifies the outrage. What you see us seeing as our public commons has been polluted."

But it might have been an accident.

It might have been an accident.

Wait to see why it happened.

It might have been an accident.

Wait to see what happened.

Do you get what I'm saying here? I say this to everyone who is getting worked up over this before they know what happened.

I know that what I'm saying is a tiresome thing to read. I really know it is. I know I probably sound like a pompous & self-righteous idiot making overblown claims about something where you were (Almost Certainly) Totally Right and the other guys were (Almost Certainly) Totally Wrong. I have been you. I have been on the other side listening to someone telling me to reserve judgment, to wait and see, and goddamn they were annoying. I'm sorry I'm annoying. But holy crap I am scared for us if we don't learn to slow down before we are handed the tools for control of this awesomely-powerful democracy, a nation with the power to kill every other person alive in an hour or two. Jesus Christ, it terrifies me - and yet I am elated that we are headed for a direct democracy, don't get me wrong - but I want to learn the lessons along the way on trivial things like outrage at Amazon, not when it comes time for the real thing. We gotta get smart, fast, my friends.

(Crap, I think McCain ruined "my friends" forever. Comrades? Brothers & sisters? My fellow Americans? (Wait, I'm British, even if I do live here and am married to an American.) To quote a recent movie title: I Love You Guys. I love that Americans are filled with such fury for righteousness that they will get so upset so fast over things like this. But: we. have. to. learn. to. slow. down.)

#181 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:00 PM:

I just posted something on the matter on my own blog at LJ - but for the record - *this is not a brick-and-mortar business which was heavily shuttered and left echoingly empty over a holiday weekend*. Amazon's URL was live all the long weekend long. This means that someone was in the hot seat on duty SOMEWHERE.

I'm sure that a whole lot of stockroom staff, shipping staff, support staff, computer operations people, and some junior developers were doubtless on duty. I doubt very much that "empowerment" extends to them making management decisions, and I doubt even more that Amazon keeps senior management or other policy-making staff on duty every weekend just in case something like this blows up in their face.

With no inside knowledge, I would guss the replies some people got from support on the order of "Ummm, oh yeah, we've got a new policy! That's it, new policy!" probably came precisely from those junior people put on the spot with no idea what the policy is or why this was happening. There is a near universal tendency for people to make up some answer rather than admit honestly they have no idea what is going on.

#182 ::: cah ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:02 PM:

#176: Ah. OK, my mistake on the Library of Congress comparison then.

As for the customer service: you're assuming it's easy for the dev. team to mosey on down to them and tell them what's going on. If Amazon is really as disorganized as suggested (with cust. service in an entirely different country, as has been suggested), then even with the proper channels set up that could be easier said than done.

#183 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:03 PM:

Thanks for the phone number -- have filed "gethuman" as first place to go the next time I need to talk to a company with a website.

Now, to figure out exactly what I'm going to say, as I don't want to upset said human -- just get some answers...

#184 ::: Celia ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:03 PM:

Considering that Amazon's search engine is so stupid that you can search for the title of a book, and it will give you other books with that string in the text of the book before it gives you the book with that title, I have no problem believing that this was just a little more stupidity than usual.

While I'd prefer they revert whatever change caused this before they fix it, I'll forgive the wait if they use the time they're taking now to come up with explanations about why there was a problem and how they fixed it--better that then simply reverting and never mentioning it again.

#185 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:04 PM:

FungiFromYuggoth @ 173... You are absolutely correct. I had used the word 'broad' to mean so broad as to include material that should never have wound up there. Definitions, definitions, definitions... Always define.

#186 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:04 PM:

re 167: Well, the other thing is that the speculations of "tehdely" et al. have now created the "Amazon hates gays" meme, and it will never entirely go away.

re 173: I think it has changed during the course of the day, because IIRC when I looked this morning there were indeed no rankings on some of these books. The point remains that the statements about the effects of non-ranking seem to be assumed from suppositions about Amazon's algorithms rather than actual data.

#187 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:07 PM:

Meh. Didn't get #176. Ignore previous comment please.

Jacob, we get it. The pitchforks and torches are put away for now, OK? Go tweet about it if you want to reach the people who are really climbing the walls. ML's commentariat has your point firmly in hand with our thumb in your eye. :-)

#188 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:07 PM:

In the end, Amazon's bookselling operation is just a big bookstore which -- as I understand it -- sells about as many copies of individual titles as a Barnes & Noble or Border's superstore. They just carry a lot more titles than the superstore.

Just like any other bookstore, they are not obligated to even carry your book or anyone else's for that matter. The fuss is over the listing of books that they actually ARE offering for sale. They don't have to do that. In fact, given how the company has evolved, they don't have to sell books at all. They sell books because it pleases Jeff Bezos to do so. They could stop.

Despite the small per-title sales via Amazon, they have many influences over the book-selling market, many of which are not to the good. Of the reasons I can think of why one might want to avoid buying from Amazon, the particulars this fuss do not rank high on my list.

I buy from Amazon because I'm mostly too lazy to buy from someone else online and because I live in the suburbs. I do not love Amazon. But for Christ's sake, booksellers decide what to stock and how to sell it all the time, and some of it is based on content. (Remember the SF bookseller' John Norman boycott?)

I do not object to people complaining to Amazon about the inappropriate labeling of books as "adult" and might even complain to them myself. But I am bothered by the ferocity of the attacks on the company and the google bombing etc. They are attacking a BOOKSTORE.

Come on people. Behave better.

#189 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:07 PM:

It's not just the LGBT customers who are upset about this. There is a *large* contingent of straight readers of yaoi and of original character slash, many of whom spend money at Amazon. That includes me, as both reader and as author.

I have pointed this out several times over the last few days -- not because I think it doesn't matter if it's only the queers who get affected, but because I have seen attempts to marginalise it as just the queers getting excitable over nothing again. And for a very long time I have thought it important to stand up and say, "Well, I'm straight and *I* find this objectionable." In this particular case I can also put my money where my mouth is.

#190 ::: Lawrence Schimel ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:07 PM:

There are two primary issues here, I think, which can be broken down into:

A) Who has the authority to determine what is or is not obscene or morally objectionable?


B) How Amazon has reacted over the past months to works that have been deemed "morally objectionable" by some of their clients.

Both issues, however, involve power struggles, imbalances, and abuses.

Questions of obscenity such as Issue A are almost always a case of a majority group--already in power--attacking and suppressing a minority group.

The reasons for the attack are almost irrelevant.

Whether one group is trying to impose their morality on everyone or the very existence of the minority group undermines or calls into question some fundamentals they hold as doctrine or just makes them feel less powerful, the bottom line is that a powerful group uses its power to squelch a less-powerful group or groups.

In the case of amazonfail, this was metonymic: not the groups themselves but cultural manifestations of the groups, so it included works with LGBT content, works of alternative erotica and other sex-positive texts, etc. These victim groups happen to have strong collective identities--which in part emerge from or are reinforced by the homophobia, misogyny, sex-negativity, etc. they have to endure and fight against from the mainstream culture--and are also internet-saavy and vocal; they were able to spread the word quickly and widely.

A rhetorical question:
What would have happened if some white supremacists, for instance, had systematically tried to rig the system to derank works by writers of color?

Especially communities of color who, for whatever reason--questions of access, socialization, etc.--aren't as internet-enabled...

It's quite likely what was going on might have gone unnoticed for much longer.

One of the reasons many minority groups have watchdog organizations like the Anti-Defamation League or GLAAD is because they need them to combat anti-semitism or homophobia/lesbophobia/transphobia, respectively, in the two cited instances.

(Having grown up as a Jew in America, when I came out of the closet as a gay man in my late teens, I suddenly went from belonging to a minority of perhaps 2% to a much larger minority of 10%!)

But I digress. The underlying fundament of Issue A is a question of wanting both power and control and using it to imposing one's personal belief system on others.

It's pretty obvious that for Issue B, Amazon has responded badly and irresponsibly by using an automated system that deranked titles with objections against them--without inquiry or recourse.

Many (though by no means all) libraries and schools, for instance, have systems in place to protect books which have been challenged, and even in today's fully-automated world their challenge systems are not simply a one-click process. There are checks and balances in place to prevent rigging the system.

Those of us who've been in the LGBT publishing and bookselling field for a while will remember the targeted and biased homophobia by Canada Customs and Vancouver LGBT bookstore Little Sister's Book and Art Emporium.

Some over-simplified backstory: Sex-negative anti-pornography activists Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon equated all pornography with rape and male violence against women, and in 1992, the Supreme Court of Canada incorporated some of their anti-pornography legal work into their obscenity law (in the decision R. v. Butler).

In practice, Canada Customs used this obscenity legislation not to impede the importation of actual works of heterosexual works of pornography which might conceivably be considered violence against women (an issue I won't get into for the present) but to specifically target gay material and lesbian material, preventing or making difficult and expensive its entry (or event re-entry) into Canada.

As I recall, one of the items that had been seized by customs and which was influential in the lawsuit were copies of an issue of the US lesbian magazine GIRLFRIENDS that were going to Little Sister's. What was deemed obscene in the magazine--their justification for the seizure--was an excerpt from a book by Canadian author Persimmon Blackbridge which had been published by a Canadian publisher (Press Gang, as I recall) and which they were now banning from re-entering Canada.

Canada Customs were in fact found guilty of this homophobic targeting and discrimination {see} though they were exonerated under the Butler decision.

The problem with these situations is that the burden of proof falls on the victims, and even then the power imbalance is such that the system usually remains in place.

Little Sister's was the victim of systematic and targeted homophobia by Canada Council, for which they had to pay the financial burden of hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours to fight and prove (time and money taken away from their primary pursuit, which is selling literature). And at the end of the day, after winning a highly-publicized case, nothing changed.

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund exists to fight many analogous situations with regard to illustrated or sequential art works.

In the case of amazonfail, the burden once again has fallen on the victims, in this case writers of LGBT material, sex-positive erotica, etc. It's not like a notification was sent to them that their book was challenged or objected to, they find out--if they even do, I'm sure some have been celebrating the recent holidays and have not yet become aware of the situation--after the fact, and must now expend time and energy to undo a situation which should not have been allowed to happen in the first place (and this is where Amazon's culpability primarily lies).

Aside from the direct losses (books not able to be found and therefore bought because they've been deranked and no longer show up in searches) there are indirect losses: how many pages of LGBT material are not being written because their authors are checking to see if their books have been deranked, taking action to try and have them reranked, or are otherwise following the situation?

What is further underscored by all of this is just how dangerously out of balance the system is, and how in particular has far too much power within the system today. Too many publishers, especially publishers of books that speak to or about "minority" experiences, rely on Amazon for getting their titles into the hands of readers.

A few weeks ago unashamedly threw its weight around (see "Last week, revealed Amazon was changing its terms and scrapping the existing 30-day payment period. Instead, publishers can have a 15-day payment period but must offer Amazon a further 2% off—bringing the total discount to 62%. Those publishers who do not offer the extra discount will see their payments made on Amazon's "standard terms”--effectively 60 days. Amazon applies the payment period at the end of the month in which the transaction took place. This means that those publishers on the latter scheme could wait up to 90 days for payment.

Although the internet retailer first contacted publishers on 24th March, the deadline for a decision was 1st April."

Distribution is, today, the biggest problem in publishing, and publishing has been changing because of changes in the distribution channels and system.

On the one hand, With the consolidation of distributors, we've seen the disappearance of the midlist.

We've seen a loss of diversity of voices as distributors go under and many independent publishers can't survive the losses of the monies owed to them.

(Not to mention the consolidation on the publishing side of things, with imprints being combined or canceled, leading only to more homogenization instead of plurality.)

It's worth remembering how, a decade and a half ago, a number of independent publishers went under because of the aggressive expansion of Barnes & Noble; at first, everyone was euphoric, because all of a sudden the major chain store was ordering much larger quantities of books than before. But this was a false increase in demand; it was not that there were more buyers for these books, but rather that B&N needed to "wallpaper" all those new stores. And rather than get stuck paying for those books, they returned them, and instead of the expected money for all those higher print runs publishers got stuck with a higher print run and a boxes of unsold inventory, many of them hurts.

On the other hand, we've seen a rise in e-books and p.o.d. technology, which is changing who has access to books: both in terms of who writes them as well as who and where people can buy and even read them.

Where will things end up? I, for one, don't know. I do think that the system as it currently stands is broken (distribution, returns, centralized chain bookstore ordering, etc.). I've also learned, after years of publishing with both mainstream and independent publishers, that it's very difficult to change the system. Let's say you write a children's books about horses that would be perfect to sell at tack shops. If you sell this book to a corporate publisher like Scholastic or Simon Schuster, you're not going to be able to change the system to get them to invest the time and legwork to get their books into this alternative distribution network, even if it might sell many more copies than they would through traditional book channels. The system is inflexible. For an independent publisher, especially one which doesn't already exist entrenchedly in the traditional book channels, it may be worth their time to investigate such alternatives (although everything works on economies of scale).

Recognizing that the system exists and how it works is an important and I think essential step step.

Why we write is a personal decision we each need to answer for ourselves.

And why--or if--we publish is a separate question and decision.

How we publish is in flux, and affects all of us: writers and readers both. Some of it (technological advances, etc.) is beyond our control. Some of it (where we purchase, what we purchase, etc.) we can influence. I think it's important to know that our actions can and do have repercussions, and we should try and act consciously and responsibly whenever possible.

That's another way of fighting, especially when one belongs to one (or many) groups that do not have power.

#191 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:10 PM:

Xopher, #170: Hell, pissing off gay customers doesn't cost you only gay customers, either.

#192 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:10 PM:

Jon Metlzer @ 171... Yes, I expect that the cessation of employment may have had some programmers look the other way, or look not too closely at what they were doing.

#193 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:12 PM:

C. Wingate, #186:

"the speculations of 'tehdely' et al. have now created the 'Amazon hates gays' meme"

What on earth are you talking about? Did you even read the actual post by "tehdely"? This is an utterly false characterization of what they said.

#194 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:13 PM:

#178: "a real smarmy 'Why am I the only adult in a world full of children?' tone to your phrasing (not in just this comment) that's very off-putting. Less lecture and more content, please."

I know.

I know how annoying it is. It is infuriating to read, whether you agree with it or not. I seem hysterical, overwrought, making silly comparisons. I know.

I really know.

But it still has to be said. By someone. And probably not just one someone. By lots of someones. And when the real one comes - when all your friends are saying that we should nuke Kabul, we should nuke Mogadishu - you need to remember to be one of the someones, and not one of the people who *didn't* say "ummm.... I know this *looks* bad, but can we wait a few days to find out what happened?"

I know I'm annoying. I'm sorry. But I saw this happening over the weekend and today, and I am truly, existentially scared by this microcosm of our future democracy that we just saw play out.

So: even if the outraged people were right this time. Even if Amazon did something stupid. Even if they wouldn't have responded unless people got outraged. Even if you feel a warm glow inside at having made citizen power work, this one time - and I think that glow is justified - just think about slowing down next time. Even if the people telling you to slow down sound like self-righteous assholes with no sense of proportion, as I know for a fact I do here. Even if all those things prove to be true: please, next time, think about slowing down and waiting until you know more about what happened before contributing to a pile-on.

I know I sound like an idiot. If I didn't think this was so important - again, as a *test*, as a *dry-run*, as a lesson, as a microcosm of our future - I wouldn't be saying these things and running the grave risk of having you think I'm a pompous and self-righteous idiot. (Which, to be fair, I frequently am, but I usually try to hide it better.)

#195 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:14 PM:

Kathryn, #188: "In the end, Amazon's bookselling operation is just a big bookstore which -- as I understand it -- sells about as many copies of individual titles as a Barnes & Noble or Border's superstore. They just carry a lot more titles than the superstore."

I think you or your source is a little out of date on this. I remember when this was a common industry line on Amazon, but that was some years ago. They sell quite a few more books than that now.

#196 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:18 PM:

Jacob @167, for all that you've been comparing the current Twitter response to a mob with pitchforks and torches, I haven't heard any news reports of people physically turning up at Amazon's corporate headquarters with shovels and rakes and implements of destruction. Nor have I seen the Twitter feed calling for physical action.

The responses have called for letters of protest, boycotts, and, at worst, Googlebombing to create a sarcastic definition of "Amazon rank." Some of which may be more in proportion than others, but none of which are acts of violence.

I agree that the behavior is analogous to a public outcry calling for military action against another nation for its perceived offenses. However, I'd say that such a hypothetical Twitter outcry is equally analogous to the Hearst newspapers' "Remember the Maine!" campaign in 1898. The newspaper campaign was slower than Twitter, but suggested a similar level of violence to what you propose.

In any case, I think the moral to draw from it is not "Be careful how you use Twitter," but "Be careful about the sort of president you elect, and don't give hir ways to circumvent a Congressional vote to declare war." Whether the president is getting pressure from newspapers or Twitter feeds, it's still hir job to get the correct information about a national security situation (some of which the public won't have, obviously), and to act in the country's best interest, even in the face of loud public outcry otherwise.

Don't ask The People to slow down if you're concerned about military action. Ask it of the President.

#197 ::: John C. Bunnell ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:19 PM:

You know, I'm suddenly reminded of the weekend many many moons ago when GEnie was suddenly and substantially broken. If memory serves (and Yog can doubtless recall more of the particulars), someone had accidentally released new code that unintentionally trashed the entire bulletin board system....

I leave the groupmind to assess the parallels, as the outside world is calling.

#198 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:19 PM:

Okay, Jacob, but people are acknowledging your points. It's good to be thoughtful. We shouldn't pile on just because everyone else is doing it. Noted.

This conversation is, however, about a whole bunch of things, so let's not overwhelm it with too much about just this one angle.

#199 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:20 PM:

Filker Tom Smith offers an anonymous insider messasge:

I have received a message from someone who works for Amazon (who wants to remain anonymous), saying on good authority that it really actually was a glitch. Somebody did something stupid, and the problem is that the sheer scale of what happened means it will take awhile to sort out. But they are on it.
and some very silly images.

#200 ::: Bryant ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:23 PM:

#199 --

See also That said, none of this is an official response and is still unconfirmed.

#201 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:24 PM:

Lori Coulson, bless you! I've been trying to remember that for years! Putting it on my blog now, because writing is much better than memory.

Lee, thanks for the link. I wish CD Baby gave longer tastes. It's certainly a story that should have a fine song.

Jacob Davies, MobFail's inevitable under both capitalism and whuffie, I fear: people exploit righteous anger on the net to improve their Google rating. How we make calls for patience and peace sexy, I do not know.

#202 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:25 PM:

One more thought - I'm at work with a crisis of my own and shouldn't waste more time on this than I have - this seems another good example of the "fallacy of intention", sorry if I'm misnaming it.

If something bad happens to us, caused by some other entity, we attribute the bad result as being their intention. (When we make a horrible mistake with bad consequences, however, we expect others to judge us not on the results, but on our intentions which we know to be blameless.)

#203 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:27 PM:

#198 I know. Sorry. I probably overstated the case. I do think there are legitimate concenrs about what happened with Amazon. I'm sorry, I know this isn't my blog and I'm not the only person with something to say, I apologize.

Just: holy crap I am scared! Yikes! It's great! It's scary! It's great! It's scary! Sorry if I get a little excited myself about it.

#204 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:31 PM:

That a metadata glitch just happens to manifest in the form of Wingnut propaganda is suspicious, to say the least. But I'll reserve vitriol until more information becomes available.

My favorite comment of the day comes from Matt Fraction on Twitter: "and yet when one searches for 'Girl Scout Cookie' at amazon they still get stripper costumes, wolf urine, and a vaginal speculum."

What a world.

#205 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:35 PM:

Speaking personally, I am fascinated by the investigative aspect of this. Theories have risen and fallen; people have claimed credit and been disproved. The haystack of available information has been combed and the interesting needles laid out.

That's what Twitter and hashtags can do. I was impressed when the plane crashed in Amsterdam the other month, and the RT's and hashes pushed the clearest photos and the best information to the top. People do check before they retweet, and watching the quality of the information get better before one's very eyes was almost magical.

(For the record, I spent the evening of 9/11, and most of the subsequent two days online, urging people in my then community not to rush to judgment, not to call for anyone's head till the evidence was in. I remember what a real howling mob looks like, and this ain't it. I'll keep my powder dry for that kind of day coming again.)

#206 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:36 PM:

Meanwhile, Breaking Dawn is still the #1 "Children's Books > Literature > Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery & Horror" book.

Go read this summary by Cleolinda Jones*. The summary is in 3 sections- this link is to the first, and then continue on to the second, to Chapter 18.

Unless you're pregnant. Please do not read section 2 if pregnant.

So perhaps technically it isn't [some odd definition of porn], as the book only tells you about the (in Cleolinda's words) "...Jrerjbys PCE ba Oryyn'f anxrq, oybbqfgnvarq obql nf Rqjneq naq Wnpbo qryvire gur Qrngu Onol. (RGN: V fubhyq nqq gung gurl qb qryvire vg Pnrfnerna-fglyr. Ol ovgvat vg bhg, juvpu V artyrpgrq gb zragvba orpnhfr V jnf synvyvat fb jvyqyl.) Frevbhfyl, gurl pnaabg znxr guvf vagb n zbivr. V pnaabg vzntvar sbe bar frpbaq ubj gurl pbhyq znxr guvf vagb n zbivr nccebcevngr sbe grrantr tveyf naq xrrc guvf cneg va vg." It doesn't show each step.

That's right, pnaavony fglyr p-frpgvba bs n unys-inzcver purfg-ohefgre onol vf bx sbe gur xvqf. N obbx juvpu vafgrnq vzcyvrf gung bar jbzna znl unir hfrq ure gbathr va qryvirevat gur chefhvg bs unccvarff gb nabgure jbzna? Bu gung'f onq.

*It's a standalone summary, although it's worth reading all the others because she's hilarious.

#207 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:43 PM:

Jacob @ 194: It might help to clarify exactly what it is you think people should stop doing.

Personally, I think loudly and widely saying things like "this sort of censorship and distortion of search results is not cool, and I will shift my custom away from booksellers that practice it" is perfectly appropriate to say right away-- *regardless* of whether this censorship was deliberate or accidental. And a lot of the comment I've seen online is basically along these lines.

(If folks keep quiet when this sort of thing happens, booksellers are more likely to think that most customers don't care about it, and be more willing to try it themselves, or leave non-deliberate distortions unfixed, when it's the pro-censorship folks applying pressure.)

What people do *beyond* protesting, and redirecting their purchasing, is certainly worth more careful consideration. (There's also been some degree of rush to judgment about *why* it happened, much of which I do think is premature.) But, at least on blogs, I've seen nothing remotely akin to the "nuke them" or "kill them all" responses you've made more than once in your analogies. (Or even milder but more plausible responses like lawsuits.)

#208 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:55 PM:

PNH 191: Absolutely. And at least some of us in the GLBTQRSTUVWXYZ community have not forgotten our friends, nor are we ungrateful.

#209 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 04:56 PM:

re 193: Patrick, read again what I said. I didn't say they set out to start a rumor; what I said was that the speculations about why this got set off are going to be the basis for that rumor. The musings (particularly the section on Bantown) are likely to be stripped of context and turn into certainties about how evil Amazon was/is. The nuance gets lost.

re 204: Just did the search. Oy. OTOH the weirdness of those results are helped out substantially by the fact that Amazon doesn't actually sell girl scout cookies. The front page on Amazon (where I haven't ever signed in-- for whatever reason I've never created an Amazon account) does show things that have some consonance with what I've been searching. I have to say though that I have no idea what the sidebar with "Bestsellers in Dumbbells" means.

#210 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 05:02 PM:

While I fully support the centuries-old* practice of using 'they' as the third-person-singular pronoun for persons of indeterminate or unknown gender, I'd like to point out that tehdely self-identifies as male in the third-person-but-clearly-written-himself mini-bio at the end of his linked post, and there's no need to use 'they' in that case.

Unless you want. Far be it from me to stop you.
*No, really. Look it up.

#211 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 05:03 PM:

Amazon's stock price only dipped about 1% today. Hmmm. I guess this means that greed-dominated investors aren't nearly as outraged over this flap as real people are. It looks like Amazon execs will still be able to afford to airlift irradiated Somali orphans to spit-shine their Maybachs in the foreseeable future.

#212 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 05:07 PM:

Lawrence@190: Especially communities of color who, for whatever reason--questions of access, socialization, etc.--aren't as internet-enabled... It's true that people of color, to pick the group at hand, are underrepresented overall online. But it's also true that there are online communities of people of color who are very quick indeed to notice what they see as signs of prejudice and privilege in action and to take response. I'm not going to get into that further because I don't want to poke at sore spots for our hosts; I'll just say that the first I heard about the Amazon trouble was at a black woman's blog, and she had gotten it from others who were spreading the news in tandem with GLBT watchdogs.

Even small fractions of a few hundred million people can add up to a lot of attentive viewers.

#213 ::: Larry ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 05:10 PM:

Xopher @176: oops, transposed 176 and 167. That is my cover at least for the time machine I just invented. If you see a man with Groucho Marx glasses and a banana in his ear..RUN.

#214 ::: adf ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 05:35 PM:

Spamazon's corporate website is hiding here:

Their corporate addresses is given in their SEC 10-K filing:

1200 12th Avenue South, Suite 1200
Seattle, Washington 98144-2734
(206) 266-1000

Their 'investor relations' contact:

Investor Relations
P.O. Box 81226
Seattle, WA 98108-1226
Phone: (206) 266-2171
Fax: (206) 266-1355

Their SEC Section 16 filings can be scraped to find mailing addresses for many of Spamazon's corporate officers.

#215 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 05:35 PM:

Regardless of how or why this happened, it's definitely a case of #riskmanagementdepartmentFAIL. Any risk manager (especially for an organization the size of Amazon) who doesn't understand that managing reputation risk is critical... doesn't understand their job, IMO.

They should have a procedure in place for dealing with things like this. And the definition of "things like this" should include "we can't reach the person or people who are supposed to be responding publicly."

#216 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 05:38 PM:

A comment on Whatever that explains how things work at a Schmookstore called Schmamazon, which is not not not not Amazon, not at all.

Basically, it attributes the problems to what is charitably known as an "insulated silo" management structure, and less charitably as "stupid."

#217 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 05:42 PM:

Jacob, #203: Okay. I had an annoyed response to #194 cued up, but now it seems to be unnecessary.

#218 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 05:43 PM:

C. Wingate, #209: "re 193: Patrick, read again what I said. I didn't say they set out to start a rumor; what I said was that the speculations about why this got set off are going to be the basis for that rumor. The musings (particularly the section on Bantown) are likely to be stripped of context and turn into certainties about how evil Amazon was/is. The nuance gets lost."

Not to put too fine a point on it, but: bullshit. What you wrote was that "the speculations of 'tehdely' et al. have now created the 'Amazon hates gays' meme". I pointed out that tehdely said nothing of the sort; that he was making an entirely different case. For whatever reason, you are unable or unwilling to simply say that you were wrong, or to even let the matter pass; instead, you have returned with an implausible and recondite explanation of how what you really meant was something far more nuanced than the plain meaning of your words.

I realize you feel picked on around here. Tough. I am tired of every lengthy discussion on Making Light spawning a sideshow of pointless arguments generated by stunts of this sort on your part. It has nothing to do with your politics and everything to do with this sort of behavior. Stop it or leave.

#219 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 05:48 PM:

#195 Patrick: I think you or your source is a little out of date on this. I remember when this was a common industry line on Amazon, but that was some years ago. They sell quite a few more books than that now.

Okay, so I hadn't talked to my source about this in several years. My source just came in on the train and I picked his brain on Amazon sales figures. So Amazon sells a higher percentage than they used to. On the top end, Source sayeth that Amazon can make up 20% of the sale for a bestseller; might be say 10% of the distribution for a 10,000 copy print run, taking say 1000 copies when Borders & B&N each take 3000. And on books by smaller sf authors, they might take 200 copies, or they might take 5 copies. Or they might start out small and then sell 80% of the copies of a small book. (Old Man's War?)

The larger issue with Amazon though is the same as with B&N and Borders: that they take lots of copies of the top 100 titles in various specialties, driving specialty shops out of business: science fiction shops, and also gay bookstores, feminist bookstores, perhaps black bookstores, cookbook bookstores, etc., because the specialty stores can't give the discounts on the big books that the chains can, and what they have left to offer customers is the esoterica. With Amazon, the situation is worse because Amazon carries the esoterica, too, and doesn't universally charge sales tax.

And so the specialty shops go out of business and the publishers are at the mercy of the whims of the chains and now of Amazon, and so are the consumers. It is not unlike the situation with small local stores in the face of big box stores. If Borders comes to Mt. Kisco, NY it drives out the 50 year old Mt. Kisco Book Company, and eventually Second Story (run by the former longtime president of the ABA; it went out o f business last month) in Chappaqua, too. If Borders decides to leave, the small stores do not come back. And if the big accounts decide to ditch or selectively represent certain specialties, the specialty shops still do not come back.

The most positive response I can think of is that independent online booksellers should seize this opportunity and take over the specialties that Amazon is mishandling.

#221 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 05:50 PM:

I'd meant to write "the third item that appears when..."

#222 ::: Shalanna Collins ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 06:05 PM:

Jacob @153/135--you're right in your various analyses, and you're apparently one of the few who can keep his head and think logically about this. It's been sort of scary how fast the firestorm rose, IMHO.

The furor going on is more like what I would expect if someone had fired a shot across the bow of a ship, rather than just ONE business changing something about the way THEIR bookstore (not ALL bookstores, even) handles particular books. Sure, it's a problem for those whose books are affected, but it's not a life-or-death issue, and it's something that can be fixed. It may not have been intentional, even.

I posted on my LJ about this last night, theorizing that it is probably the result of a software/database patch that some middle manager thought up and that went terribly wrong, and saying that we should wait to see what happens. But it seems nobody wants to do that--everyone wants to get up in Amazon's face and yell, perhaps to show the power of The Masses. Well . . . it's good to let the merchant know that you will/won't be buying from them again. But is it really THAT BIG A DEAL? Let's wait to see if they fix it. And, hey, if it turns out that you don't like what they do, don't buy from them. They took over a huge market share because people liked what they did--and if people stop liking what they do, they'll disappear. You could always order a book through a local bookstore, you know, instead.

I advocated cool heads last night, and I still do. But people don't like to use logic. They like to use their emotions. And if they feel they're right and they've been wronged, Katy bar the door! *wow* Bloggers have really gone wild on this, advocating "Google-bombing" and other techniques to inconvenience Amazon, out of some sense of revenge or I don't know WHAT . . . when all those things are not necessarily appropriate. We can be grownups about this and communicate with the corporation about our wishes. But if they choose to do business in a way that we don't like, we can't MAKE THEM STOP--all we can do is take our business elsewhere, once we know for sure that's what they're doing on purpose. Until then, I counsel some restraint and waiting. It's just the prudent course of action.

#223 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 06:06 PM:

#217 I appreciate that. Like I say: I apologize if I overstated my case. At great length. In an annoying tone. I kinda suck at times. It's just: the whole thing is kind of mind-blowing, and I am in almost all respects incredibly awed by the future society we're building for ourselves and for the future of the human race.

When I was a kid I read books on The Future, 1970s-style. One had everyone owning something a little like a mobile phone that let them vote - a participatory, universal, rapid-response democracy, of the people, for the people, and by the people. It blew my mind then and it blows my mind now. It's just that today the existential dangers of that society hit me like a freight train. I know other people have had that experience from this and other angles. It's just: holy crap is this thing beautiful and dangerous and wonderful, all at once.

And then I type fast and I write wordily and I like to argue and I'm a contrarian and here we are. I blame the Well. I hope you can forgive the odd transgression after getting hit by a freight train.

#224 ::: Deirdre Saoirse Moen ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 06:10 PM:

Based on the information on Dear Author, it looks like they may have just checked "adult" boxes on these two super-categories:

Books > Subjects > Gay & Lesbian
Books > Subjects > Literature & Fiction > Erotica

The second, okay, well, I can see that being considered adult, but I don't personally choose to have "adult" material censored from my searches.

The first is indefensible.

This comment on tehdely's LJ makes a good point: the marking of things as "adult" is backwards.

Doesn't solve the Heather Has Two Mommies issue, but it does solve the issue for many books.

Still: two checkboxes.

#225 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 06:11 PM:

(It also illustrates the self-similarity of arguments on the Internet. Whether pro or con, whether right or wrong, the same fallacies happen to all sides at all times. The self-righteous fervor one might detect in my earlier posts is itself an example of exactly the kind of thing I was talking about. In those very posts. It's, like, fractal. Dude.)

#226 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 06:14 PM:

Lee @#178: Indeed -- but are you making your living off LibraryThing? in public?

Certainly managing metadata is a hard problem, but Amazon is a very large and ambitious enterprise. Just from what I've been hearing here, they're not half as well coordinated as they really should be, given the scale of their business. (So what else is new?) Remember that part of "good faith" is being able to back up not only your commitments, but your stated policies.

As I said, I'm fairly sure they'll be fixing it as soon as they can. It's still a Grade A screwup (on several counts)! They deserve to take some flak over it... which they are, and will be for some time.

#227 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 06:17 PM:

Incidentally, the Seattle P-I online-retailing blog has been posting about this issue all day, and most recently, they have a statement from Amazon.

#228 ::: HH ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 06:19 PM:

SC@222:Until then, I counsel some restraint and waiting. It's just the prudent course of action.
If upset authors/publishers/customers waited and did nothing, Amazon would have no idea that their de-ranking had upset anyone, and thus would do nothing to reverse it. It is only through people standing up and yelling in Amazon's face that Amazon will become aware of the repercussions of their actions.

But is it really THAT BIG A DEAL?
If it were not, would so many people be taking such quick action? It's distastefully arrogant for you to assume that because it is not a big deal to you it therefore ought not be a big deal to anyone else.

#229 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 06:21 PM:

It's not checkboxes. Really.

However; From the Seattle PI blog, quoting Amazon spokesperson Drew Herdener:

This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.

It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles--in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon's main product search.

Many books have now been fixed and we're in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.

You can find the original here

#230 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 06:22 PM:

Jacob and abi (and others):

It *is* creepy to see how quickly an online conversation can go from somewhat angry to red-hot rage. There's a feedback process of some kind going on there, I think; the anger of one poster feeds into another's anger, and as people who aren't as angry or are turned off by all the rage back away, others who are attracted to rage and the opportunity to express it are drawn in.

I think one difference between this and the post-9/11 discussions (which were chilling in ways this can't aspire to) is that it's likely that, when a proper explanation of all this comes out and the bad policy is changed, much of the rage will evaporate, and that the scope of response to the anger extends no further than, at most, not buying books at amazon. (Obviously, if that happens enough, it will drive them out of business, but I'll admit I doubt that will happen.)

That said, I think Jacob is making an important point. It's easy to get into a self-sustaining outrage-fest online, and it's healthy for neither you nor your society.

#231 ::: Deirdre Saoirse Moen ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 06:26 PM:

Lisa @ 229,

Thank you for the update.

What I meant is that categories were affected, and could have been affected by someone ticking off the adult box when saving the category record; some people seemed to think it involved mass-spamming of many titles. It just doesn't look like that.

A handful of categories being listed as adult could easily account for 57,310 items without sales rank.

#232 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 06:35 PM:

#230 albatross It *is* creepy to see how quickly an online conversation can go from somewhat angry to red-hot rage.

My personal estimate is that there is a sognificant chance that Amazon board members and execs come in for some serious and damaging personal harassment from this mob and that is a very bad thing.

#233 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 06:36 PM:

David @ 150: OK, I didn't pick up on this being about a store full of books instead of an internet full of people...

Problem in that case is, I think, correlating the data. I watched for amazonfail happening, and the data is still inconsistent. If I were watching a thousand books completely without automated tools, I might not correlate a handful of, say, missing tags, with a pattern. If I watched only GLBT, I might, in this case, but I would not notice if, say, it concerned all books by the same small press.

So it's back to counting the lines of connection. In how many ways can those correlations happen? The answer, without a calculator, is "too many". So it needs automated tools who keep an eye on that. And those can be exploited.

Maybe a tool that projects future ranks and listings and alarms a human when projection goes too far off the expected path. With a good strong random component to prevent exploitation.

#234 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 06:37 PM:

This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error

Ya think? I don't know why, but as a catalog librarian, I find this amusing and, truthfully, kind of heartening. Good to know it's not just us liberal arts universities that sometimes screw things up when we catalog. But -- and this is the great thing about computerized metadata -- they're relatively easy to fix, if a bit tedious.

#235 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 06:53 PM:

Fragano @#220-221: And then there's the "Also bought" section: Not one, but all three of the choices are vaginal speculums! I suspect that the only person who bought their jbys hevar from Amazon was a rural gynecologist....

#236 ::: HH ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 06:59 PM:

KC@232: Where has there been any suggestion that Amazon management personnel are being harassed, or should be harassed? Book buyers like myself are not a "mob"; we're unhappy customers.

#237 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 07:04 PM:

Lisa @229, that seems plausible, but if it's true there are still some troubling questions -- namely, why was "Heather Has Two Mommies" listed with any category information like "sexuality" that could remotely be confused with "adult" in any language?

#238 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 07:07 PM:

C. Wingate, let me back Patrick up on his remarks. I do not for one moment believe that "Amazon hates gays". If they did, we'd have noticed it long before now. Also, GLBTs buy a lot of books, and are a fairly well-defined market segment. I've sat in on sales meetings and watched trade publishing salespeople light up at the news that a book has gay content. No big bookseller is going to lightly sell out the gay community's interests. Furthermore, this is hardly the first time that Amazon has screwed up its database in ways that produce spectacularly stupid results.

The idea that Amazon hates gays is an unfortunate misperception some people have understandably fallen prey to. It is not a meme, and it is not inevitable that some substantial number of participants will come out of this thinking Amazon = evil. It's possible that this blowup has been deliberately helped along by trolls, but it doesn't mean those trolls are important, or that their power is held on any but a transient and accidental basis.

Finally, will you please stop imagining that when you claim that something you said was not an error, but rather was more nuanced than any normal reading of your text would suggest, Making Light and its commenters can't tell you're fudging? We've done our best to be polite about it when discussing the habit with you, Abi in particular; but it's stressful, and you aren't acting like you're getting the message. Start getting it now.

(If anyone reading this has wondered whether the Fluorosphere has just been putting up with them, be reassured: if that were the case, you really would hear about it; and we'd most likely be polite, the first six or seven or twelve times it happened.)

#239 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 07:07 PM:

I've just received essentially the same response from Amazon to my email query/complaint that the Seattle PI blog posted.

I still think they need an apology on the front page of their site.

And a Twitter account for Amazon PR.

#240 ::: Jaws (CEP) ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 07:07 PM:

219 With all due respect to sources and claims, without nailing down the definition of "sales" these assertions are meaningless... as documents entered in court in several cases make clear that what B&N calls a "sale" for determining bestseller status is different from what Amazon calls a "sale" for trumpeting its market share to investors. Too, there's also a significant problem with defining the market that makes me question whether #amazonfail is asking the right question(s) in the first place.

None of which is a defense of anything; it wasn't just a hamfisted cataloging error, it was a hamfisted response. That hamfisted response just reinforces my belief in the antitrust problems.

* * *

One side note on "hamfisted": I find one aspect of the alleged cause — which I've seen ascribed both to an employee in France and to an employee in Germany — non-credible. We don't know the exact propagation speed of cataloging changes in Amazon's system, but it's substantially less than an hour in my experience. That said, look at the time differences. This stuff didn't start popping up on the 'net until the end of the business day, US time, on Friday... six hours after the end of the business day in Continental Europe, on a day (Good Friday) that many European employees work only part of the day if at all (particularly since there's no mail or private-carrier delivery in some countries!). In short, the timing doesn't make much sense. There may have been a French/German employee involved in part, but that's only part of the problem... or, perhaps, something done on purpose by that employee, which is something I'd prefer not to unwind.

#241 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 07:09 PM:

Deirdre @ 224: The second, okay, well, I can see that being considered adult, but I don't personally choose to have "adult" material censored from my searches.
The first is indefensible.

Yes, this.

Hi amazon, I'm logged in, I have a credit card, I have not pressed any opt-out button, there is no opt-in button (that I can see) that I might have not clicked, why do you think I'll be getting a case of the vapours if I get adult books on my searches?

Regarding all GLBT as adult is indefensible. Playing nanny to people who will never see 21 again is infuriating.

#242 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 07:19 PM:

HH @232, if you want to see the difference between an unhappy customer and a would-be mob leader, search "amazonfail googlebomb".

Fragano @220, don't be dissing that search string! "Mrs. Coolidge eating cookies presented by a New York Girl Scout troop" is charming.

#243 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 07:26 PM:

#242 will: You read my mind. I was just going to suggest googling "googlebomb amazon". "Googlebomb" is an Internet mobbing keyword. If they collectively googlebomb, then they are a mob.

#244 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 07:46 PM:

inge #233: The answer, without a calculator, is "too many". So it needs automated tools who keep an eye on that.

True but incomplete... I think you'll agree that automated tools simply can't do the job by themselves. They can and do aggregate data, and do a good deal of scutwork for their human masters, but you still need humans supervising.

Now, there are obviously natural limits to what programs can do here, and my intuition is that those limits are probably fairly consistent for a given scenario. Going back to the "babies" analogy, you can group them into rooms, set rules for where you'll let them wander, and so on. That can keep your staff needs from growing proportionally to the number of babies -- but you still need more staff for more babies, and the question is how many more.

So, what I was (and am still) wondering was really: Assuming that you can and do make full use of programs, databases, automated monitors, and so on, are there discoverable rules for how many humans are (still) needed to reliably supervise such a dataset, one that's both volatile and vulnerable? Such rules would of course be hugely valuable, for this and many other situations!

#245 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 08:06 PM:

I think there's a distinct tendency for certain Internet angerfests to go logarithmic for a very simple reason: most of us find it easier to get angry on behalf of our friends than on our own behalf.

Thus when a dozen of us are all angry on our own behalf, and we all see one another doing it in realtime (on Twitter, blogs, IM!), the "mad-on-my-friends'-behalf" response kicks in in addition, and escalation ensues.

#246 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 08:07 PM:

will shetterly #242: "would be mob leader?"

I'd say that SBTB's snarky Googlebomb is a creative and non-violent response to getting slapped in the face!

As noted above, the whole business, of deranking books according to poorly-verified metadata, is Pure Dumb right out of the gate. Mockery is the least they can expect!

#247 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 08:08 PM:

And things like Twitter make it so easy to know when your friends are upset.

#248 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 08:10 PM:

David Harmon, nobody got slapped in the face. I say this as someone who's had many occasions to feel semi-personally Done Wrong by Amazon's database snafus.

#249 ::: Larry ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 08:10 PM:

It sounds like they (Amazon) has the ability to define certain categories of books within types of classifications. A Meta-category. Taking what the amazon response was it could be that someone misclicked for any reason. I am going to hazard a guess at what happened:

Idiot Amazon Employee - "Oh no, it's late in the day. I need to get out of here for the weekend since it is Easter. Let me just click this thing and send it out, i've done it before no big deal"

*Thing go mad with ranking and delisting. Amazonfail begins to brew. *

Amazon realizes something is going on but has no idea who did what when because they may not audit it properly or because the primary support personnel are not around. This is what happens when you don't have a dedicate operations group to handle this thing.

Monday rolls around. A lot of people in the EU are off on Monday too. Now you have people trying to figure out what happened over time and they eventually figure it out and roll back the change. Probably they had to do some stuff to restore the books. I am guessing they did a one shot query to undo it assuming they don't purge delisted book data only flag it as "do not show"

Total mess up. Kind of amateurish really. No reason it should have happened if they had actual QA and Change procedures in place to track this stuff. If they had a real change process (like ITIL for example) they'd have caught the change right away. Sounds like they took a lot of time to figure out what happened and more time to figure out how to fix it.

#250 ::: ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 08:18 PM:


This is NOT a miss-click.

This is someone using GREP and SQL queries to first pull a set of records in the database and then to remove the flag that says "display sales rankings."

This was an employee doing what he was supposed to do, only doing it stupidly and badly.

I get that. I know, quite personally, how those things happen.

I also know that they could have posted a public apology by now. I've received two copies of the "ham fisted" email.

But I'm sorta thinking--I don't want to give business to a company that is this stupid about PR.

I'm also thinking I don't want a company that is this stupid about IT and rollbacks and re-tagging to have my credit card in its database.

#251 ::: HH ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 08:28 PM:

242, 243: Mob. Googlebomb. Oh noes! Public mockery! Awareness that lots of people noticed our screw-up!

In case you hadn't noticed, it worked precisely as it was meant to work. And Amazon woke up. And no one got hurt. Contrary to KC's assertion, no one has identified any Amazon board members by name, or given out their addresses, or suggested they be harassed. Which I totally agree *would* be bad. Heck, that'd be like deliberately outing a gay person who uses an online pseudonym.

#252 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 08:42 PM:

I like the tactical syntax argument. The core trouble seems to be that tactical syntax practitioners are the naked short sellers in a necessarily unregulated marketplace of ideas.

#253 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 08:44 PM:

Okay, enough of that. This topic is not going to be a venue for ax-grinding about other recent controversies, period the end. If you think I might be talking about you, I probably am.

I agree with Kathryn (and with Jacob Davies) that the always-online, constantly-connected thing presents some social dangers we haven't fully come to grips with, particularly when Immediacy and Anonymity decide to do their cabaret pas de deux at 2 AM.

I also agree with Making Light newcomer "HH" (welcome, put your feet up) that this particular exercise has seemed more like the work of outspoken customers than like a "mob." Indeed, tossing around terms like "mob" seems uncomfortably like a way of dehumanizing people who behave in ways of which we disapprove. What I meant by comment #245 was that stuff that gets dismissed as "mob" behavior isn't the work of orcs; it's something human beings do, for actual reasons, having to do with our nature and our needs.

#254 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 08:45 PM:

And incidentally: New York Times summary of events so far, here.

#255 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:01 PM:

Teresa @#248: Teresa, you are an amazingly sensible, charitable, and mature person, with a deep experience and understanding of the publishing industry. In short, you're exceptional!

While this was (now-)certainly an accident on Amazon's part, it's one that hit a whole lot of people in sensitive places. As evidenced by their writings, many of those did feel personally attacked, and some just weren't equipped to shrug it off as "just a mistake".

I won't be surprised (or even disappointed) if "SB Sarah" ends up retracting the campaign, but I'm also completely unsurprised by her response! Amazon is just lucky that it was a snarker who thought of the Googlebomb, instead of a troll like that "brutal_honesty" character -- or worse, an opportunistic hacker.

#256 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:15 PM:

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.

#257 ::: sara ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:21 PM:

Though no doubt someone has said this, and the IT experts and librarians here know this already, you should not use tags that have multiple and ambiguous meanings. "Adult" is a disaster in this respect. Obscene? Advanced reading level? Concerning adult life stages? "Adult" is an euphemism!

"Sexual" still has too many meanings. A text may be about sexuality but contain no explicit depictions of sex or conventionally obscene terms. E.g. medical textbooks, GLBT sociology books, and academic studies of sexuality (all hammered by the Amazon glitch).

I suggest replacing "adult" with "explicit." This pertains to texts that are conventionally considered obscene (though, of course, by many people it is not). Nevertheless, its meaning is much narrower. "Erotic" is another possibility, though not all explicit texts are erotica, and not all erotica is explicit.

I'm not an expert. I'm an MLS. student just one month from passing/failing a course in cataloging ("information structure" today). It heartens me to find that though I feel rather stupid at cataloging, Amazon collectively is more stupid.

#258 ::: adf ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:34 PM:

Assume Amazon did this by accident.

The speed and strength of community pushback serves one very useful purpose: it conveys very clearly what the consequences will be if Amazon--or any other systemically important monopoly retailer--decides to pull a similar stunt on purpose.

#259 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:42 PM:

So, um. There's now an Official Explanation ( and all that.

Also read, who apparently is where some of the places like Fox News are getting their information on what happened -- but through a glass murkily, he says. In particular, the news that this was about tags named "adult" and "explict" apparently traces back to his usage of those as EXAMPLES of the what the confused tags might have been -- not any knowledge of what the particular tags were. So arguments that those are stupid tags are, despite being reasonable arguments, arguing against a straw man.

#260 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:46 PM:

I also used the word mob, and I don't think that was fair of me.

As for Twitter, maybe we need a dialog box that pops up and says "You seem to be joining an angry online mob. Are you sure about that? [YES] [NO]", with "[YES]" greyed out for 15 minutes. OK, maybe not in such extremely-annoying Office-paperclip-like terms, I'm not so good at social design. But it'd be good if we could figure this out before someone gets hurt. It's all fun and games being an angry mob until someone loses an eye. Sorry to be a stuck record. But, anyway, duh, I know this is not one of the times that it was really important, and you all aren't the only people who'll need to remember it when the time comes, and who the hell am I to tell anyone who's right and who's wrong, so, sorry for the tone.

Though, to get about as meta as you can get - and actually I am pretty sure someone already thought of this, I just can't remember who - I wonder if the light speed barrier (aside from being innately required by relativity) is also required in the anthropic sense by this danger; that is, to stop even well-meaning civilizations from blowing each other away without a chance to send an "Um, we changed our mind" recall message. It doesn't 100% eliminate the possibility, but at least it gives a minimum of a few years to think over your decision before your Vogon constructor fleet arrives at its destination. We all make mistakes, and it would be good if we all had the chance to change our minds before the consequences of mistakes take effect. In a universe without a lightspeed limit it would be easy for civ A to have their sun accidentally blown up by, say, garbage ejected through a portal created by the nice, fastidious, but clueless civ B, then have civ A hyperdrive over to civ B and nuke them without giving them a chance to say "oops, my bad!" Hard to evolve in a universe like that.

#261 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:46 PM:

Also, an idea: What if Amazon said, in response to this: "For the next two weeks, any book affected by this is 20% off."

#262 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:51 PM:

Firing the poor schmuck who pressed the wrong button (as I predicted way back in comment #20) isn't going to make Amazon's problems - both internal design and public relations - go away. I would hope that they are intelligent enough to realize that but still fear that they are not.

#263 ::: Shalanna Collins ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:53 PM:

Here's something heartening.

"4:36 p.m. A new Twitter hash tag has arisen. It is #SorryAmazon."--from the SeattlePI blog

This is a good sign. Now perhaps Amazon will post some kind of notice on its front page to let authors know it's dealing with the problem.

Could it be that this issue got blown out of proportion? Many people leapt to conclusions and started campaigning in a hard-line sense right away. But the same result could most likely have been had without "googlebombing" and with far less panic. It's the size of the outcry as compared to the actual importance of the issue that prompted me to say "it's not that big a deal."

Because, really, it isn't--it's ONE bookstore changing something in its search terms. The site never said that it would stop *carrying* "adult" or GLBT or feminist books. It's another argument in favor of supporting your neighborhood booksellers, especially independents (if there are any left). But it's not A BIG DEAL in the larger sense. It's not a bad medical diagnosis for you or a loved one/family friend; it's not the loss of a home by fire; it's not the washing away of an entire community by a flood or the destruction of an entire small town by a tornado; it's not a declaration of war between countries. What I would like to see is people keeping this in perspective. When I say it's not that big a deal and can be reversed, I am thinking of things that are more important, like people's lives. A few books that may not turn up on searches for a couple of days or weeks aren't as important as these other larger issues. I'd love to see such an outcry on the 'net over something really important, such as poverty . . . war . . . natural disaster relief . . . stuff like that. (*Of course, those things are not so easily fixed, are they?*)

HH: I asked, "But is it really THAT BIG A DEAL?" And you replied, "If it were not, would so many people be taking such quick action?"

Yes. I don't judge how serious a situation is by how many people online you can get to post, "Put this link in your blog," or whatever. We need to keep a sense of perspective. It appears that Amazon is taking steps right now--and who can say whether they would have done that already, even without the uproar? All we had to do was notify them politely that this shouldn't be happening, and then wait.

>It's distastefully arrogant for you to assume that because it is not a big deal to you it therefore ought not be a big deal to anyone else.Here's something heartening.

"4:36 p.m. A new Twitter hash tag has arisen. It is #SorryAmazon."--from the SeattlePI blog

This is a good sign. Now perhaps Amazon will post some kind of notice on its front page to let authors know it's dealing with the problem.

Could it be that this issue got blown out of proportion? Many people leapt to conclusions and started campaigning in a hard-line sense right away. But the same result could most likely have been had without "googlebombing" and with far less panic. It's the size of the outcry as compared to the actual importance of the issue that prompted me to say "it's not that big a deal."

Because, really, it isn't--it's ONE bookstore changing something in its search terms. The site never said that it would stop *carrying* "adult" or GLBT or feminist books. It's another argument in favor of supporting your neighborhood booksellers, especially independents (if there are any left). But it's not A BIG DEAL in the larger sense. It's not a bad medical diagnosis for you or a loved one/family friend; it's not the loss of a home by fire; it's not the washing away of an entire community by a flood or the destruction of an entire small town by a tornado; it's not a declaration of war between countries. What I would like to see is people keeping this in perspective. When I say it's not that big a deal and can be reversed, I am thinking of things that are more important, like people's lives. A few books that may not turn up on searches for a couple of days or weeks aren't as important as these other larger issues. I'd love to see such an outcry on the 'net over something really important, such as poverty . . . war . . . natural disaster relief . . . stuff like that. (*Of course, those things are not so easily fixed, are they?*)

HH: I asked, "But is it really THAT BIG A DEAL?" And you replied, "If it were not, would so many people be taking such quick action?"

Yes. I don't judge how serious a situation is by how many people online you can get to post, "Put this link in your blog," or whatever. We need to keep a sense of perspective. It appears that Amazon is taking steps right now--and who can say whether they would have done that already, even without the uproar? All we had to do was notify them politely that this shouldn't be happening, and then wait.

>It's distastefully arrogant for you to assume that because it is not a big deal to you it therefore ought not be a big deal to anyone else.

Well . . . I suppose that if you've never had any serious medical diagnosis, house fires, or the like, then a software issue on ONE bookstore's website might seem to loom large. Most people have experienced something that IS a really big deal, though, and they keep this sort of thing in perspective. This was something that it was appropriate to ask the company to change, and to call their attention to in a reasonable way (though not by GoogleBombing), but certainly is not a crisis. We can always quit buying from them, as I keep pointing out, if it bugs us.

What I conclude from this is: we need to support a variety of book selling businesses, especially independents. We can vote with our patronage. We don't have to patronize a store that does things we don't like. We should give someone or someplace a chance to fix something before we condemn them wholesale.

That's all I meant.

#264 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 09:58 PM:

The rankings as they now stand may support the thesis that whoever at Amazon simply reset the rank on the affected books to zero. The paperback of Brokeback Mountain is now up to #94,398 in Books, whereas the HC is still languishing at #638,286. For Lady Chatterley's Lover the Penguin edition is now at #218,861, while the Signet edition still doesn't rank. (BTW, the last is only tagged "classic", for what that's worth.) The hardcover, which is amazonfail-tagged, is up to #93,707. I'm of the suspicion that these ranks are rising due to post-"glitch" sales, with the discrepancies among the editions reflecting their popularity.

#265 ::: Shalanna Collins ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:02 PM:

*sigh* I swear that post looked fine when I previewed it. The first half got duplicated somehow.

But anyway, now the Seattle blog says:

~~Amazon managers found that an employee who happened to work in France had filled out a field incorrectly and more than 50,000 items got flipped over to be flagged as "adult," the source said. (Technically, the flag for adult content was flipped from 'false' to 'true.')

~~"It's no big policy change, just some field that's been around forever filled out incorrectly," the source said.

This is plausible to me. What a mess to have to clean up--manually!

#266 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:04 PM:

C. Wingate, I feel certain that after hanging out on Making Light as long as you have, you know better than to post a comment before catching up on the thread.

#267 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:24 PM:

[First paragraph deleted by PNH, who meant what he said in #253.]

Teresa, when the thread's hot, I, at least, can find myself 20 comments behind by the time I compose, preview, and post. Now I'm wondering how far behind I'll be when I click this.

#268 ::: hapax ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:25 PM:

Okay, here's why I think this is a Big Deal.

Lay aside my indignation about Amazon's "embarrassing and hamfisted" efforts to protect my innocent eyeballs from the Nasssssty books -- without my consent. Lay aside my rage on behalf of my friends that their very identity and concerns are somehow branded as vaguely indecent. That's all personal stuff. I don't like it, but Amazon, as a private company, is free to market their materials as they like, just as I am free to patronize their business -- or not -- as they like.

What really concerns me -- as a professional librarian (like many others here) -- is this has highlighted an unfortunate tendency to rely upon Amazon as a de facto reference source -- for release dates, for series and pseudonymns, for reviews, and for quick and dirty readers advisory.

I have tended to use Amazon this way not just because it is fast and easy (as compared to more authoritative sources such as BIP and WorldCat, for example), but because, in a very real way, I trusted in the magic of the marketplace. In other words, I ceded Amazon an authoritative status it did not deserve because I assumed that it was in their best business interests to provide me with complete, accurate and useful information.

Yes, Amazon has screwed up before, and spectacularly, and they will do it again. But for me, the issue is not so much anger at the company (although, yeah, epic PR fail) as a very real worry about the implicit assumptions that even information professionals are making.

It's rather like suddenly finding a glaring factual error in Wikipedia; my first instinct is to say "What went wrong with THEM?" But my second, and more important concern is "Why am I still using this source when I know this sort of thing is bound to happen? And how can I protect myself and others from this sort of misinformation?"

So don't assume that we are all marching on Seattle with torches and pitchforks. There's a fair amount of introspection going around, too.

#269 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:48 PM:

@250 Lisa wrote: "This is someone using GREP and SQL queries to first pull a set of records in the database and then to remove the flag that says "display sales rankings.""

Well, no. Apparently, and it seems reasonable, everything in the database has an 'adult' flag, and the website simply reacts to whether an item's adult flag is Yes or No. (Which makes more sense to me than a 'display sales rank' flag. I would think a 'display sales rank' routine would instead check various fields in a catalog record to determine what to display.)

That means changing that tag in a lot of records could be as simple as doing a simple query to, say, update all records from id 100 to id 50000 setting adult=YES.

If the person was using a graphical SQL tool, the error could be as simple as that the employee meant to set an adjacent field to 'YES' and instead clicked on the 'adult' field.

The fact that non-GLBT material was treated the same way certainly suggests that it wasn't a surgical SQL strike against certain materials.

And Occam's razor suggests believing the 'adult field' explanation. Setting one field wrong in a bunch of records is a whole lot easier than concocting precise lists of item ids and writing scripts to target them specifically.

#270 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:51 PM:

I'm still puzzled by one thing: people have been saying that they were seeing instances of this problem, on a smaller scale, some time ago. (There was some speculation that that might have been a "trial run", back when one of the theories was that some group was somehow gaming Amazon's ranking system.) Was that caused by an unrelated problem?

#271 ::: jb ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 10:52 PM:

As a gay person and one-time Amazon employee here's something I don't get:

Did we all completely lose sight of the fact that Amazon told gay authors it was going to unrank their books based on content?

We don't need to go over the "glitch" or the French defense. They're just silly, and clearly a way for them to cover their asses.

Amazon made a policy decision and acted on it, however poorly. They got caught, and they issued a statement--that didn't include an apology, by the way.

Personally, I'm thrilled for all the people--gay and straight--who took this on and forced the hand of a powerful corporation. It's not a mob. It's typing. It's people taking direct action on behalf of a societal minority. Good on you.

#272 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:08 PM:

"Did we all completely lose sight of the fact that Amazon told gay authors it was going to unrank their books based on content?"

You're reading too much into what happened.

Here's what happened:

Customer service rep gets a question about why sales rank disappeared from a book. Rep brings up the book's record, and looks at all the fields including fields not shown on the web. One is the 'adult' flag. For the book in question, the flag is YES.

So the customer service rep knows only that the book is tagged as 'adult'. Doesn't have the first clue why, specifically, the book was tagged as such. And, is likely inclined to assume the tag was, for whatever reason, placed there intentionally in accordance to policy.

So the Customer Service rep just explains the impact of a book being tagged 'adult'.

There's no implication *at all* that the book is tagged adult because of a companywide policy against GLBT items. No attention is given to the question of *why* it's tagged that way. There's just the assumption by the CS rep that it was done on purpose because of the content of the specific book - if the specific book is tagged adult it must be (the CS rep thinks) because the book fit the description of the items that are tagged as adult.

The CS rep doesn't know what's actually *in* the book, after all. All they have is a database record and the policy that covers all records with that little field set to YES.

You might as well ask a CS Rep why a book is 8"x10" or hardcover. All they know is what the database says about a particular catalog item, and what the policies are, if any, for an item described that way.

And that's why the Customer Service Rep said what they said. They didn't admit to some policy to tag GLBT material as 'adult'. That's just useless panic.

#273 ::: Anonymoose ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:09 PM:

I once took down an entire call center for more than two hours, where about a thousand people were working, because of a trivial error in a SQL statement that caused an escalating series of locks in the database that had to be manually cleared. I don't even want to guess what it cost that organization to have that happen, or how much hassle and stress it caused the people who were working there.

That organization could have fired the software vendor I worked for as clients because of that. They didn't. My employer could have fired me because of that. They didn't. Why? Because they assumed that we/I made a mistake, and not that we/I acted with malice, or even that we/I were careless in general. (I am not sure that I didn't deserve to be fired for it, but I wasn't, so there it is.) Until Amazon proves that they don't deserve that presumption of innocence, it is a mistake to deny it to them over something like this. Period.

#274 ::: Arachne Jericho ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:13 PM:


Speaking from experience, Amazon customer service representatives are spotty when it comes to an issue that can't fit into a standard customer template (i.e., like "this didn't get delivered" or "I got double-charged for this stuff"). Which is not surprising.

The standard stuff they do very, very well.

But when it comes to more nuanced questions, like "what is your policy on LGBT literature?", most Amazon customer representatives fall apart on an over-generalized statement that actually doesn't reflect company policy because they never bother to ask anyone above them. And thus no one notices until, of course, it explodes.

The customer rep name you gave in your blog post is one I recognize. I have had bad experiences with him/her in regards to non-standard questions, much less any that even remotely touch on policy.

#275 ::: Arachne Jericho ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:15 PM:

And Jon at #272 has the better answer!

#276 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:24 PM:

Jon #269

Well, no. Apparently, and it seems reasonable, everything in the database has an 'adult' flag, and the website simply reacts to whether an item's adult flag is Yes or No. (Which makes more sense to me than a 'display sales rank' flag. I would think a 'display sales rank' routine would instead check various fields in a catalog record to determine what to display.)

That means changing that tag in a lot of records could be as simple as doing a simple query to, say, update all records from id 100 to id 50000 setting adult=YES.

Except that isn't what happened. First, they did a records sweep on specific categories; their official statement pointing out that numerous subject categories "Gay & Lesbian themed titles--in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica" make it clear that specific kinds of content were involved.

But the categories they used for their query are related to more specific content descriptors; see this discussion and the specific examples.

So they got their targeted records based on the categories they queried. Then they set the Adult flag that runs the script to update the visible sales rank data.

And it's a terminal interface, with lines showing the relationships between the tables. It's not a GUI. There's another tool, with a primitive GUI for multi-lingual stuff, but that would have had identical results on the French and German sites; the results are not identical except for the books in English with identical ISBN numbers to the US books. It's also interesting to look at the flagged categories in terms of why one edition was denuded of sales rank data when another wasn't.

You know, if Amazon actually apologized on their front page, and if they actually looked at the ethics of selling items that they don't want to acknowledge selling, I'd be less annoyed.

But now? I'm not buying the "French," or the "German" guy made a mistake--which, by the way, I've not seen from an Amazon PR person. And my friends who work there say that's not the way it works even now.

I am buying that the metadata for some books in inaccurate because the out sourced taggers don't speak English fluently, but that's not really the prime mover here.

The prime mover here is that Amazon wanted to hide adult content from search results, and, for whatever reason, they screwed up.

#277 ::: hapax ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:26 PM:

@273: Umm, "presumption of innocence" only applies in a legal setting. Nobody (okay, very few) people are talking about suing Amazon, let alone putting the programmer in jail or executing them.

What people are talking about is *choosing to spend their money elsewhere.* It's ridiculous to act like Amazon has any sort of right to my book-buying dollars, that they have to be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt before I take them to Powell's or wherever.

I can do that for any reason I like, or for no reason at all. I can even suggest other people do the same. They have equal freedom to ignore me, or not.

That's how the system works. At least as long as we still have alternatives.

#278 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:27 PM:

Tereas, I was already working on a response to your chastising, and interrupted it because (a) the on-topic discussion of the numbers is more interesting, and (b)


I was (and still am) finding it hard to respond without exposing a great deal of frustrated anger at the way the discussion was turned off topic in the cause of attacking me. Patrick could have accepted the failure of communication and pursued the point I said I had intended to make. I might even have changed my mind, if he had argued against that point. But instead, he chose to make an issue of me.

Having spent more time than I should reviewing what I have said here, it does seem to me that he is right that I have knocked a lot of discussions off track. I do not think that the reasons behind that bear discussion here, but be that as it may, the only path forward appears to be more vigilant self-censorship. I'm sorry I have made such a poor job of it here.

#279 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:32 PM:

"make it clear that specific kinds of content were involved."

This is a definition of 'specific' that I'm not familiar with. It looks fairly fuzzy.

A query that is 'specific' to GLBT-interest issues yet also manages to haul in disability-related subjects?

#280 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:35 PM:

Will, I feel certain that if there were two comments by the proprietors addressed specifically to you, you'd notice them before hitting the button.

Shalanna, I noticed. I'll peel off the superfluous half, if you want. What goes where?

Hapax, you're not the only librarian in this thread, and to the best of my knowledge I agree with all of you. I've seen the same problem crop up in the publishing industry, where everyone uses Amazon instead of Books in Print because it's so much faster.

If you want to see a fairly blatant illustration of why this is a bad idea, look at the Amazon listings for Jim and Debra's books. If you come back and tell me that they've finally straightened those out, and no longer identify Jim as the illustrator on some of those titles, I'll be so delighted that I won't care about having an unsupported point. We first told them about that glitch -- what, five or ten years ago?

Lisa Spangenberg @250:

This is NOT a miss-click.

This is someone using GREP and SQL queries to first pull a set of records in the database and then to remove the flag that says "display sales rankings."

This was an employee doing what he was supposed to do, only doing it stupidly and badly.

Yes. I don't know what prompted this change in their procedures, but it was clear to me as of this morning that this wasn't a mis-click or a minor glitch. This was a Bad Idea.

It was also clear to me as of this morning that it was stupidly implemented. I knew that as soon as I heard they'd de-ranked Lady Chatterly's Lover, The Well of Loneliness, and Heather Has Two Mommies, but not American Psycho. That told me they were working from old lists of GLBT, "adult", and "controversial" works, most likely drawn from nannyware.

Searching on "Fanthorpe" appeared to confirm this hypothesis. Once you've de-ranked controversial books published by conventional publishers, the obvious next move is to de-rank books published by known porn houses. The works of R. L. Fanthorpe make a good test case because they're among the only non-pornographic titles published by Badger Books.

I'm angry too. I'm angry that something this sensitive was handed off to someone who didn't know the literature well enough to foresee the outcome. I'm also angry that so much GLBT literature was being deprecated in Amazon searches. If it had still had its rankings, and had still been in searches but deprecated, would we ever have noticed?

Brooks Moses @261:

Also, an idea: What if Amazon said, in response to this: "For the next two weeks, any book affected by this is 20% off."
That's a brilliant idea. From your mouth to God's ears.

#281 ::: WildlyParenthetical ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:39 PM:

I'm intrigued by the '#sorryamazon' thing. What are people sorry for, exactly? Most of this 'angry mob' (c'mon, people, why are customers expressing dissatisfaction considered an 'angry mob'? How precisely were they 'supposed' to act? And why?) have spent their time simply pointing out the fail to their friends, and maybe adding titles to lists of excluded books. This is to create accountability in the cleanup, and I for one think it's a good plan.

I actually suspect that Patrick's explanation is pretty close to reality. I think that 'gay&lesbian' and 'sexuality' became switches for 'adult' flagging. This hasn't been covered to any great extent, but academic books have been major losses in this process, and would seem to bear out this theory (along with the loss of disability & sexuality books, and books like "The 'Fat' Female Body".) In addition, I doubt porn is marked 'sexuality,' but self help style books like 'The Joy of Sex,' at least one version of which was de-ranked, will be.

But people seem to be thinking that if/because it's 'unintentional', it's okay. I'm so not convinced this is the case. First of all, any form of censorship of search results ought to be thoroughly tested, and it is, actually, okay to be unhappy with companies which don't properly test it, or roll out changes without fully considering the consequences. Second of all, I think this points out the politics of meta-data, something which is often forgotten in this digital age, but which Richard Nash (linked above: points to. Straight romance isn't marked 'straight,' just as 'romance'. It's only those 'deviations' which are marked as such, and this makes them vulnerable to these kinds of 'glitches'. Third, I think this indicates that the options aren't as clear as 'unintentional & innocent' and 'intentional & guilty'. It is, actually, okay to hold people responsible for 'glitches' which arise because of their own db formation (even if it is in echo of larger structures) and their inability to negotiate properly with that. And it is, actually, okay to call the outcome 'homophobic,' whatever the intention was: why should the intention define the significance of the act, when clearly it has affected GLBT authors, readers and publishers unfairly harshly? And to be honest, I think most of the twitter carry-on understands this balance of innocence and guilt: the word is 'amazonfail', not 'amazonevil'. And failure, it's clear, can and ought to be cleaned up. Where's the mob?

One final thing: I think that this issue goes beyond the removal of sales ranks. I looked for 'A critical introduction to Queer Theory' when this first hit the fan. Originally, all that was listed were the out-of-print hardbacks. I could find a paperback version (not the most current one) by searching under the author's name, or clicking through the 'paperback' option within the title itself. But now the current paperback appears when you search for the title, but it still doesn't have a sales rank. So I think that there's two issues: searchability and sales rank (which obvs. are sometimes intertwined).

Thanks for an awesome commentariat, btw. A refreshing change!

#282 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:44 PM:

C. Wingate, that answer is worth a lot of credit.

#283 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2009, 11:50 PM:

hapax @277 QFT

There's something awfully odd about the repeated insistence from peers that it's our duty as consumers to let bygones be bygones because amazon has now (sort-of) explained stuff by means of blaming some poor guy overseas. (Let's let that one go, for now, in spite of the interesting "the real meaning got lost in translation" nature of that explanation.)

Talk about your weird backlash. I just told the board that AW would be using a Powell's affiliation in the future, but the users are, of course, free to do what they want.

Cue immediate storm of alarmed posts and PMs, telling me that I couldn't do that, it was unfair.

I've just had to reiterate:

"Look - this is very simple:

--I had a crappy experience this weekend with a retailer.

--That retailer made sort of vague and evasive explanations for that crappy experience, and ended up blaming some anonymous schmuck overseas for that crappy experience.

--I won't be returning to that retailer with my wallet in hand, any time soon.

--I won't be recommending that retailer to my friends, family, and acquaintances, anymore.

I'm not planning to picket them. I did not participate in the google-bombing, either. If someone asks me, though, "hey, what about that retailer" I'm perfectly within my rights to say, "well, do what you want -- but I had a crappy experience there, and I'll be walking down the street to my local bookstore and ordering it there, instead."

#284 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 12:02 AM:

Shalanna Collins @ 263:

First off, it seems that the blog software has a bit of a hiccup when you put in a < sign, so that it dupes everything up to that point. Use &lt; for < and &gt; for >.

As to your comment, yes it's is a big deal. Amazon is a very, very, very large bookstore. They sell a lot of books. If they offer things but you can't find them without looking explicitly for them, they're not going to sell.

If all of a sudden you can't find a lot of gay content, but you can still find Playboy stuff and books on how to 'cure' being gay, that looks a hell of a lot like bigotry. It makes no sense for a company like Amazon to engage in it, which puzzled us, and a lot of us were rightly appalled. It smacks of censorship and bigotry, all rolled up into one package.

Now, it seems they didn't really mean to do it and are fixing it, which is good. They de-ranked other content besides GLBT books, but that still feeds right into the censorship again. I don't recall deciding I wanted them to nanny me.

Your comparisons to house fires and medical problems are specious, not to mention a little on the offensive side. If all of a sudden I took an action that made it appear that you and people like you were second-class citizens, I hope you'd be appalled too.

No one's gone to Amazon's headquarters and threatened them (at least no one that I know of). We've used words, on the internet. We informed them that what they did was unacceptable.

hapax and others are right as well; it's a loss of trust. Maybe we were wrong to trust a large company, but it's still a loss all the same.

#285 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 12:18 AM:

I've said for a while now that I hate doing business with I hate their website's pushy selling, I hate the way they conceal their shipping locations so that there's no way to make an intelligent shipping method decision, I hate the way they tried to patent the online vending machine: "push a button, make a purchase" is not a new idea. They're said to be anti-union, too. I always end up wanting to count my fingers, when I leave their web site. For these reasons I've been calling them the medium-evil empire for some time now. But I think they're taking flack for an actual mistake here--but something they would have avoided if they could. I don't know that any other major on-line retail business is a better choice to do business with, though I know others whose web sites I prefer.

And, yes, no commercial source is a reliable reference service, unless reference is their business. This also, btw, applies to Google's public search facility, though I think they're pretty good, and do try to live up to their "don't be evil" motto. Google Books and Google Scholar, on the other hand, are designed as reference sources, and are probably quite honest and reliable.

#286 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 12:28 AM:

#194 Jacob Davies

I remember back before the eight years of Christian Dominionist strangulation on the USA, that there were people begging the USA to invade Afghanistan and remove Taliban from abominations it was committing on the people and especially the women and girls of Afghanistan. Women in Pakistan in Taliban-influenced areas were having ultrasound and aborting female fetuses not because they regarded girl babies as a detriment to family finances and future, but because they considered it a worse fate to die as a fetus than be born female into a place controlled by Talibian--Physicians for Human Rights had statements from the women themselves saying that, I remember it from a Nightline program during the Clinton years when Newt the hypocrite was Speaker of the House and the Replithugs controlled Congress--that was back before ABC had become yet another mouthpiece for tyranny instead of a mockery of "free" press and reportage based on the precepts of reporting the news rather than spreading propaganda and reporting "news" to be a profit center pandering to the advertisers' sociopoliticoreligiosity "values."

#223 Jacob
Ever been to a Town Meeting in a New England town?!

#263 Shalanna
The front page of today's Boston Globe has an article about electronic medical records.... The body text of the article started out, When Dave deBronkart, a tech-savvy kidney cancer survivor, tried to transfer his medical records, I said to myelf know that person!" Last time I saw him was at a college dormfloor reunion two years ago, he was frail and in a wheelchair and determinedly surviving despite his illness.

(You mentioned dire illness, synchronicity hit that the Globe front page today has had an article about an old acquaintaince who was neardeathly ill from cancer.)

Meanwhile... some folks mentioned soft quality assurance. Since work is in the middle of release qualification and I have spent the past week and a half variously doing new feature qualification testing, regression testing, and Software Trouble Report fix verification testing, Google's claims of single point operator failure "glitch" sound quite lame to me, for a whole bunch of reasons, some of which I'm not in a proper frame of perspective to articulate at the current time (it IS nearly midnight, for one thing), some of which belie sanity checking (single failure point "glitches" caused by someone's one-time one-day erroneous input do NOT correspond to issues that go back starting no later then eight weeks before the "glitch" suddenly appeared--and no "glitch" affects FIFTY-THREE THOUSAND SKUs! A "glitch" is a -small, ephemeral, LOW AMPLITUDE spike.... having had MONTHS of sitting in the middle of "glitch versus arc" discussions where it turned out what actually was going on WAS arcing, and seeing the strip chart recordings where there were momentariy instanteous spikes drawn by one one or more chart recording pens along the otherwise essentially flat lines--as opposed to plateaus, or activity on the pens indicating the devices had shutdown as opposed to momentarily spiked)... Amazonfail doesn't fit my definition of "glitch." Screwup, yes, for lots of reasons:

a) 53,000 titles bollixed is not an inconsequential number
b) Where were the safeguards for verification and validation before making hard changes on databases, if that indeed was what happened? What about things like cutover and "graceful degradaton" and "test procedures" and "update plans" and verification and validation, etc. etc. etc.? The stuff that I'm currently doing is on something that has to go through the "qualification cycle" of new feature testing, regression testing, and software defect fix verification, before the release is "qualified" to get shipped out to customers, or if it were on on-line system, "go live."
c) "adult/erotic/etc" are highly visible, controversial areas--sort of like critical features in that they're things that people have strong opinions about, take much greater notice and get much more vocal about than other topics of book content generatl, and get riled over much more easily. When doing testing and "requirements analysis" not all things are created equal, some things are a lot more critical than others and get a lot more scrutiny.

Example--there are reissues of Georgette Heyer novels in trade paperback at present. It's utterly ludicrous that there are English Regency romances with Georgian era paintings used for covers, and Georgian romances with Regency era paintings used for covers, in the series of reissues. It's idiotic and stupid and dumb and shows lack of appropriate concern and attention on the part of the publisher/art director, but while it's annoying, it's not going to miscategorize the content as outside the romance genre or as "spicy"/hawt content books or as Western novels etc.

If doing things with content tagging, one MIGHT think that there would be due care exercised in, er, areas generally considered controversial and rife with virtual landmines, and doing the experimenting and such in areas where "glitches" are likely to get less attention and less critical, hostile, infuriated attention.


Regarding testing:
Sometimes it's useful to be an imperfect typist and undeft with a mouse. In the Real World, users make mistakes--typing errors, inaccurate mouse selection, use of the wrong keys, selecting the adjacent item to the one intended, entering the wrong value, misreading instructions, trying to enter out of range values.
It's also useful to keep in mind:
o there are users who are clueless wonders
o there are users who are inept
o there are users who are maliciou
o there are users who are larcenous
o there are users who are absent minded
o sessions can terminate unexpectedly in the middle of a transaction attempt or the user entering data
o instructions that are obvious and intuitive to the developer who wrote the software aren;'t necessarily comprehensible to anyone else
o ambiguity often exists which the developer never happened to conceive of or notice
o the developer failed to allow for such things as "error checking" and users making mistakes when entering data....
o developers don';t necessarily allow for the fact that the developer may have coded something wrong, or left out exception handling or handling of cases
o and there there is the whole space of requirements and requirements and analysis and design to meet requirements....
o if something doesn;'t have a baseline that's clearly defined and delineates, and doesn;'t write clear delineated requirements for making changes and enhancements, and doesn't have metrics and test plans and procedures to follow to verify and validate that the code implements the requirements as intended and with the behavior specified in design specifications...

Then the results likely are pure crap.

#287 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 12:38 AM:

#276 Lisa
More likely it's an Indian or Eastern European coder with limited literacy in English and a lack of managerial oversight with substantiative literacy in English and/or "domain knowledge."

That is, that perjorative "code monkey" probably applies/applied, as regarding someone who codes up stuff and doesn't much know or care what the end use is/what the end user is doing with the product....

#288 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 12:48 AM:

hapax #268:

This is a really important point, and one we need to remember. As we become more and more dependent on net.sources of information and, simultaneously, two other things happen:

a. We become more susceptible to game-playing by the providers of those sources/services, or attacks on them.

b. Those services become juicier targets, because so many people count on them.

Wikipedia is a target for manipulation because it's so damned useful. So's Google. So's Amazon. It's almost painful to write up an argument when I don't have network access--when I can't go read the Wikipedia article and do a couple Google searches to check definitions, refresh my memory (was it the Keating Five or Seven. Or Nine? Maybe Thirteen?), look up formulas, etc. Millions of other people feel the same way, I think. And the result is that control over those services represents tremendous power.

Anyone wanting to shape what people read or don't read is going to care about how Amazon behaves--what books it serves up in response to searches, what books it suggests in the "people who liked X also liked...." line, etc. Five years ago, it was much less important a target. This year, it's probably worth using lobbying, threats of boycotts, technical gaming of rankings, made-up customer reviews, etc., to try to manipulate.

I don't have any good answer to this at all. (Amazon is not nearly so hard to avoid trusting, for me as someone who is neither a librarian nor in the publishing industry, but Google and Wikipedia are much harder to replace.) I wonder if the will bring some fundamentally new notion of antitrust, the way the financial crisis has brought the notion of preventing the rise of companies that are too big to be allowed to fail.

#289 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 12:56 AM:

#206 Kathryn

Warning, TMI department regarding Tom Reamy stories, extremely repulsive revolting spoilerage ahead!!!!


I went to --and then next thing I thought was, "Is "Breaking Dawn" the sort of thing that happened in Tom Reamy stories? EUWWW!!! (There was I think more than one Reamy story in which a demon and a human female had coitus, and the result was fatal to the human female--something which doesn't happen to the female lead in paranormal romances with shapeshifters and vampires and lovable demons and witches etc., though occasionally to other characters--female lead gets fatally ruptured/split open by either or both the size of the male organ or the force of it ejaculating. Yetch, ick, yuch, etc....)

#290 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 01:13 AM:

Aren't you curious to see some statistics on search terms submitted on Amazon during Sunday and Monday, compared to an average day? I know that in comparing the results for different terms, I've run some searches that never occurred to me to try before.

#291 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 02:11 AM:

The first search term I tried after this hit was "amazonfail", which "did not match any products" but still helpfully (helpily?) listed seven bestsellers as suggestions.

#292 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 02:20 AM:

I just had better results doing a specific "products tagged with" search.

Over 1500 items tagged, with "Heather Has Two Mommies" in first place with over 400 people using that tag. heh.

It will be interesting to follow this link for a while.

#293 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 03:17 AM:

Jaws @240: One of the authors affected posted to her blog on the evening of Thursday the 9th UK time about the disappearance of the ranking widget on her book. Thursday night and Friday morning people started digging and finding more examples (I noted Friday afternoon UK time in that thread that it wasn't just glbt as both slash and het books from my publisher were affected). So the change which affected a lot of books was probably propagated on Thursday. I can believe that it was a stupid mistake by someone on European time eager to get out the door on the Thursday before Easter.

What *I'm* concerned about is the very existence of the filtering system. I'm willing to accept that the breadth of the categories caught up in it was an error this time -- but why are they deleting entire categories from view in the first place?

#294 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 04:06 AM:

Randolph @285, re your comment that "Google Books and Google Scholar, on the other hand, are designed as reference sources, and are probably quite honest and reliable."

I would be very dubious about this, given what I know of Google Scholar. If you look at the website for it, what you will see is that it says "Beta" on it. What this means in practice is that, insofar as I have heard from reliable sources who asked the question, their response to "When are you going to update your database to account for this new content?" is "when we get around to it; it's only in Beta". You've got no guarantee that that data is up-to-date, nor that it's complete, nor that it's not still based off of something erroneous that got onto a publisher's website at the wrong moment and was corrected a couple of days later.

It takes more than honesty to obtain reliability; it takes effort. And there's no sign that Google's expending that on Scholar, these days. Or, given the "Beta" label, that they feel any obligation to.

#295 ::: Thorne ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 04:16 AM:

A long time ago in a news group called talk.bizarre, we would merely claim it's yet another sign of the apocalypse and get on with our lives. For the self-important web2.0 crowd, please continue to twitter (or is that fritter) your lives away.


#296 ::: miriam beetle ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 04:20 AM:

man, i love it when people post blog comments about how only losers comment on blogs.

#297 ::: Renatus ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 04:52 AM:

Thorne @ 295: Is this because it's easier to put a troubling matter aside as something too impossibly big for anyone but a deity to deal with, than to go and take action against said troubling matter?


Last night, I went to bed with a bad taste in my mouth after reading comments that seemed to insinuate that, because little unknown me had spoken out against Amazon's actions in the few places online I speak up and asked that people write Amazon in protest and think about shopping elsewhere, I was a part of an angry mob. I'm glad to have woken up to many wonderful responses against this line of thinking (#277, #281, #283, others I missed--THANK YOU). Being angry and loud and taking action does not automatically equal unreasonable or mob-like behaviour. Not forgiving all at reading reports that it was all a big mistake is not unreasonable.

It doesn't matter to my optimism or sense of self how much of a accident Amazon's mistake was--it hit me right in the gut as a bisexual genderqueer person, as a feminist, as a reader, and as an aspiring author. Just like I learned when I was a little kid, "Oops, I didn't mean to" doesn't restore trust or make the hurt stop. Amazon's starting to fix the problem, good, but they'll need to do more than that to restore good will, as others have explained far more eloquently than my pre-coffee self can manage.

And until that happens, I'll continue to be wary and to suggest to friends, family, and acquaintences that there are better places than Amazon to spend their money.

#298 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 05:41 AM:

Miriam, it's especially fun when the wanker in question admits that he used to waste his time hanging out at talk.bizarre. My guess is that Thorne shot his mouth off because he was intimidated by the thread.

Janet @290:

Aren't you curious to see some statistics on search terms submitted on Amazon during Sunday and Monday, compared to an average day?
I know that in comparing the results for different terms, I've run some searches that never occurred to me to try before.
Tell me about it. I just ran a search there for "butt plug." Result #30, right there on the second page, was Popular Children's Literature in Britain.

#299 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 06:43 AM:


Tell me about it. I just ran a search there for "butt plug." Result #30, right there on the second page, was Popular Children's Literature in Britain.

Knowing how some British alleged newspapers react to any hint of sex and children, the Amazon search system could turn into real pain in the...


My attitudes have shifted over the years, from what might be called a casual default homophobia, through a realisation that I would be insulting people I knew, to a feeling that sexual power-games are a key element.

A lot of het porn presents oral and anal sex with the woman in the role of a victim. If it isn't in the core product, it's added by the labels attached. So as soon as you show gay sex, you're seen as presenting a man as the victim.

My kinks are not your kinks, but some people just can't see this as merely a kink. It's a direct challenge to how they define their status.

I have my doubts about the effects of porn, not because it provokes unseemly sexual excess, but because it is abused to promote certain power structures. If you want a butt-plug, buy it and to hell with the complaints.

The people making the fuss don't want to save your ass. They want to own it.

#300 ::: John L ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 06:47 AM:

Consumerist has an article saying that an Internet blogger and troll called "Weev" claims that he and an army of offshore spammers are the ones to blame for Amazon delisting all the books.

Here's the link:

I kind of doubt his explanation would have worked, but if it did, then Amazon is incompetent for letting their ranking system get gamed so easily.

#301 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 07:01 AM:

Well, I remember talk.bizarre-- hell, I remember net.motss. And I'm quite sure that the latter would have lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree in the case of something like this.

#302 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 07:24 AM:

Paula #286: In that first paragraph to Jacob, you appear to be stumbling over your rage, to the detriment of comprehensibility.

John L. #300: Debunked above -- in Patrick's second update to the original post, referencing comment #73 out of... well, 300.

#303 ::: John L ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 08:06 AM:


Yeah, I had doubts it was that easy, but I figured I'd throw it out there to see if anyone else had seen it yet.

#304 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 08:11 AM:

will shetterly @#267

Teresa, when the thread's hot, I, at least, can find myself 20 comments behind by the time I compose, preview, and post. Now I'm wondering how far behind I'll be when I click this.

Tabbed browsing: keep two tabs on the thread - one for typing your comments and one for refreshing and checking before you actually post them. Works for me, anyway.

#305 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 09:02 AM:

Brooks Moses, #294, on Google Scholar:

"You've got no guarantee that that data is up-to-date, nor that it's complete, nor that it's not still based off of something erroneous that got onto a publisher's website at the wrong moment and was corrected a couple of days later."

Google Scholar is a scholarly papers and academic book content database, yet you're writing as if it was a bibliographic database. Would you explain that, please?

#306 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 09:08 AM:

"WildlyParenthentical"'s comment #281 is fascinating and very much worth some thought. He or she is pointing to what could be a very interesting discussion relating the choices made in database design to our notions of what is and isn't normal and/or aberrant--see also Chip Delany's discussions of whiteness, maleness, and straightness as "unmarked states." I particularly liked this:

Second of all, I think this points out the politics of meta-data, something which is often forgotten in this digital age, but which Richard Nash (linked above: points to. Straight romance isn't marked 'straight,' just as 'romance'. It's only those 'deviations' which are marked as such, and this makes them vulnerable to these kinds of 'glitches'.
The deviations will always be vulnerable. Making them vulnerable is the whole point of tagging them as deviations.

#307 ::: Jon Baker ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 09:20 AM:

Randolph @ 305:
Google Scholar is a scholarly papers and academic book content database, yet you're writing as if it was a bibliographic database. Would you explain that, please?

Um, what's the difference? Scholarly papers and academic books are a subset of bibliographic data, one whose indices are not necessarily available without going to an academic library, if at all.

It seems to me that it would be just as dependent on accurate data from [book and journal] publishers, as well as libraries, as any other bibliographic database.

#308 ::: Irene Delse ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 09:26 AM:

As I said in Boing Boing comments, I find the "translation error" explanation hard to believe. Being French myself, I know full well that "adulte", the French equivalent of English "adult", doesn't mean "gay", "queer" or "GLBTQ". It means "with strong sexual content", period.

Even if one French speaking employee at f*cked up last week, it wouldn't explain why books such as Heather Has Two Mommies were unranked. Or why it began in February...

BTW, is it the 2nd or 3rd explanation given by Amazon?

#309 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 09:34 AM:

re 271: As a wildly in left field comment there is something oddly amusing about "the French defense" in context. Or maybe it's just that I'm warped the wrong way.

re 277: Presumption of innocence pertains in civilization. Life is just a whole lot calmer when people don't assume the worse. On one level this certainly wasn't innocent; someone at Amazon was definitely trying to hide something that looked a whole lot like "general fiction and nonfiction that I don't want my kids to see". But I'm willing to take them at their word that this wasn't some corporate policy that backfired.

re 286: I'm afraid I am also puzzled as to what the first paragraph is trying to tell me.

#310 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 09:45 AM:

The deviations will always be vulnerable. Making them vulnerable is the whole point of tagging them as deviations.

In fanfic, there are three labels you see a lot: slash, het, and gen.

"Slash" means "contains same-sex sexual material". "Het" means "contains heterosexual sexual material". "Gen" means "contains limited sexual material" (you get kissing and whatnot in gen, but mostly the veil is drawn before anything more than that happens).

Perhaps what mainstream publishing needs is a similar set of tags.

#311 ::: Madeline Ashby ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 10:02 AM:

Miriam, I miss you.

#312 ::: CharlesP ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 10:07 AM:

I admit I've only skimmed the responses after the first hundred or so (which I read yesterday)... so this may have already been covered... but to address the "#SorryAmazon" tag I think it was because so much of the twitter outrage was just that, outrageous outrage. The equivalent of yelling and screaming and calling the company bigots (which many people did).

On top of that, there was an effort by some people (who thought it was gaming the system with tags that caused the problems) to go out and start tagging other books to try and de-list them (tagging bibles with "gay sex" and such). This was bratty 'throwing rocks at the school windows' behavior IMHO, and didn't help anything (and now just makes it more difficult for amazon to reliably say "you might like this").

That is what the #SorryAmazon should be about. Not apologizing for bringing up that something was screwed up, or publicizing it, or making it a big deal. Those were things the on-line community had every right and reason to do, but what they should have been better about, was instead of screwing with the rest of their data and calling for boycotts because they are "obviously bigoted" calling for reasoned explanation and action. One simply doesn't get treated with respect by acting like a raving mob, even if it can get results.

#313 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 10:17 AM:

The French Defense?

(If I remember correctly Herb Solow's book, the film editor of the original Star Trek was French and, yes, he was in a constant state of panick.)

#314 ::: modallist ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 10:35 AM:

#281, #306:

It's the programmer's mindset, which I recognize (being a programmer) in myself as well: code for the majority case first. Implement exceptions later. Or use subclasses or whatever.

Information analysts and database designers have been taught to think that way.

Even if you could somehow change society so that white-straight-male was not an unmarked state, you might need a new computing paradigm to avoid something like this happening anyway.

#315 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 10:45 AM:

The same groups or types of groups get persistently used as targets for abuse, for "picking on," for use as "test subjects" when looking for samples to experiment on, who are regarded as any of all of disposable, unwanted, unsavory, "not our kind," etc.

The women of Afghanistan weren't regarded as worthy by the rest of the world for putting pressure on Taliban, to make Taliban stop treating them as disposable chattel.

Amazon seems to be less unsolicitous as regards tagging Christian Dominionist and "skinhead" etc. ranting books with tags that would delist them, than with ignoring the continued and continuing marginalization and eradication campaigns against material which has overt tagging as being non-negative towards homosexuality, feminist philosophy, and anything else Christian Dominionists deplore that doesn't instantly cause a shitstorm in the so-called "mainstream."

#316 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 10:47 AM:

Teresa @ 280

If you want to see a fairly blatant illustration of why this is a bad idea, look at the Amazon listings for Jim and Debra's books. If you come back and tell me that they've finally straightened those out, and no longer identify Jim as the illustrator on some of those titles

I thought I'd check this (just for fun). Fascinating results:

On no problem, both listed as authors (for several books checked).

On, checking "The Price of the Stars" I got the following: "by Debra and MacDonald, James D. Doyle (Author) "


"Starpilot's Grave" is also by "Debra and MacDonald, James D. Doyle"

"The Stars Asunder: A New Novel of the Mageworlds" is listed as being by " by Debra Doyle, James D. Macdonald, and Donato Giancola" - on the page for the book itself the three names are given as author, author and illustrator, respectively (on .com).

The "Circle of Magic" books are listed as being by "by Debra Doyle (Author), James D. MacDonald (Author), Judith Mitchell (Illustrator) " on but by by Debra Doyle (Author), James D. MacDonald (Author), Judith Mitchell (Author) on .com

The only one I've spotted with an error on so far is:
A Working of Stars (Mageworlds) (Mass Market Paperback) by "Debra Doyle (Author), James D. Macdonald (Author), James Macdonald (Author)" (sic)


#317 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 11:07 AM:

re 306: On one level I can see Nash's point, but on another level he's making claims about society which I think have become inaccurate.

Consider: the death of Marilyn Chambers is top-listed on CNN at this very moment, and is one of the two "other news" entries under "U.S."; both headlines are quite candid about her profession. I've also been sampling stories through Google News (which has been fascinating throughout this). Nash is surely right that the transgressiveness of LBGTQ-etc material is going to attract actions that could be called censorship; on the other hand, every news story I have seen presumed that Amazon had transgressed against these works. I could not find a single one with the slightest hint that there was any legitimacy in what Amazon had done. Even the Washington Times repeated the AP wire story and had a very brief news note. The point that uncontroversial communities and books were also hurt in the same manner simply didn't get media traction; every single mention I found in the news came out of Amazon itself, thereby painting those statements as attempts to divert some of the homosexuality-fueled wrath. Therefore, when he says that "“mainstream” society and the capitalist institutions that operate within it, whether my old company or Amazon, must self-police ruthlessly in order to guard against this kind of thing happening-- well, what I saw was that nearly everyone was willing to get on the bandwagon of policing this. Homo/trans/cons/whatever-sexuals are minorities, but the incident demonstrates that they have the power at their disposal to get this particular incident turned around as quickly as Amazon could move (which happened to be less quickly than any of the participants wanted).

#318 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 11:20 AM:

Teresa Nielsen Hayden @ 298:

If your search for that turns up a book about children's stories, what would a book about children's stories turn up?

Going by comments here and in a few other places, I wanted to try to construct a plausible narrative that doesn't assume malice on Amazon's part. Incompetence, yes, plenty, but not malice. Feel free to tell me I'm full of it.

Combining the observation that Amazon's search engine is kind of bad with the comment on Whatever that Xopher posted about at 216 leads to an interesting and slightly disturbing conclusion: they didn't really mean to implement a censorship system as such, but they did, and over the weekend it got turned on to far more things than it was ever meant to.

Going by comments of people who claim to have worked at or do work at Amazon (back to that trust issue again, though; are they who they say they are?), development is done by small teams who own their features. Unfortunately, owing to internal structure, they don't really interact with other groups, and they don't have a testing department. Serge and Paula Lieberman have already commented on the inanity of not having software testing procedures, and I'm sure abi would agree.

One major thing that Amazon's search takes into account is the product's ranking. They seem to think that popularity is an important measure of relevance to a search. Now, by the comment at Whatever, when a developer is called in to fix an emergency, the developer is supposed to stay until the problem is fixed.

So, customer service calls a developer at some random hour and says that they've received a complaint that someone searching for books on children's literature just found something rather unexpected in the search results. What does the developer do? They can't re-write the search engine from scratch right then and there, and they don't want to spend very long on dealing with the issue (especially if called in the wee hours of the morning). Hey, rank is a major factor in search placement. Turn off the rank, and the problem goes away. If you want to be incredibly charitable, the programmer then makes a note that they just did a quick hack to fix a search problem, and maybe the team should figure out a way of improving the search engine properly.

Skip forward in time. No one's really figured out a way to make the search engine better for whatever reason. It's good enough, or they're working on some other cool thing. They still get complaints from time to time, and they deal with it by the expedient of taking the product's rank away. It's a hack, but they'll get around to doing it properly one day. Eventually, someone on the team whips up a little tool to do that for entire categories, because, really, it's a pain to do it manually, and people searching for books on children's literature probably don't want any adult material showing up in the search, right? The tool is probably cobbled together out of Perl, duct tape, string and hope, but it works well enough for them.

Flash forward some more. Someone who may or may not know what they're doing decides to tune the search results a bit. That they're doing the tuning with a claw hammer rather than a very small screwdriver somehow passes them by. There's no testing; it's all hooked up to the live database. Satisfied in a job well done, they go home for the holiday weekend.


At no point does anyone else really know what's going on. Each little team is its own fifedom. There's no central change management. No testing department. No manager keeping tabs on the overall picture. It's just small groups of hackers trying to get their jobs done in any way that they can, working on cool things and putting off the boring stuff.

I'm not trying to make excuses for them. They probably didn't really mean to implement a censorship system; after all, they want to sell products. Besides, implementing a censorship system in this manner is kind of half-assed. But they did implement one without telling anyone, and now they're suffering the consequences.

#319 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 11:34 AM:

#318: Good summary.

Add to that an outsourced "customer service" department working off scripts, and we get a PR nightmare when the complaints start coming in.

And all of this - the reuse of old code, the outsourced customer service, the lack of testing, the neglect of possible implications in a classification system - must have been justified in some spreadsheet somewhere as unnecessary expense detracting from corporate profit.

#320 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 11:56 AM:

Jon Meltzer @ 319:

Jon H at 272 makes a good case for what probably happened at customer service in the cases before they got flooded with complaints. After they got flooded with complaints, they probably went with the "glitch" theory because they still didn't know what was going on, but it obviously wasn't about a couple 'raunchy' books any more.

As for software testing, a lot of companies, unfortunately, think that testing is a money and time sink rather than something that will benefit them in the long run. Joel Spolsky has a good handle on the testing issue in his essay Top Five (Wrong) Reasons You Don't Have Testers.

#321 ::: James ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 12:03 PM:

I have a sneaking suspicion that this may have involved second-order data analysis in an attempt to be preemptive, and that there may have been no internal setting of a particular set of categories as "adult".

The way it would work is this: You decide initially that you're going to downrank books which have received a certain threshold of complaints as regards "adult content". And then somebody gets a bright idea: you can run a high-level analysis which looks at categories grouping the works which regularly get complaints over the limit (again, once you have a large enough set in the various categories to be statistically valid). So that code goes in. Nobody inside actually sets any values directly, except for the books previously flagged manually.

And for a while things run along until external input pushes some values above critical limits .... and the whole thing goes pear-shaped.

The fundamental problem with this -- which would not be obvious to the developers -- is that category metadata, which is basically CIP information, is set by the publisher, is wildly inconsistent, and can't really be used in this way in the first place. The next problem (probably not on the developer's side, since they'd probably set this up to be tweakable) is that if you get the thresholds for this kind of analysis wrong you get unexpected results. Plus there's the fact that you probably have to do extensive hardcoding tweaking for (1) categories which are too broad, and therefore useless at actually capturing useful metadata for this purpose and (2) categories which are so small that, although they are what you want to target, never get enough complaints to push them over the trigger limits.

Throw in the coexistence of groups with very different "community standards" on the net providing inputs and you have the seeds of a major blowup.

#322 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 12:15 PM:

I already put in far too many bytes in this thread, in far too annoying and preachy a tone, for which I apologize. Again. So, while I had a few closing thoughts on the subject, I posted them over at my own sort-of-blog (not really an actual blog, because that would imply previous and future posts, which I may or may not ever get around to because I am a big flake), and I am otherwise just going to read along here, and hope to learn something else myself from all of this. I think it was a pretty interesting incident all around, with a lot of things to learn from it, even if thankfully it really was something of relatively small importance.

#323 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 12:17 PM:

#320: I hope Spolsky chooses to comment on this.

#324 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 12:23 PM:

Fragano Ledgister @220

Boggle. Double boggle. Not only for "girl scout cookie" turning up wolf urine lure, but for that product being linked to a variety of vaginal speculums!

What's really fascinating is that when (having followed your link) I later went back onto to check something else, I was informed that I had previously looked at the Wolf Urine Lure AND that meant I might be interested in... cookery books.

Cookery books.

I can only assume something has gone really weird with the metatags for wolf lure urine.

#325 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 12:33 PM:

I am short.
I am female.

After a while I don't care WHY they do it, I JUST WANT THEM TO STOP MAKING LIFE MISERABLE FOR ME!!!!! And stop FAILING to even BOTHER to consider that their unthinking CONVENIENCE is HELL!!!!! for other people who aren't their size, shape, gender, marital status, etc!

#326 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 12:54 PM:

Paula Lieberman @ 286 ...
I have no trouble believing that a single person could succeed in fouling things up beyond belief ... but the key thing to understand there is that I think they'd be the straw that breaks the camels back, or the exact wrong thing to do, to set off a cascade of unexpected and unfortunate effects[0].

Even with good change control processes, it's possible to have an apparently innocuous change go horribly, horribly wrong, as well. A 'perfect storm' of misfortune, even.

[0] See Butterfly effect

#327 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 01:05 PM:

re 315: But that's also true of what you are writing; the difference is in the context, so that over in the open thread you were quite willing to sign up the "pseudoChristian fascist right wing" as the perpetrators. I'm absolutely sure that James Dobson would be very happy if Amazon (and for that matter everyone else) stopped selling most of the works that people marked as being deranked (and from what I can tell, they largely were so tagged because people looked for the kinds of books that Dobson would object to), but there has never been any evidence I could find that any Evil Conservative was even aware that anything was going on, much less a participant. One of the mysteries of this, even now, is who it was that Amazon though they were serving by doing this (however badly) in the first place. That they did it at the behest of the ECR is too conventional, too routine an accusation to be taken at face value.

I looked up the Turner Diaries on Amazon, as well as Hunter. The former is copiously tagged so as to inform anyone who isn't stupid of its offenses; the latter is hardly tagged at all, but then, it isn't famous. The customer reviews, however, tell enough. One of the tags on the TD is bigotry, which is used in a limited way to indicate books about bigotry, but which is mostly used to tag books that go against upper middle class liberal sensibilities (as well as some others: someone is tagging books that suggest there is something wrong with being fat). Browsing through the tagged items produces some interesting cases. For instance, the tags on this KJV edition show that it got caught in the Amazonfail trap, but they also show a concerted effort by some liberal customers to stigmatize it and other books. Many of the tags there are simply dishonest. Conservatives aren't innocent, of course: well-known books in support of the global warming theory are tagged as "propaganda". There is clearly an undeclared and I suspect unorganized editorial battle going on in Amazon through the use of tags.

In the end it seems to me to be more than likely that Amazon will give up on anything that looks like community standards, other than stuff that could really get them sued.

#328 ::: SKapusniak ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 01:49 PM:

Jon Meltzer @319

Actually, given the level of organisational fail implied by KeithS's -- very plausible -- scenario, I would bet it actually isn't cold bloodedly justified on a spreadsheet anywhere, that would be giving management way too much credit for foresight and planning.

I bet you this way of (not properly) doing things just grew, and everyone just accepts that that is the way things are done, and hey! we're, highly successful behemoth poised for world domination, that *proves* we must have our (to an outsider insane) working practices and hastily duct taped together business systems right. That stuff is the unique special sauce (rather than first mover advantage, luck, hidebound competition and hardball business tactics) that got us where we are today, right? Right?

I wouldn't be completely surprised to find there is/was a certain amount of organisational pride that they *don't* have a working system designed specifically for censoring stuff from peoples searches and lists, because that proves, proves! to themselves that they're not that evil nasty censoring bookstore that they *could* be in their dark imaginings.

The fact that instead everyone is using godawful ad-hoc 3 a.m. hacks that cause random PR disasters to perform the censorship function and just not calling it that even to themselves, tends to slip the mind. That's if anyone in the organisation ever gets enough sleep, given the working practices people seem to be describing, to have a still functioning mind at all.

Yeah, I'm possibly being a little harsh here.

It does emphasize Patrick's original point about the field being tilted so things roll down hill and always hitting the same darn people everytime, even if nobody dropping the rocks to roll down the slope ever thinks they 'meant' it.

#329 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 01:55 PM:

Patrick, #306: Slight tangent WRT "unmarked states"... I have found it a useful exercise, in situations where I am pointing out a person of color to someone else, to avoid using their race/ethnicity as a descriptor. Instead of saying, "The black guy over there," I'll say, "That guy in the blue shirt, talking to the woman in green." It doesn't work well for gender, unfortunately, because the very structure of the language wants to mark people as male or female.

Random thought: has anyone ever tried tagging (e.g.) straight romance as "straight"? (Outside of fanfic, where "het" is a recognized category.) If so, what happened?

#330 ::: Rebecca Ore ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 01:57 PM:

They've fixed most but not all of it for my Aqueduct Press book. Centuries Ago & Very Fast still doesn't show up on the list of my 14 best selling books, though its sales rank would otherwise make it my third selling item.

Amazon means to sell Bibles and butt plugs and to keep out of the culture wars by doing what they can to make the products one group wants invisible to the group that doesn't approve.

The adult classification appears to be here to stay, just not so hammer-handed and not such a problem for sales.

#331 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 02:12 PM:

re 330: Funny you should mention selling bibles: Here's my experience looking at the bible selection at mainstream booksellers. Executive summary: if you want a "liberal" translation, go to the Adventist bookstore.

#332 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 02:53 PM:

Paula Lieberman:

I think you might be letting your temper get in the way of your message in this thread.

There are some good and valuable things to say in this matter. For instance, both you and Rebecca Ore @330 make an excellent point: fixing the failure of a result-filtering system doesn't actually fix the (potential) problem of its existence in the first place.

But Amazon are not the Taleban, and they didn't put your office hardware where you can't reach it. Could you dial back the anger some, shorten the sentences, and keep the comments a bit more on-topic?

I'd hate for anyone interested in testing to skip over that list of bullet points in comment 286 because the first paragraph is so digressive.

Speaking of which, I would also add:
* there are blind, colorblind and disabled users
* different users have different browsers, and different versions thereof
* not everybody uses the (mouse/keyboard shortcuts)† so both sets must work equally well, separately or in combination
* different users have different screen resolutions—that can make a huge difference
* nobody reads the instructions
* backend systems they lose transactions when they do so? How gracefully do they come up again?

† delete as appropriate

#333 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 03:01 PM:

abi: I did skip them. Thanks for sending me back to them.

I would derive a general principle from several of those: your program must have a reasonable way of handling any input possible from the keyboard, mouse, or both in combination.

#334 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 03:03 PM:

My approach to programming is Murphy's real law:

If someone can do it wrong, someone will.

I must confess that I don't take into account the possibility of someone having a strong abiveld.

#335 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 03:15 PM:

C Wingate @330:
We digress, briefly...

I would suspect that people who care a lot about the translation of the Bible they're using are shopping online (or, like you, reading online). Bookstore Bibles feel to me like they're more likely to be presentation copies. What were the bindings like? High proportion of leatherette?

As a bookbinder, I can tell you that the vast majority of the Bibles in circulation are not read. I've only repaired one well-used example in my time.

Some of that is because I don't do Bible repair. (For good reason: publishers generally use relatively frail binding structures to keep the price down, and the thin paper is a nightmare to handle.) But a lot of it is because a very low proportion of Bible owners are Bible readers.

#336 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 03:21 PM:

Xopher @333:
your program must have a reasonable way of handling any input possible from the keyboard, mouse, or both in combination.

Ñøté thåt yôür rùlë mùst ïñclûdè dîäçrítìcs.

#337 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 03:25 PM:

Answering a couple of posts questioning whether amazonfail was important....

I'm interested in qi gong and related topics-- amazon's recommendation system has helped me find some excellent books. Having the recommendation system on your side is really valuable.

Qi gong and such has a positive impact on my health, I hope. Access to GBLT information and community can literally be a matter of life and death, especially for teenagers. The reason I lost my temper over at my LJ was that I saw a couple of "how to stop being gay" books at the top of an amazon search on homosexuality.

(Nightmare thought: deleting the sales ranks got caught because it was so blatant. If more subtle downgrading gets tried, who'll ever notice?)

As for the "it's just a bookstore and they don't have to treat any book in any particular way" argument, I'll take a leaf from Teresa's position that what happens online is important because the way people treat each other matters. This doesn't stop being true just because an organization is trying to make money.

#338 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 03:32 PM:

Y'know, I don't particularly want porn turning up during my routine searches. I don't think most of us do. I do want to be made aware of the filters and empowered to turn them off.

Jon Baker, #307: the full-text search and partial full-text content of Google Scholar makes bibliographic errors much less significant; even if the structured indexing is wrong, the text is apt to be correct, and the text is likely to contain or point to the correct bibliographic data. Now, possibly, the errors are quite extensive, but it would be nice to hear that from someone who actually knows what's in the database. (Brooks Moses, if I've got you wrong, and you have that information, my apologies.)

#339 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 03:32 PM:

will Shetterly back @ 144: the answer, Mytilene, which several others have given, brings us full circle--the town was largely inhabited by Lesbians. :)

Of course the bittersweet aspect of the story is that the next time the Athenians voted to execute an entire city, Melos, there was no reprieve.

#340 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 03:44 PM:

Abi @ 336... Diacritics?

This reminds me that I should see if NetFlix has 1973's Can Dialectics Break Bricks?, which appears to be the cinematic fusion of kung fu fighting with French leftist politics.

Man #1: They've alienated yet another proletarian.
Man #2: Another one lost.
Hero: What's going on?
Man #1: This one just became a union rep.
Man #2: As soon as he did, he repressed a wildcat strike, just before buying a TV on credit.
Woman: It's sad. These bastards - suppose we burnt off the hair under their arms.

#341 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 03:48 PM:

Serge @ 340: These days, everyone's a diacritic.

#342 ::: Celia ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 03:58 PM:

Having spent the last 5 years working with a program that might as well have been held together by tape and bubble gum, I know it's very easy to get in the habit of making things fit for the time being, rather than planning for how they will need to work in the future. Particularly since the purpose of most companies it to make money. So when you say "this is a very badly cobbled together product and some day it will all fall down around our ears, so you should give us $X and Y months, and we will be able to rebuild it from the ground up and it will work perfectly forever and ever amen, even when you try to expand it," the higher ups say "Yes, but it works fine today, and we need to spend that time and that money on something that the customers see and that will bring us more money, rather than improve something no one else but you will ever see." And then of course, one minor tweak to the GUI ends up bringing down the site because everything was linked together in the background, and no one ever noticed.

I can easily imagine that somewhere in the system there was something that said GLBT = adult but it never mattered because the system didn't do anything with it until Thursday/Friday. There are probably any number of other artifacts lying dormant in the system until something else gets updated. Perhaps this glitch will give Amazon motivation to look at its tags and metadata and everything else, and clean up old code so that accidents like this don't continue to happen.

#343 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 04:19 PM:

The Seattle PI blog has another entry that I just saw that's supposed to be from an Amazon insider. It basically says that lots of people were called in to fix the problem asap, and it was because the adult flag for lots of items was accidentally turned on.

I'm still concerned that they have an adult flag, never mind that they don't tell customers about it.

Again, going by comments made on various blogs by people who claim to know the internal structure of Amazon, my personal impression is that the programming side of things is still very much in a hacker/start-up mentality: do things that are expedient rather than right; don't bother to test; if it works, leave it alone; work on the fun stuff, not the boring stuff.

#344 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 04:20 PM:

#328, #342: very good points.

It doesn't have to be malevolence. Everything works, and, despite the engineers whining, the levees aren't going to break, so why budget for that?

#345 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 04:20 PM:

#328, #342: very good points.

It doesn't have to be malevolence. Everything works, and, despite the engineers whining, the levees aren't going to break, so why budget for that?

#346 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 04:22 PM:

(But then when a user presses a sticky key more than once ... )

#347 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 04:33 PM:

re 335: My blog post is now 2 1/2 years old, and some of the peculiarities of the time may now have passed. Back in 2006 there were a lot of "specialty" bibles (the bible for athletes, the bible for moms, etc.). This may have passed. There was also a distinct preference for the publisher-owned translations (Holman, NKJV, NIV, NLT ...) as against those controlled by bible societies or other non-publishers (all the "liberal" translations, but also NASB). It's not hard to parse this out as the publishing companies trying to stake out as much shelf space as possible for the versions that they don't pay any royalties on. I didn't actually see a lot of presentation copy editions; paperback study editions of one sort or another far predominated. Anyway, a mainline Protestant would want an NRSV or such-like for presentation; an American Catholic would more likely want the (dreadful and peculiar) NAB.

Shopping online for a bible can be an exercise in the most extreme frustration, because of the variety of bindings and the like. For example, Borders returns 150 items for the NAB, which in the scheme of things is not one of the more important versions (strictly RC, and in competition with the JB and NJB at that). Anyway, if you're going to shop for English language bibles on line, it would be better to click here.

#348 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 04:35 PM:

Tangentially, at least one good thing out of this is that I've learned of a Rebecca Ore book I might not otherwise have heard of, and now Must Buy. (Hi there!)

#349 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 04:36 PM:

#338 Randolph

But, what is your definition of porn?
Mike Ford referred to some men's action-adventure fiction as "kill porn"--the intense focus and exquisite detail of bullets firing and striking bodies, the damage to tissues described in lengthy graphic detail, the descriptions of blood and gore and organ destruction and trajectory of gore....

Then there's sex. Is it porn to describe a joyous loving encounter for the engenderment of children within a marriage? Is the Song of Solomon porn? Is a life-changing casual sexual encounter that is a key scene in the life of some said, porn?! ....

#350 ::: Zack ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 05:09 PM:

@349 What is your definition of porn?

I would go by this rule: exclude from search if and only if (the cover art, or the title) would get you fined if broadcast as advertising on USA-national television in the daytime. With a tickybox to turn this off, as for Google Safe Search.

That should avoid the "I was browsing in a cafe and now the cute person at the next table thinks I'm a pervert" and "you goatse'd my five year old" scenarios, but wouldn't hit any of the titles that were hurt by this fiasco.

#351 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 05:25 PM:

Whether Amazon's control of how books are sold online comes as a rude shock (as in #amazonfail), or whether one has for a long time had a bad feeling about the way they do business and this new controversy just doesn't seem like that big a deal, it seems to me that what is called for is lists of other places to buy books. There are many good reasons to buy from vendors other than Amazon.

Sending Amazon customers over to because of AmazonFail would be just stupid and counter-productive. I challenge people to come up with good lists of online bookselers. You can take it from the perspective of specialty dealers, or general booksellers. Note that some of the portals of indepentdent booksellers such as ABEbooks are owned by Amazon.

Powells, The University Bookstore, L.W. Currey, Inc., Wonder Book, Genre Ink, . . . name more.

#352 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 05:26 PM:

Ginger @ 341... Better that than our all being diuretic.

#353 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 05:28 PM:

re 349: What may well matter is someone else's definition, as in NSFW. At home, besides the kids wandering in and looking over my shoulder, there's also the tendency of the stuff to very aggressively try to present itself, so that it drowns out what I'm really looking for.

I do tend to regard R rating for violence as p-rnish, which is the third reason I hardly ever see one (reasons One and Two are, respectively, that sex scenes bore me, and that I don't have time for films where I can't take the kids). But graphic violence on the web doesn't try so hard to get onto my screen; I don't ever seem to have to work to avoid it.

#354 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 05:31 PM:

Zack @ 350:

I don't know. I've seen and heard of what I would call some pretty offensive ads on national TV that were considered perfectly fine by the powers that be. Then there was that amusing Durex ad that was doing the rounds on YouTube a couple months back that I'm sure that no US network would want to touch with a ten-foot pole, even for nighttime broadcasting. (Please correct me if someone did show it on network TV in the US. I don't watch much TV.)

I'm amazingly embarrassed by some of the pictures that get put on fantasy novel covers. Does that make them adult? Who decides what words in a title make something adult? If there were a book called, say, The Rape of Nanking, should that be censored because it has the word "Rape" in the title? Even though it's a history book about Japanese brutality in China in the '30s?

#355 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 05:32 PM:

One person's p*rn is another person's erotica.

#356 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 05:46 PM:

Not sure whether this belongs here, now that Amazon has defused the claims of external hacking, but I think it may be relevant to some of the earlier discussion:
a demonstration of some very fine-tuned hacking of online polls

More good reasons to be very wary of trusting user-generated online data for tags, etc.

#357 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 06:00 PM:

Clifton Royston @ 355:

What happened in this case seemed to be using the (inconsistent) data provided by the publisher in an inappropriate manner, rather than user-generated data, but it's still a good point to remember.

#358 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 06:39 PM:

Keith: So far that's the indication, but I think it's still not entirely clear.

Amazon is being pretty hand-wavey yet about what happened. The general outlines of what they've said are remarkably close to Patrick's original hypothesis above, and it seems pretty clear that at least some of the "adult-bit" reclassification was based on the publisher metadata, but they have not said specifically which metadata were the source of the bit-flips. (I do not expect them to, either.) I'm also not sure I buy the implied "blame the silly Frenchman" in their official response; exactly what had this particular employee been asked to do, which went so spectacularly wrong?

If one had an awful lot of spare time, I think it would be interesting to look at what publisher tags and user tags some of the other 56,000 had, and reverse-engineer exactly what categories were reclassified with the "adult" bit.

#359 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 06:46 PM:

Clifton Royston @357

The Dear Author blog (with assorted volunteers) has been doing something very like. Here's the spreadsheet

#360 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 06:56 PM:

KeithS #353: I'm amazingly embarrassed by some of the pictures that get put on fantasy novel covers.

No kidding! In fact, I have [reach] in front of me, the paperback for Steve White's Forge of The Titans, which depicts a naked woman fleeing from a portal into shallow water, with menacing helmeted figures visible through the portal. In fact, this scene is almost straight from the book -- except that in the book, the woman is fully clothed!

I actually met Steve White (and bought this book) when he spoke on a panel last year, and overheard a bit of the before-panel chitchat, where he and another author discussed the cover. White made a crack about it boosting sales; the other guy (David Coe?) responded "yeah, but I can show my books to my daughter."

#361 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 07:24 PM:

Re people worried that this might be going too far too quickly while tempers are high: One nice thing about boycotts is that they aren't final- you can always stop them or restart them based on the latest developments. You can, for instance, decide not to buy anything from Amazon for a week or two, and then look at their reaction so far as well as any new stuff that might have appeared about what happened, think about how impressed or unimpressed you are, and then either continue your boycott or buy from them again. You can do the same another week or two later. Rinse, repeat.

(Exception: Of course there might be people out there who routinely buy lots of stuff online and for whom that is so much integrated into a part of their personal or professional life that switching online ordering services is a pretty big thing that they wouldn't want to do twice in a row. If you're one of those people, the above doesn't apply to you.)

Nancy Lebovitz @76, a bit late so you've probably already thought of it yourself, but perhaps you could try those LGTB blogs that have monitoring online homophobes as one of their specialities?

Fragano Ledgister @220, 221, David Harmon @235, dcd @324- "Sir?"- "Yes?"- "There's another thing I thought you should know: While there's been a sharp drop in sales for most of our products because of the boycotts, for some reason sales of wolf's urine have doubled. We're currently trying to figure out why that happened."

Teresa Nielsen Hayden @280, The works of R. L. Fanthorpe make a good test case because they're among the only non-pornographic titles published by Badger Books.

That sounds like there's some interesting backstory behind that.

Mary Dell @304, another option is simply scrolling down to the bottom on the preview page whenever you're about to post. (People told me about that when I once answered a question that had been answered by someone else while I typed my post.)

#362 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 07:33 PM:

Xopher #333: I would derive a general principle from several of those: your program must have a reasonable way of handling any input possible from the keyboard, mouse, or both in combination.

Or cats.

#363 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 08:15 PM:

Abi @#335:

I would suspect that people who care a lot about the translation of the Bible they're using are shopping online (or, like you, reading online). Bookstore Bibles feel to me like they're more likely to be presentation copies.

Depends on the bookstore. Most folks I know who care about translations go to a Christian bookstore (and are of my parents' generation, so do not love the internet*). I grew up in South Bend, Indiana - home of Notre Dame University - so there are several to choose from.

Those squishy leather first-communion bibles are ubiquitous here in the midwest, and are frequently untouched, as you note. The worn-out paperbacks are the ones people seem to reference and re-read and argue about, in my experience...just as with many another beloved book.

*which is not to suggest that all people who care about biblical translation are of my parents' generation; just most of the ones I know, since I was raised in a different social circle than the one I now inhabit.

#364 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 08:22 PM:

Raphael, you're assuming the resolution will travel as far as the speculation. In my experience, more people remember what began an outrage than see the followup--Snopes wouldn't exist if that wasn't true, and no one would be saying Gore had claimed he invented the internet.

News sources tend to spend more on the beginning of a tale than the end. In part, because old stories don't sell as well. But news sources hate looking bad. It takes a lot of integrity to post your corrections on your front page.

#365 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 08:28 PM:

Raphael, #360: That tactic works well enough in most threads, but in a really fast-moving one like this, it's quite possible to be 20 to 30 posts behind by the time you've caught up to where the end of the thread was when you started reading.

OTOH, it's also a good tactic (and one used by many commenters here) to keep from flooding the thread with a lot of individual short replies.

#366 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 09:16 PM:

Albatross @ 288:

Five rings for the Keatings in their vaults of steel....

#367 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 09:24 PM:

Ghu, what I missed by crashing five minutes after I got home yesterday ....

#368 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 09:37 PM:

Serge @ 334 ...
If someone can do it wrong, someone will.

s/someone will/someone already has, and I'm stuck dealing with it/ [0]

[0] Need I say more about how today's gone?

#369 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 09:55 PM:

xeger @ #367,

"s/someone will/someone already has, and I'm stuck dealing with it"

"Come let me tell you a tale of woe, oh"

#370 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 10:06 PM:

The database I access at work has been down since Friday for compression and cleanup. It was supposed to be up yesterday, but now we're hoping for it to be ready tomorrow. I suspect it's far smaller than Amazon's (given that it involves a whole lot of tables, that's not certain), but the software we use to get into it is remarkably fragile and sensitive to ... well, everything, nearly. Including, possibly, the phase of the moon.

#371 ::: hapax ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 10:07 PM:

Paula @ 286:

"There are reissues of Georgette Heyer novels in trade paperback at present. It's utterly ludicrous that there are English Regency romances with Georgian era paintings used for covers,...while it's annoying, it's not going to miscategorize the content as outside the romance genre or as "spicy"/hawt content books."

Interesting that you should bring this up. I first noticed the problem on Sunday when I was looking up a new M/M romance that has just recently received rave reviews and a lot of notice for being marketed as a "mainstream" romance (FALSE COLORS by Alex Beecroft, if plugs are allowed here), and I could only find the Heyer book of the same title.

Considering that the Heyer re-releases are being aimed at the YA market, the first thing that crossed my mind when I learned a little later of the whole kerfuffle is that an upset patron complained about the "hawt" book being ranked ahead of the "wholesome" Heyer and a fix inadvertently got out of hand.

Teresa, looking at the listings for the Doyle and Macdonald books, it seems to *me* that the worst problem is that the BAD BLOOD series is unaccountably out of print.

#372 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 10:08 PM:

Kathryn @ 219, and others
This is why I buy books from DreamHaven Books, the original Amazon Bookstore (now called True Colors) and other brick and mortar stores. I want to support them so that they are around when I need them. I do not buy books at Amazon. Occasionally, I've bought them at the Powells website when I couldn't get them anywhere else.
Of course, I also buy a lot at the library book sales, garage sales, and rummage sales.

The whole Twitter thing worries me. I'm not on Twitter. I don't plan to be. I want to be able to go offline and not have the world go down in flames while I'm staring off into the woods. I definitely don't want it to become a de facto method of voting or influencing public opinion. There are too many people that Twitter, and the like, will exclude. And yes, it's too fast, too likely to be a case of collectively jumping to a conclusion, and then off a cliff.

#373 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 10:41 PM:

C Wingate --

I think your experience with restrictive availability of Bible editions may be more regional than other, and tied to the local religious preference - up here in Massachusetts, both in Boston and Worcester (mid-state) Barnes and Noble and Borders both have a wide selection, including both the JB and NJB (which I really like).

(the first bible I owned was a JB, that I was required to have for study in my RC high school, back when dinosaurs rules the earth, about two years i wanted to get a new bible, and decided to see what had come about with the new translation)
I know the 1966 JB is canonical for The Episcopal Church in the US. And the New Jerusalem should be canonical as well.

As Abi and others have noted, a lot of the First Communion presentation bibles are likely never used, but there are a lot of bibles out there that *are* read

#374 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 10:49 PM:

Abi digresses: "I would suspect that people who care a lot about the translation of the Bible they're using are shopping online (or, like you, reading online)."

Well, for me I think I'd be more likely to want to check out a print Bible in person rather than buying it via Amazon or another online source (as I'd be happy to do for many other books). That's partly because just about every major Bible translation *is* online now, so if I'm going for print it's because I care about things like the form factor, the layout of the notes, etc., that are harder to determine just from a web page about the book.

(And if I'm going to visit a store to check out the book, it seems only right to buy it there too, rather than going home and ordering it online. Tim O'Reilly's Buy Where You Shop was published over 5 years ago, but it's worth looking at again when reconsidering one's book-buying habits.)

#375 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 10:52 PM:

Linkmeister @ 368 ...
"Come let me tell you a tale of woe, oh"

"None is good unless it's false
One is bad until it's true,
Forget and fear the wrath of grue..."

(er, yes, terrible doggerel... clearly more appropriate beverages are required...)

#376 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 10:54 PM:

xeger @ 367... Need I say more about how today's gone?


#377 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 11:34 PM:

You know, I'll start worrying about the threat that Twitter poses to democracy when the Twitvote Amendment comes up for ratification. Until then, "the world moves fast now, and everyone is watching. Be on your toes" strikes me as a fine thing for corporations to be wary of.

#378 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 11:47 PM:

Serge @ 375 ...
Hm... I think the sufficiently geeky abstracted summary would be:

* Dear engineering. You have wasted more energy trying to pass the buck on this documented, repeatable bug than you would have spent in fixing this documented, repeatable bug. Also, "We'll consider looking at this in a few releases" is just not going to fly. It's a bug, not a feature request.
* If you have three distinct possible states, returning two states will cause problems.
* Let's agree on whether 1 is true or 1 is a problem (but why-oh-why did you have to decide that -2- is success and -4- is failure, and 0, 1 and 3 are other distinct, but neither successful nor failing conditions... )
* Note to self: punctuation and closing brackets are important[0)
* Just because you -can- do it doesn't mean that it's a good idea, a maintainable idea, or even a sane idea. It's also probably not a new idea. (1]
* The vendor providing it doesn't mean that the code actually works, has been tested, has anything to do with best practices, or, really, should be met with anything other than "ARGHHHHHHH!!! -No, don't do THAT-!!!"
* Turning off warnings doesn't make the errors go away -- fixing the code makes the errors go away...[2}
* Note to self: cut-and-paste and line-wrap don't always intersect particularly well... (see earlier comment}
* SOAP is unclean
* WSDL will not help with your cleaning problem
* Auto-vivification may render your problems entertaining[3)
* On the other hand, using the most recently checked-in version of the library will almost certainly improve the odds that your code behaves (or fails] in an expected way.

[0] As are matching types of bracket...
[1] Unfortunately it may be a catchy bad idea...
{2} Ravenous bugblatter beasts of traal aside...
(3) Overloading will likely render your problems still more entertaining)4)
(4) That would be until you ask me to fix the problems... [5)
[5] ... or at least take a 'quick look' at them

#379 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2009, 11:49 PM:

heresiarch @ 376 ...
You know, I'll start worrying about the threat that Twitter poses to democracy when the Twitvote Amendment comes up for ratification. Until then, "the world moves fast now, and everyone is watching. Be on your toes" strikes me as a fine thing for corporations to be wary of.

Don't worry heresiach, we all know what you were doing, and how wrong/evil/guilty you are ... even though you claim you weren't there ... since everybody twittered about it...

#380 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 12:42 AM:

xeger @ 377... What you're going thru seems to be what I sometimes refer to as a UOPPG - a Unique Opportunity for Professional and Personal Growth. Yes, I know that is also known as BS and you don't need me to spell that out.

As for your comment that "...using the most recently checked-in version of the library will almost certainly improve the odds that your code behaves (or fails] in an expected way..."

What fools these mortals be!

You're assuming that people always check the latest version of anything in the Library. Obviously the Library isn't the one run by Jane Curtin and Bob Newhart otherwise it would be safe to make that assumption. Whenever I make a change, I never use the Library's version of this or that piece of code. I copy the corresponding code that is now in our production environment and, if there are discrepancies, well, I go to whoever last worked on this and ask which version is the correct one. Today, I found one piece of code that the team's Boy Wonder had worked on that exists in our production environment, but which he had never checked into the Library.

Oh, and did I tell you about the twit who worked on the processing of a new feed into our database, but who somehow forgot to set up the transmission of the feed from There to Here?

#381 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 12:44 AM:

Magenta, #371: There are too many people that Twitter, and the like, will exclude.

That's already true; it didn't take Twitter. This is something that's been nagging at me ever since e-mail became universal in my social circle. I've read so many SF stories in which one of the base assumptions was a deeply-exaggerated split between the Haves*, who live in high-tech luxury, and the Have-Nots*, who exist in squalor, without access to the tech of the upper levels, and whose lives are nasty, brutish, and short. And I see it happening all across the First World, but vividly here in America; part of the ever-widening gap between the upper and lower classes is in the availability of access to computers in general, and the Internet even more so. I don't know how to fix it, but recognizing that it exists is the first step.

* The exact names for the Haves and the Have-Nots vary widely, but effectively that's what they are, so why not just call them that.

#382 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 12:51 AM:

Serge @ 379 ...
You're assuming that people always check the latest version of anything in the Library.

As the person who checked-in the latest version, I'm prettydamn'dsure the Library has that much :D

#383 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 01:00 AM:

xeger @ 381... I expect that you would, and so would I, but funny things happen when a new branch of our ClearCase-based library is created: some changes sometimes don't get carried over. Am I less than impressed by ClearCase? Is the Pope a Catholic?

#384 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 01:05 AM:

ClearCase is one of those things about which Montgomery Scott has been known to say:

"The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain."
#385 ::: Shalanna Collins ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 02:13 AM:

Teresa NH: Thank you for offering to fix that crazy comment of mine. The system hiccuped after the first occurrence of my quotation and pasted the opening in again. It started over at "Here's something heartening":
"It's distastefully arrogant for you to assume that because it is not a big deal to you it therefore ought not be a big deal to anyone else.Here's something heartening."
. . . and that's where the whole post so far repeated itself. Apparently that happened because the system freaked out when I typed the less-than sign to indicate the end of the quoted material (which is what I usually do on LiveJournal.) Oops!

We need to delete from there all the way down to the next occurrence of that same line--
>It's distastefully arrogant for you to assume that because it is not a big deal to you it therefore ought not be a big deal to anyone else.--

The rest of the comment follows correctly.

Or you may just want to zap the comment, as I'm obviously outnumbered in counseling non-panic. *grin* I feel for the database personnel who have to go in to fix this by hand.

Yesterday John Scalzi chimed in on his blog, saying a remarkably similar thing to what I had said, so maybe I'm not the only one who counseled a bit of perspective on the situation. I do know it would be upsetting if they torpedoed all books about and for and by fat people (a set of which I am a member), so I can see why it did upset people--I just couldn't fathom why the depth of anger over what really looks like a software problem. I worked in software test for twenty years at E-Systems, Rockwell, and DSC Communications (now Alcatel Lucent--I also did software quality metrics there), and I can tell you that when somebody puts in a small patch to a system, it can balloon into a mess like this very easily. Most corporations don't think testing is very important until the entire Eastern seaboard long distance goes down over a failed patch, as it did in response to an error by a DSC contractor sometime in 1983 (I think it was). Ouch!

I must be among the few people who never uses a search for keywords when looking for books! I am typically looking for a book using its title or the author's name. I can't remember ever searching by keywords. Is it really that common? I could still find these books using the author's name, couldn't I? Or did that go away when they were de-ranked? *That* would affect profits, so Amazon is likely to repair it quickly.

Just my luck--my novel goes forward in the Amazon contest, but Amazon disgraces itself the weekend before and everyone swears never to buy there again. I am definitely a Jonah!

#386 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 02:26 AM:

Shalannah: I alluded up-thread to the fallacy of intentionality, namely assuming that the consequences of someone's action are necessarily the consequences they intended for it. It's a very common tendency.

It seems that in this case, at least most software people are saying things along the lines of "I can imagine how they could screw up that one." We have mostly been in the position of the one-who-broke-things ourselves, and can easily put ourselves in those shoes again. There are a lot of people in other walks and careers who simply find that impossible to imagine, and who assume it must have been intended to do exactly what it did.

The support reps giving a "that's policy" brush-off vastly compounded the problem, of course.

#387 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 02:56 AM:

xeger @ 378:

#388 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 04:29 AM:

At this point, I regret having squandered the first release of a new anti-investor/executive rant against Amazon; I should have saved it for the upcoming war with Time Warner Cable. Ah, well....

#389 ::: Harriet Culver ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 05:21 AM:

Shalanna @384

When you said "I could still find these books using the author's name, couldn't I? Or did that go away when they were de-ranked? *That* would affect profits, so Amazon is likely to repair it quickly."

Yes. Exactly. Author's name, and even Title. That went away when they were de-ranked, UNLESS one knew enough to search SPECIFICALLY in the "Book Department". But they were disappeared from results if one simply used the main top level search entry field "Search: All Departments".

Or if a person was trying to save a step or two, and using the drop-down Amazon Search plugin or add-on or whatever that thingy is on the Firefox toolbar, for example, because that only does All Department searches. Books were not retrievable when searching there using title or author.

Though I did come up with a listing for "2 Used or New from $24.99" through a listed reseller when searching by title for a particular bestselling test book. Which is not the same thing as getting Amazon's standard "Shopping Cart or 1-Click" purchase options on in-stock stock.

And yes, that does appear to have been fixed now.

#390 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 06:59 AM:

It has occurred to me that perhaps part of the reason I was (apparently) not seeing as much search degradation as others (may) have was because I mostly wasn't using (and for that matter generally don't use) Amazon's searches to find books on Amazon; I typically find them through Google, which was completely unaffected, one way or the other.

Of late I've been working on some Wikipedia articles that have required nontrivial research. So I power up Google, and of course it produces a bunch of websites; but it also produces hits in Google Books, and these are very useful. If I'm lucky, the pages I actually need will all show up; but if they don't, I have been given a review copy which allows me to make a decision as to whether I want to go after the book. And then I can go into library catalogs: first the three county systems, then Enoch Pratt, and finally UMCP (I could do JHU or LOC too, but it's never come to that). Along the way, I often or generally get Amazon hits for the same books; but since as a rule I don't want to buy the book, and since I trust my reviewing skills more, I just don't look at them.

These searching methods tend to put me in the category of people who, if they look into Amazon, look for a particular book.

#391 ::: John Chu ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 07:46 AM:

Shannon@384 What is it about understanding that it's a software glitch that somehow prevents anger over the GLBT community once again being disenfranchised? Whether it is accidental or intentional, classifying GLBT books as "adult" regardless of content sends a highly homophobic message. This was something that Amazon needed to fix. A highly motivated group of Amazon customers chose to make this clear to the company in crystal clear terms.

We have evidence that they'd been doing this, albeit on a smaller scale, since at least February. The authors affected had informed Amazon of this at the time. Clearly, they needed some level of uproar before they were willing to concede and fix the problem.

Counseling a moderate response tends to be a good move. Minimizing the result of Amazon's actions is not. During #amazonfail, people were unable to find books even when they typed in the exact title into the search box. I verified this by looking for "Heather Has Two Mommies." Yes, they've since fixed it at least for this one book. However, they did not do so until after the uproar.

Cliff@385: I've spent the past 10 years either catching or fixing bugs in microprocessors. Before and concurrent to that, I've also written large chunks of software, mostly highly detailed simulators for performance analysis. I've totally made my share of bugs (all caught and fixed, of course). I've seen more instances of unintended consequence of a change than I can count. When I first saw #amazonfail, my first thought was that this could not have been intentional on Amazon's part.

None of this means I can't be angry over the disenfranchisement, regardless of cause. None of this means that I can't demand that Amazon fix it. None of this means that I can't think that Amazon should apologize for the unintended disenfranchisement rather than pretend that no one took it as such.

Also, at work, I don't decide to leave a bug in because someone put it in by accident. I file a bug report and that person fixes the bug. They fix the bug then explain what they've done to prevent the bug from recurring. I note that Amazon hasn't done that last bit yet.

In this situation, it took some anger to just make Amazon start corrective action. Please don't attribute anger to supposed ignorance so casually. That's not very nice.

#392 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 07:52 AM:

John Chu @ 390 ...
To me, at least, a lot of the reaction hasn't felt like "you're disenfranchising GLBT (again)" as much as "OMG EVIL DELIBERATELY GOING OUT OF THEIR WAY TO PICK ON GLBT LIKE ALWAYS" -- and quite bluntly, there's been a lot of "this must be malice" rather than "okay, mistakes happen, an apology would be nice", which is what I see Cliffton writing about.

#393 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 08:38 AM:

By the way, here's a simpler URL to the "amazonfail store":

Also, a customer designed a logo for it. heh.

#394 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 09:32 AM:

Paula, #340: sure, I know there's no reliable way to define porn. (I don't have much use for the pornography of violence, but that doesn't usually appear at "random" in the middle of other searches.) That's what makes this a hard problem. And it's much harder for an on-line bookseller, which doesn't have physical sections. But I notice that when the system was working, we didn't have many problems or complaints with it, so I don't think it's hopeless.

#395 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 09:55 AM:

Shalanna @384

I don't use keyword search much. I do use their recommendations, and that was disabled for delisted books, I think. I don't know what happened to "people who bought [this book] also bought [these books]", but if the other books are harder to find, then that's going to gradually get less useful.

Also, not everyone knows that google is a good alternative to the execrable amazon search.

One thing which would make me feel better about amazon would be if they published a list of the 57k books which were delisted, so that how well the relisting is going could be monitored.

#396 ::: John Chu ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 10:13 AM:

xeger@391: We'll just have to disagree about this. Maybe I only stay on the nice side of the internet or something. What I read was very much "you're disenfranchising GLBT (again)," and data collection about which books Amazon deranked. (whether they had intended to or not).

And, yes, an apology from Amazon would be nice. I note that we haven't gotten one yet. I remain hopeful.

I'm still not fond of the idea that if someone took offense to GLBT books being deranked regardless of content, it's likely because that person Simply Just Doesn't Understand what it's like to work on complicated piece of software. As you show, xeger, it's perfectly possible to make the argument that someone has over-reacted without evoking the But They Just Don't Understand The Way You And I Do argument.

#397 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 10:14 AM:

Earl, that logo is by this fine fellow.

#398 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 10:52 AM:

I have to say that whatever anyone else on the internet had to say on the subject, it doesn't appear to me that anyone commenting here has thought this was outright malice.

Software is complex. Things go wrong, especially when they're not properly tested. Everyone makes mistakes. People who have worked on software can imagine lots of ways to make this happen. One of the problems is that lots of us didn't know that they had a system for this sort of thing in the first place. There are lots of ways to accidentally turn the censorship bit on, but if you don't know there is one then your thoughts might be led down a different path.

Clifton Royston mentioned the fallacy of intentionality. Lots of people, because they have access to their own thoughts, believe that they should be judged by their intentions, not their actions. However, at the same time, we don't have access to anyone else's thoughts, just their actions. What else can you really judge them on?

You can, of course, go by what they say, but what they've said hasn't exactly been helpful. Amazon's PR didn't come up with a good story at the beginning, which fueled mistrust. Their semi-official story still has a whiff of the fish market about it, although it's at least plausible. They haven't, to my knowledge, come straight out and apologized for it, and they certainly haven't said anything about it on their website. So, again, what else do we have to judge them by?

Was the reaction elsewhere out of hand? Probably. Internet drama does that. At the same time, you need to call people on their bigotry. You have to tell them that it's just not cool. Sometimes people don't know that what they've done isn't right. In this case it looks like they just didn't know what they did at all, but how can we tell from outside?

There's no straight category on Amazon. There's no middle-class white guy category on Amazon. But there is a gay and lesbian category. There are good reasons for having such a category, but at the same time it also makes it into a 'genre', something that's not mainstream or 'important'. (See discussions of how SF isn't really literature, not that I'm trying to claim that SF is a persecuted minority. More for the discussion of how a label makes things easier to find but also easier to separate.)

You can't filter on things that aren't tagged. This is part of Patrick's original point: if something bad happens, it often happens to non-empowered groups just because of the way things are, not through any malice.

#399 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 11:03 AM:

re 390/391/395: On some level there definitely was some level of intent behind this, which from what Google News was showing me is going to leave a lingering bad taste. OTOH the flip side of "we're being persecuted again!", amplified by "How DARE they delist my book!", had no trouble at all in swinging Amazon around. I've wandered through the Amazonfail tag, and it's pretty clear that most of the things that were so tagged got it because people started from things they knew would get hit and followed tags and categories that they thought would match the parameters of what they believed was being censored. This fits into the now-MSM-canonized story of this being a homosexuality thing. And it got Amazon's attention, apparent limited by the difficulty of having to deal with the affected items one-by-one. My conclusion is that the one force is a lot stronger than the other.

The other side is that it doesn't seem to me that anyone besides maybe someone at Amazon has a good idea of what was really affected. The 1,522 items tagged "Amazonfail" are only about 3% of the total items Amazon said were affected, and even the outliers with that tag seem to have been identified on the assumption that literary erotica were targeted. Those tagged that I found that didn't relate to sexuality or erotica were mistagged as such, which tended to confirm the criteria, but which also (when I looked further) showed a campaign of deliberate mistagging by customers. The thing is that I don't think we understand very well what else was deranked because the people who were looking for such only knew a very biased way to look; and the supposed affected items comprise no more than 2.5% of Amazon's offerings, if that much. I could tentatively theorize that we may have identified most of the items which got deranked over homosexual themes.

#400 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 11:04 AM:

xeger @ 391: Well, one reason people assume malice (in the debacle that is amazonfail) is that all too often in the past -- even recently -- this kind of behavior has been related to malice. We deal with homophobia on a daily basis, most of it hidden in basic buried assumptions. After all, as several people have pointed out, "gay and lesbian" fiction is a separate genre while "straight" is the default position. If a book isn't labeled, it's "straight".

To me, telling people that they're overreacting to a situation is the kind of statement that comes perilously close to the "tone argument", where minorities are told that "if only you'd said it nicer, then we wouldn't be so mad at you" (for calling the majority on the discrimination). There's no nice way to point out that failed in a major way, whether deliberate or inadvertent.

If can learn from its mistakes, and I sincerely hope it does, then I am prepared to accept their public apology. They should post it on their main page, even though they've sent us all semi-apologetic emails that don't really assume any responsibility.

We're only human. We all make mistakes, some more public than others. When a mistake is made, the best approach is honesty, openness, and a faithful attempt to correct the underlying problem(s). So far, I haven't seen any of this from, although I remain hopeful.

#401 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 12:39 PM:

Ginger, #399: Yes, the "tone" argument. AKA "all right, everyone, let's not panic here" and/or "let's look at this in perspective". Well, looking at it in perspective is exactly what's happening, and the perspective is not encouraging.

I don't see what's so hard to understand about the idea that automatically equating GLBT themes with "adult material" is both wrong AND bigoted. Whether the actual fail mechanism was deliberate or not doesn't matter, it's the FALSE EQUIVALENCY -- the thing which allowed it to happen -- that needs to be fixed!

And yes, it would be nice if Amazon had the grace to offer an apology, even a plain-vanilla one to "all the authors and publishers whose books were affected by this". That would seem, from where I sit, to be basic courtesy -- but so far it hasn't happened, and I don't think it will.

(For clarity: my own annoyed tone here is not directed at you. I'm stating violent agreement with you.)

#402 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 12:54 PM:

Lee @ 400: "I'm stating violent agreement with you."

..and making excellent points while you're about it.

#403 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 01:03 PM:

#399: Sincere, non-facetious question: did you think of writing them a note before Friday asking them to introduce a "straight" category, or "middle-class white male" category?

I am not assuming the answer is "no". (The answer is "no" for me.) But I am willing to believe that you might have done, in which case I applaud your forethought and commitment to your values. Sincerely and truthfully.

But if the answer is "no", then why didn't either of us do so? Because we couldn't see how such a tag could be fairly applied? Because it just never occurred to us? Because we, like everyone else, were raised in a society that accepted and cheered gross expressions of homophobia and sexism until the last decade or two?

Amazon's employees were also raised in that society, and they also may not have seen that particular wrong in their database until something came along to make them notice it. And I still see no obvious way of fixing it. To me, the fact that Amazon is based in Seattle, one of the most gay-friendly places in America, and that it has not to my knowledge shown any signs of censorship based on sexual preference before, mean that assuming malicious intent on their part was something that could at least wait for an explanation. Even if that took til Monday afternoon.

You may honestly differ and I respect that. I appreciate that people's feelings were hurt, and that Amazon was slow to respond, and still hasn't responded to your satisfaction. Those are legitimate quarrels. But the complaint that they did not foresee all things in advance and respond instantly to reports of problems is objectively unreasonable.

You can help them solve this problem by thinking about ways that their categorization system could be improved and mistakes like these can (sometimes) be avoided, and if they don't seem to be working to improve their system in response, you'd have another legitimate complaint. Speaking for myself, I do not see an easy way of forever eradicating the possibility of botched database updates and PR failures, and I think that the non-existence of a GLBT tag would be a net loss for the cause of equal rights, by making such material harder to find. So I don't have any suggestions for Amazon. And I never heard anyone complain about the existence of a GLBT tag on Amazon until Saturday. So I don't feel it would be fair for me to criticize them for being unable to solve a problem I also have no idea how to solve. But, that's just me.

#404 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 01:17 PM:

Jacob Davies @402: I don't think anyone's objecting to the existence of a GLBT tag. (Although, as I understand it from the Dear Author examples, "gay," "lesbian," and "transgender" were three separate tags, not a single one. But that's a nitpick.)

What people are objecting to -- certainly what I'm objecting to -- is the decision to classify anything with a GLBT-type tag as automatically "adult."

Making a "straight" tag wouldn't solve the problem. Having the sense to THINK for a moment and realize that "GLBT" doesn't automatically equal PORN would have helped.

#405 ::: John Chu ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 01:34 PM:

C. Wingate@398: Intent, the actual number of GLBT books deranks, or whether they had disproportionately deranked GLBT books aren't directly relevant to the argument. It may be nice to know these things to get a fuller picture of what happened. Not knowing them doesn't prevent us from making some arguments about the message Amazon unintentionally sent and how they might best redress it.

The problem is that the act of deranking GLBT books without regard their content looks extremely homophobic when we see, at the same time, so many heterosexual books with blatant sexual content that retained their rankings. This remains the case regardless of their intent, how many GLBT books affected, or whether or not they bore the brunt of the error.

Jacob Davies@402: Did Ginger complain that "they did not foresee all things in advance and respond instantly to reports of problems"? All she has said is that she hasn't seen an open. honest accounting from Amazon yet, but that she hopes to.

She expressed dissatisfaction with what Amazon has said so far. I don't think that's the same thing as demanding instant satisfaction, especially since she says that she remains hopeful.

#406 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 01:37 PM:

Ginger 399, Lee 400, Ginger 401, Rikibeth 403: hear, hear. Also, Right On, Sisters! (Dating myself, but no one else will, so meh.)

Also, I'd like to paraphrase something a friend of mine said years ago: "It would be paranoid to look for homophobia under every rock—if homophobia were not, in fact, under every rock."

#407 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 01:42 PM:

"Having the sense to THINK for a moment and realize that "GLBT" doesn't automatically equal PORN would have helped."

It would have. It didn't happen. Do you believe that was there was malicious intent in that omission?

#408 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 01:46 PM:

Randolph @305 and @338, Jon Baker @307: Unlike Google Books (which functionally contains the actual books), Google Scholar is a bibliographic database. It does not present the user with the academic books and journal articles; it contains bibliographic data about them and provides links back to places the articles are published.

The biggest problems arise not when the information in the database is erroneous, but the same as the problem with AmazonFail: when the information is incomplete in misleading ways, and things are missing. (And sometimes the information in the database is wrong -- I've heard of papers getting put up on publisher's sites with errors in things like DOIs and author names. If you're looking for the author name on a paper, are you going to actually follow the link back, rather than just looking at what Google's page says?)

Some ways that the information in the database can be incomplete: First, the database is not necessarily up-to-date. If a paper was published in the last couple of months, it may not be in the index.

Second, if the publisher has their articles behind a paywall (as most do, to pay for editing and other expenses of making published material) and has not gone to special lengths to allow Google to index the articles, these links will not contain the official version of the article -- they will only contain unofficial versions at preprint servers and the like. Similarly, if for some reason the publisher's site was down that day, or something else was going wrong, those articles won't be in the database.

Third, the confluence of these -- if a publisher had a glitch that prevented Google from indexing their site several months ago, those papers may still not be in the index.

(FWIW, I don't have insider-to-Google knowledge of the database, but I do have knowledge from people in the journal publishing industry who have talked to them about it, and in particular have complained about item 3 and gotten replies that it's just in Beta so this isn't considered a problem.)

#409 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 01:55 PM:

Rikibeth: What people are objecting to -- certainly what I'm objecting to -- is the decision to classify anything with a GLBT-type tag as automatically "adult."

Not here! What I, and several prior commenters, still object to, is the presence of a covert facility to make books invisible to anyone who doesn't already know exactly what to look for, with no way to alter that behavior. Given the mere existence of that facility, it becomes all too easy to "disappear" any book that some random person, among Amazon's disorganized teams, doesn't think should be generally available.

Yeah, yeah, turning it on the LGBT and disability crowds was a mistake --and now, it's likely to take at least a week or two to fix that mistake. Next month, the facility might get used on Turner Diaries and Protocols of the Elders of Zion ("dangerous ideas" if anything is) -- and the slippery slope begins. The month after that, it might be the Kinsey Report, or sex-ed in general ("talking about sex to children?"), or environmentalism ("dangerous militants"), a Scientology expose, or whatever else pushed somebody's buttons.

At this point, Amazon has very publically demonstrated, and admitted, that a single person, among their thousands of employees, can make whole categories of books "disappear" from the usual ways to look up books and topics. There's no way for a user to turn that filter off, at all. For an author, the only appeal is to somehow get past the customer-relations drones, and nicely ask Amazon "oh, can you please unflag my book". Which they can do, or not, at their complete discretion. (And what about works whose authors are long dead?)

That's what I object to.

#410 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 01:58 PM:

Xopher @ 405... Sisters!

Is this the part where you and I do our interpretation of Bing Crosby & Danny Kaye doing their interpretation of Rosemary Clooney & Vera-Ellen's sister act?

#411 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 02:03 PM:

Would it be deeply wrong of me to wonder why 97% of the items that were affected by this rather unfortunate error don't seem to have champions, and are clearly being marginalized... ?

#412 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 02:04 PM:

Jacob Davies @ 402:

Since those were the example categories I pulled out, I feel that I should answer your question as well.

No, I did not.

There are multiple reasons for this. Some of it is that, yes, much as I try to be fair and equal and all of that, I still fail. I don't think about it like I should. I'm used to the way things are, even though the way things are is wrong. It's improving. I'm trying to improve it. I still fail.

Another reason is figuring out how to apply those categories. Straight is arguably easy to apply to a lot of romance novels, but what about most novels in general? Lots of books have relationship or romance subplots. Male, heterosexual and white are often the unexamined defaults unless otherwise noted. Do we apply the middle-class white male category to those "you too can invest in the stock market and make tons of money" books in the business section? Standard history books written from a Western perspective? I don't know.

I'm not saying that it's an impossible task, but we're so steeped in our own culture that it's difficult. This is not to say that we shouldn't try.

Would there be a purpose to categorizing books this way? It might help people question assumptions. It might help the people who need to understand that gay and lesbian don't automatically equal adult material. Why someone would think that it did to begin with, I don't really know. I can guess, but I don't know.

I'm not complaining about the existence of a GLBT tag per se. In fact, like you, I believe that it makes the material easier to find; it lets people know it exists. At the same time, I've still always been slightly uncomfortable with it because it separates it out from the mainstream. It makes it easy to either accidentally or on purpose do something to a broad set of books just because they fly under a particular banner.

I didn't expect malice on Amazon's part. It makes no sense, business or otherwise, for them to do that. However, other people have done such things out of malice. People have been trying to ensure that gays remain second-class citizens if they have to be citizens at all (see all the arguments over gay marriage, use of "gay" as a synonym for stupid, and the don't ask don't tell policy of the US military). We're outsiders looking in to the Amazon machine. We don't have access to their internal thoughts and policies.

I know all about never attribute to malice, etc., etc. I expected stupidity, even though I still called them on what they did in an email to them. But I'm sure you can see why some people who have been burned again and again and again might see otherwise.

I still hope for an official apology for Amazon. It would be nice to know what happened and what they're doing to fix it, but I don't expect them to go into that much detail.

#413 ::: Noelle ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 02:07 PM:

I've read most of the comments about Amazon here, and I agree with parts of everything nearly everybody has said. Equating GLBT with Adult is worse than stupid. Having a way to randomly make categories of books disappear is disquieting and Amazon is certainly not shining in the PR department. But all of this highlights to me why you might want to shop at an independent bookstore. Particularly the kind of bookstore where the clerks read and love the books and might be writers themselves. Amazon might be convenient, it might have great selection, but if we want care and thoughtfullness, might a real person behind a counter be a better choice.

#414 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 02:11 PM:

Jacob Davies @ 402: "Think of"? Yes. I'm a lesbian, and wading through reams of het male porn is not my idea of fun, although I'm sure it would be ideal for others.

But I didn't say they needed to have a "straight" tag, just that they needed to address the hidden assumptions that led to the situation in which "gay" was also tagged as "adult" when in many cases the gay literature was harmless. In comparison to the het porn, which was not all harmless (for varying degrees of "harm", which are dependent on individual variables).

Next, I didn't blame them for having such tags, only for having a poor response to the issue being pointed out. Being defensive is a normal human reaction, but it's not always the right one. When you (i.e., have made a major error, the first response should not be defensive rejection, outright denial, or vague handwaving.

An honest response would have been heartening. As I said before, we all make mistakes. In my profession, my mistakes can lead to the death of my patients, so I'm well aware of the need to be careful. After-action review can be extremely painful when there's been a serious error, but it's the kind of pain that's cleansing.

Rikibeth @ 403: What you said.

Xopher @ 405: I'd date you, even if my partner complained but for this incompatibility thing. Alas! Our love is thwarted once again.

David Harmon @ 408: I like your points too. It's one of the subtler issues around this problem that bothers me; after all, if it can happen this easily to one population, how easily can it happen to others? (insert obligatory reference to Pastor Martin Niemoeller here)

#415 ::: legionseagle ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 02:12 PM:

Jacob Davies@402: Can I ask why you attribute the importance you appear to do to "malicious intent"? As KeithS @397 points out, malice is a question of intentionality, and intentionality is notoriously hard to judge. If you look at actions instead, what you see is that some human person's action (unless you're positing HAL the Homophobic AI) produced a situation where all the material specifically metatagged as Gay and Lesbian together with other material in related categories eg Feminism, Transgender issues and so forth became deranked.

Why do I say, "All?" Well, look at the statement from Patty Smith. Bearing in mind that this statement - if Amazon have any brain at all - will have been gone over by PR gurus and lawyers before it hit the press, and every word in it can therefore be considered to have been thought about. Her statement runs: "It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles – in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica."

Not "limited to" Gay & Lesbian. But certainly "including" and, I would suggest, probably including all content with that tag. The Dear Author spreadsheets, showing how different editions of particular books (such as John Barrowman's autobiography, which according to Amazon is apparently too hot to handle in hardcover and A-OK in paperback)were affected or not depending on whether they had the crucial tag or not.

I'm working here, also, in the knowledge that among the books in the "Gay and Lesbian" category which lost their rankings were a number of academic works by a leading scholar in the field of sex, gender and social change. She was puzzled by the patchy delisting of her works. One of the ones delisted was a set textbook in a large number of UK undergraduate courses. One of the ones notdelisted included significant excepts of women writing about lesbian relationships. The first was tagged "Lesbian and Gay", the second was not.

John Amaechi seems to have expressed the point superbly in a recent interview: "Classifying LGBT content as adult reinforces the ridiculous idea that while straight lives are about family, children, love, commitment, houses, friends, pets, "sugar and spice and all things nice;" LGBT lives are only about sex, sex, sex, and a type of sex that is so awful that respectable people should be protected from it.

"Amazon's very thought process in initiating this cull of LGBT books has been juvenile and under-researched at best, or pandering and bigoted at worst."

That's the issue, not "malice". It's unthinking stupidity - the same sort of stupidity which caused a cop to pull over the clergyman who is now Archbishop of York in 2000, because for him "black guy in nice car = potential crime suspect" and "=/= Bishop". He may, or may not, have been acting with express "malice"- who can say? But his actions were influenced by his assumptions and preconceptions, and they, in turn, were infused with bigotry.

And, finally, why should any consumer have to wait for Amazon to be proven to have displayed "malice" - as you have repeatedly urged? If you go to a restaurant and you and all your party go down with food-poisoning, do you wait until it's been proven they deliberately employed Typhoid Mary before telling your friends, "Watch that place. There may be something dodgy about their kitchen hygiene"? And if you do avoid the restaurant and advise others to do so, why is it different with Amazon?

#416 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 02:30 PM:

I've been reading this thread, and the ones at Metafilter and Whatever since I got home Easter evening and my LJ Friendslist was in unified outrage over this mess, and I've come to two conclusions:

1. That it is most likely that there was no conscious corporate intent at Amazon to delist any of the books that were disappeared, and that there was a cascade of bad effects resulting from institutionalized privilege and imperfect information at many levels at Amazon, among its customor base, and probably in the publishing industry, with the coding error being the mere proximate cause. This seems to demonstrate that nobody really understands tag cloud environments any better than I do (I think they're sort of pretty, though).

2. The current model of online and telephone Customer Service is irretrievably broken, not just at Amazon, but everywhere. At Amazon, there needs to be an ongoing analysis of search terms, and the words "caller=author" and "caller=publisher's representative" need to be active fields in the CSR's script, bumping the inquiry to someone with training in spotting screw-ups like this in their infancy. Everywhere, there needs to be an easier way to get answers to rare questions: Just because 90% of calls to customer service can be answered by the bedbug letter or equivalent doesn't mean that the other 10% don't deserve more thoughtful treatment.

2a: If you hire a CSR whose name is Amberlyn, it would be wise to assign her something that sounds less like a middle-school cheerleader, just to recognize this effect: the combination of BS boilerplate and a name with implications of youth and triviality is going to be recieved, by many, as an insult, especially in the case of "caller=author" and "caller=publisher's representative."

#417 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 02:37 PM:

David Harmon @408: good point, and a very valid complaint as well.

Jacob Davies @406: At this point, I don't care if their intent was malicious; if it wasn't malicious, then it was inexcusably stupid, and I still think an apology is in order.

Xopher @405: What Ginger said, about the incompatibility. Woe and alas!

#418 ::: John Chu ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 02:38 PM:

xeger@410: Of course they have champions. This is why people are asking for Amazon to make available the names of all affected books. As David Harmon@408 has pointed out, one person within Amazon can unintentionally make thousands of books disappear. This is not a good thing.

97%, of course, is a guess on your part. It doesn't matter though if it were 99.99999% or 0.0000001% or anything in between. The percentage is a red herring. In all those cases, both arguments remain true. They deranked innocuous GLBT books while allowing genuinely adult heterosexual books to retain their ranking. They can apparently arbitrarily derank books at their whim.

Amazon hasn't yet said anything to combat the perceptions these arguments imply. Like I said, I remain hopeful that they will.

#419 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 02:45 PM:

LegionsEagle #414: Just to try and extract the basic point about "stupidity" vs. "malice" from your comment:

"Stupidity" is not an excuse, and it doesn't get the offender off scot-free.

No matter how many disclaimers they stick in the fine print, there's still a basic expectation that a commercial service will be basically competent at what they're doing... and if they aren't, they deserve to suffer for that!

Now, Amazon has a lot of corporate advantages -- first-mover, lots of lock-in, sheer size, and so on -- but a screw-up like this can still hurt them badly. See my comment at #150 for just one mechanism, and I'm not even angry! If they don't get their act cleaned up, a few more screw-ups like this can knock them out of their dominant position, and possibly out of business.

#420 ::: legionseagle ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 02:52 PM:

David Harmon@418: You and I are in violent agreement on this point (if anyone was in doubt). Stupidity most definitely does not get anyone off the hook. As a lawyer, I'd say a nice, quick definition of the tort of negligence for non-lawyers was "actionable stupidity".

The emphasis on looking for malice and asserting malice and claiming others have asserted malice seems to me something of a derailment tactic, frankly.

#421 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 03:00 PM:

Two suggestions to Amazon...

(1) Take frequent backups of your database.

(2) No matter what John faux-manly-man Wayne said in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, apologizing is not a sign of weakness.

#422 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 03:07 PM:

Ginger 413, Rikibeth 416: I don't wish to minimize the importance of knowing that I have the support of the Lesbian contingent and the I-dunno-if-she's-a-Lesbian-but-she-sure-is-awful-nice contingent; it actually means a lot to me.

It is, however, rather like finding out your food is quite rich in B vitamins when you're dying of scurvy.

#423 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 03:17 PM:

Xopher @ 421: This is true. However, we have friends, and we're not afraid to make matches. This would be more helpful if we were geographically closer, but if I know of any nice men* moving in your direction, I'll be pointing them at you.

*Not to preclude the inclusion of Bad Boys or any other tempting males.

#424 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 03:19 PM:

Thank you Ginger! And especially thank you for the footnote. (Nice men can also be Bad Boys...I'm particularly fond of Bad Boys Who Need To Be Punished.)

#425 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 03:25 PM:

Also, Googling JESR #415's mention of a "bedbug letter" turned up this excellent piece by a hotel lawyer named Jim Butler. The quote I've linked it to highlights the other problem with a "stupidity defense":

I think lightning usually strikes the same places consistently and repeatedly -- isn't that why lightning rods work?

Mistakes aren't random -- not even close, and especially not at the corporate scale....

#426 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 03:26 PM:

David Harmon @ 418 and legionseagle @ 419:

Agreed very much. Intentional or stupid only matters in that stupidity can be more easily remedied. It's not an excuse for bad behavior.

One main take-away from this is the discovery by a lot of us that they have a censorship mechanism in place (and that it seems to be easily manipulated, but that's secondary). That alone is making me strongly consider jumping ship. The other is the loss of trust, and that they haven't done much to try to regain that.

Also, scary as the concept actually is, the name "HAL the Homophobic AI" is amusing.

#427 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 03:35 PM:

Xopher @ 423... May you soon get a repast that will regale you.

#428 ::: Celia ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 03:37 PM:

Does Amazon even create metadata and categories for books? I always assumed they use the same ones that libraries use for their catalogs:

Librarians -- Fiction.
Pennsylvania -- Fiction.

I mean, why would they bother to make up their own categories when someone (the publisher?) has already gone to that trouble? So why would it necessarily be Amazon who set something up where GBLT = Adult?

#429 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 03:38 PM:

Randolph @338:
"Y'know, I don't particularly want porn turning up during my routine searches. I don't think most of us do. I do want to be made aware of the filters and empowered to turn them off"

I wouldn't care if there were no images! Those are what cause the trouble.

One possible explanation for a hidden 'adult' flag on books that occurred to me is if Amazon were preparing to debut a '' site which provided access to the same catalog of books, but censored. (And would exclude non-book products completely.) They wouldn't want to change the display in the regular store to reflect the stricter 'moral code' established to serve the customers of the special store.

A similar situation could hold if they set up an Amazon store for the Middle East, with a modified view of the inventory tuned for local moral codes.

I don't know if this is truly what's going on, but it seems like a reasonable conjecture.

#430 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 03:39 PM:

Re: "HAL the Homophobic AI", I'll direct you to a curious HAL: see "2001/PG-13" at Prometheus Music's "Virtual Filksing".

#431 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 04:01 PM:

John Chu @ 417 ...
As David Harmon@408 has pointed out, one person within Amazon can unintentionally make thousands of books disappear. This is not a good thing.

Nope, and it's certainly informing my programming today ;) [0]

97%, of course, is a guess on your part.

I'm actually quoting from up thread, where somebody had noted the number of books brought up in the #amazonfail twitter, vs the number of books Amazon declared to have been affected -- not exactly a wild-assed guess, although just as arguably not knowably accurate.

It doesn't matter though if it were 99.99999% or 0.0000001% or anything in between. The percentage is a red herring. In all those cases, both arguments remain true. They deranked innocuous GLBT books while allowing genuinely adult heterosexual books to retain their ranking. They can apparently arbitrarily derank books at their whim.

Actually -- thank you for writing that. I think I can articulate one of the things that's really annoying me about this. Rather than being an argument around censorship in general, this seems to have become an argument about targeting a specific minority (when it -is- clear here that the minority in question was, actually, a minority of the items affected).

The sheer noise around the GLBT books is doing an unfortunately excellent job of distracting from the main question around censorship and control of/flow of/visibility of information.

[0] No, I don't work for Amazon.

#432 ::: legionseagle ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 04:06 PM:

Celia @427: go into Amazon and scroll down past product information until you get to "search for similar items by category". That's the most visible area where you can see the Amazon tagging system in operation.

I did my tests on because that's my local one and I used Dr Hall's works because I know she was affected.

If you look at "Outspoken Women" by Lesley Hall that does not have "Gay & lesbian" in the relevant categories. If you look at her "Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain Since 1880 (European Culture & Society Series)" it does have the Gay & Lesbian>History>Gay tag. The latter was deranked, the former wasn't.

#433 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 04:07 PM:


So why would it necessarily be Amazon who set something up where GBLT = Adult?

Because that's exactly what they admit happened?

They don't generate the metadata that says "This book has LGBT content", but they did set the flag that said "These metadata categories are all classified as Adult". (They talk about a pre-existing "adult" flag being misset for certain categories of books.)

(There may have been an intermediate layer that equated LGBT with "sexuality" that was then equated with "adult". It doesn't really matter, though.)

#434 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 04:15 PM:

On metadata: Amazon seems to use BISAC subject headings, which are somewhat simpler than the Library of Congress subject headings (LCSH) seen in #427. BISAC is not as detailed as LCSH, but is sufficient for shelving in most bookstores, and it's metadata that the publishers generally provide for free (so no one at Amazon has to catalog them like libraries catalog books).

I suspect the original reason for the "adult" flag may well have reflected a need to override Amazon's default algorithms, which would sometimes have porn-ish content pop up where they were neither expected nor asked for. For example, it wasn't that long ago that if you did a general search in Amazon for "women", fairly high in the first screen of results you'd see cover images of DVDs showing women without much in the way of clothing. This is the sort of thing that can tend to tick off a fairly broad audience, not just prudes. (I.e.: "*this* is what you think is most important for people looking for things generally related to women?" It's similar to the annoyance many readers were having over "how to cure homosexuality" titles appearing so prominently while the database was messed up.)

I suspect the "adult" flag may well have first arisen as a way of hacking around off-putting experiences like this. The problem is, it was applied way too broadly and crudely. (In some ways, it's fortunate that it went so obviously out of control this past weekend, because it made the problem easier to detect and protest, whereas a more subtle error may have buried things for much longer.)

I think Amazon has good reasons to do things like avoiding displaying porn DVD covers prominently in response to general, innocuous search queries. But there are better ways of doing it than the ways which they've hacked together over time, and which blew up last weekend.

#435 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 04:21 PM:

Xopher @421, I understand the disappointment ("bisexual" is a good starting point for my orientation, but not sufficient, and I get plenty of attention on OKCupid from people who hold no interest for me!) and I promise if I can think of any cute, single gay men to introduce you to...

...wait, I think I DO, but there's a geographic problem.

#436 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 04:44 PM:

Xopher, it'd be a whole lot easier for us to fix you up with dates if you'd just move.

#437 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 04:46 PM:

To ALL the places my friends with matchmakerly tendencies live? Difficult, at least without more me-bodies, and at my income level.

#438 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 04:47 PM:

One trivial data point (and it *is* trivial in the broader scheme of things) -- this evening UK time my out of print title has a sales rank again on both US and UK Amazon. Reversing this mess is taking a while, but it *is* reaching oop small press books.

#439 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 04:50 PM:

Ginger, #422: Seconded, also with the caveat that distance can be a problem. Xopher, how far away are you willing to be in a LDR? Would someone in NYC be okay, for example?

#440 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 05:03 PM:

NYC counts as "local." New Yorkers may not feel the same about Hoboken...but I'm working in Hoboken, a 20-minute walk from my house (well, longer than that right now because of my hip), and I can stand up at my desk and see Manhattan. It's 15 minutes to Midtown by PATH train.

#441 ::: Ook ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 05:25 PM:

Definition of a porn film?
(Umberto Eco's definition to be precise)
Any film, in which there are scenes of a sexual nature, that also takes too long to show you all the detail of a character's car journey from Point A to Point B.

I'm not sure how that could be altered for books or pictures, though.

#442 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 05:45 PM:

Xopher, I ought to introduce you to my friend who goes by the lj handle la_directora; she's in Brooklyn, works in Manhattan, and is vegetarian, Wiccan, and a theater person. And has been heard to lament about how many of the guys who flirt with her turn out to be gay!

#443 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 06:38 PM:

Heck, Xopher, I'd date you if it weren't for the compatibility problem, and the distance, and being monogamous. Well, OK, there's a few problems there...

#444 ::: debcha ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 06:40 PM:

#415, JESR: If you hire a [customer service representative] whose name is Amberlyn, it would be wise to assign her something that sounds less like a middle-school cheerleader, just to recognize this effect: the combination of BS boilerplate and a name with implications of youth and triviality is going to be recieved, by many, as an insult, especially in the case of "caller=author" and "caller=publisher's representative."

Maybe I am missing something here, but as someone whose full name is 'Debbie' and who lacks a middle name (courtesy of immigrant parents who wanted me to fit in but didn't quite understand the semantics of Anglo names), a name that carries connotations that are almost entirely at odds with who I actually am, I'm not really thrilled with the idea of 'assigning' the responsible person a new name just because you think hers is inappropriate. I would be incensed if my college decided to 'assign' me a new name because, for example, mine lacks the gravitas expected of a faculty member.

Perhaps you should suggest that Amazon should just focus on keeping the 'BS boilerplate' down and assigning appropriately experienced employees to work with customers, rather than that they should be concerned with their names.

#445 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 06:42 PM:

Also, my thanks to Ginger, Rikibeth and Lee for saying stuff I was thinking, but using more better words than I have. And David Harmon.

I don't care if it was malicious. I want it to not happen. I'm tired of waking up some days to find I have to dig out and dig through arguments I read and had and made thirty years ago, twenty years ago, ten years ago...

I was thinking a few weeks ago about things I'll never have to do again. One of them was pay a cover charge to a gangland goon to get inside a gay bar. Another was check my back before kissing my partner.

I may not have to do those things anymore, but apparently I still have to deal with filters and associations created then to make sure that nice people didn't know I was alive.

Those filters and associations ("GLBT" == "beyond the Pale") are wrong. They were wrong then, they're wrong now.

And they're old. At the very least, if nextbignetthangdotcom is gonna screw up the internets, could it please find a new way of doing it?

#446 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 07:12 PM:

I think I do see the emotional truths of what a lot of people are saying. I'm aware that this is a minefield because of decades of discrimination that I've never had to face, so I'm trying to not be a privileged jerk.

I'm just wondering here... Would things look any different if it turned out that Amazon's database binge had also tagged anything with the tags "straight" or "heterosexual" or "heterosexuality" as adult? (To avoid confusion about what I'm claiming, this is a hypothetical - I'm not asserting they did.)

#447 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 07:36 PM:

Clifton Royston @ 445: I think that if the world were in a place where (or book publishers) routinely tagged books as "straight" as well as "gay", we'd be in a different world altogether. It would be a lot better than the current assumptions, though.

pericat @444: Amen, sister. All the lesbian books I started out reading had that level of fear deeply ingrained, because too many women had lost their jobs, families and even their lives by being identified at the wrong time. A lot has changed, for which I'm grateful, but it also means that all the easy and obvious stuff has been taken out -- now we're left with the hard part.

#448 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 07:38 PM:

Clifton Royston @ 445:

To get this matter out of the way up front: the erotica tag appears to have been marked adult, and a lot of erotica is straight, but it's still dealing with certain themes that could be considered 'adult', so I don't see it as relevant to this particular question. Others might disagree. (Also, run-on sentence. Send editors with pruning shears.)

If there were a straight tag, and if it were marked as adult, I think the response would be a bit different. There would still be a lot of outrage and anger, but it would focus more on the revelation of a secret censorship system rather than harm to a minority group.

That said, I don't think there would be any outrage because I don't think that anyone, barring a fit of late-night drunken mousing while jumping on a pogo stick and singing along to the radio, would click the box that would mark the straight category as 'adult'. The straight tag would be on so many products that people would know it wasn't related to adult material.

I'd like to think that if there were a straight tag that people knew didn't automatically mean adult, that someone playing stupid censorship games would take a moment to realize gay and lesbian doesn't automatically equate to adult either.

For all that, see my post at 411. I don't really know what I'm doing in assigning categories anyway.

#449 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 07:46 PM:

debcha @443, to be honest, I'd vastly prefer that people went back to being Mr/Ms/Miss/Mrs Lastname, or, to recognize the dangers of letting one's surname out into the evil hyperlinked society, operator number so-and-so (which is not more anonymous than a first name, real or assumed). My comment, however, was based on some LJ comment threads where the young woman's name in specific was an item of increased outrage.

Not writing BS customer service scripts is, indeed, the more immediate problem; not having a robust way for management to know when there is a sudden increase in the use of a script, or when a novel problem not addressed by existing scripts occurs, is a fundamental problem with every customer service system I've run into lately.

#450 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 08:26 PM:

re 445: Well, doing those searches discloses that of the few items so tagged (and once we get the router bits, trumpet mutes, and hair care out of the way) maybe half of them could be characterized as being directly tied to homosexuality-- more if you count things like books of postcards of straight young men and the three clothing items previously worn by a straight young stud. Less than eighty items are identified by the three tags. Meanwhile, searching for "heterosexual" from the front page immediately begins to turn up Amazonfail-tagged items, because most of the items found are about homosexuality.

re 404: John, I'm not disagreeing with you; what I'm pointing out is that the incident also shows the power of LBGTQ-etc as a minority viewpoint. which brings us to

417: as xeger said, 3% was a calculation based on the numbers we have been given. as you say, on one level, the proportions are irrelevant. But they are irrelevant because the outrage power of the LBGTQ-etc community set everything else aside. If something had made a different community's books disappear, would it have been noticed as quickly and remedied with similar dispatch?

#451 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 09:02 PM:

regarding the tempo of comments and posting: Most of the time I trust the tempo of things to tell me what to do. If things are slow/I am not too worried about completely recapitulating something, I will just post (and hope any repitition is futher illustrative, rather than totally redundant).

In heated moments, I will hit "end" and scan up to see if the things I want to say have been said. This is also a first pass at the, "whoa dude, did you really want to say Xopher is a big-fat idiot˚... (for values of Xopher and big fat idiot which are completely variable)?"

In really fast moving threads, as this one was, I don't. When things are going as quickly as they seemed to be here, I can't keep up. A dozen comments between when I hit started writing, and when I posted, and how many more between when I read those and corrected myself?

At that point I tend (note tend, this is my way of doing things, and not a recipe for anyone else's emotional success) to aim for reasonable response, and just hit send. Because I can't keep up, and trying will just make me more behind.

And being behind makes me feel I have to rush, and rushing leads to saying things like, "Xopher is a big-fat idiot," when it isn't what I meant to say.

This comment is being posted when I finally get to the end of the thread. I'd chime in on Xopher's love life, but we already know I'm straight, and live too far away.

˚ This is, of course, a purely hypothetical example, I do not now, nor have I had occasion to, think of Xopher as a big-fat idiot, in anything other than a teashingly affectionate manner. He came to mind because he is as close as I could come to finding an exemplar of neutral nature as possible.

#452 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 09:41 PM:

Clifton @ 445 asks a hypothetical about filtering of items tagged with "heterosexuality."

Yes, that would be bad too, because birth control instruction and Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus would be lumped in with the porn.

#453 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 09:56 PM:

Ginger @ 446:

Yeah, that's kind of my feeling too. What I was thinking when I posed the question was something like this:

If Amazon had also hidden or flagged as adult every "heterosexual", "het", etc. tag - as apparently they did with some other terms like "sexuality" and "disability" - it might perhaps feel slightly less like there was intentional malice or bigotry involved, but that flagging would barely affect the visibility of straight romance and straight sexuality, the results would be just as damaging, and the effects would still disproportionately affect gay and lesbian people and authors who address them.

(Back to that "unmarked state" piece of the discussion again...)

#454 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 10:32 PM:

Terry Karney @ 450 ...
This is also a first pass at the, "whoa dude, did you really want to say Xopher is a big-fat idiot˚... (for values of Xopher and big fat idiot which are completely variable)?"

"Today the 'Xopher' tag will represent routers, t-shirts, postcards and a randomly selected makinglight poster... " ;)

#455 ::: debcha ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 10:52 PM:

JESR, #448: My comment, however, was based on some LJ comment threads where the young woman's name in specific was an item of increased outrage.

I've no doubt, but you were the person advocating 'assigning' her a different name as a response. Amidst all the excellent reasons to be upset at Amazon, being outraged that their customer rep is named 'Amberlyn' is silly-verging-on-offensive.

#456 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 11:05 PM:

xeger #454: "... and the 'big_fat_idiot' tag will, as usual, be applied according to user feedback from the prior 24 hours, updated hourly."

#457 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 11:42 PM:

Jacob Davies @ 406: "It would have. It didn't happen. Do you believe that was there was malicious intent in that omission?"

If the mechanic replaces my muffler with a banana, her malicious intent or lack thereof doesn't really matter, does it? Either way, I'm still switching mechanics.

KeithS @ 425: "Also, scary as the concept actually is, the name "HAL the Homophobic AI" is amusing."

"Open the closet bay doors, HAL!"

#458 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 12:08 AM:

Remember, any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.

#459 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 12:56 AM:

There apparently were books that did not get delisted on Amazon that had male/male relationships in them--because the books weren't tagged as having homosexual content in the metadata...

As for filtering out "birth control" (#451 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2009, 09:41 PM:

Clifton @ 445 asks a hypothetical about filtering of items tagged with "heterosexuality."

Yes, that would be bad too, because birth control instruction and Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus would be lumped in with the porn.

Weren't 2001-2008 doing exactly that on US federal government websites, censoring and redacting federal webpages and reports, and "massaging" the content of studies to fit pre-determined "conclusions" based on ideology and particular religious attitudes, rather than actual research with research conducted trying to be impartial and as unbiased going into the study and in doing the analysis, conclusion, and recommendations as possible?

(That is, 2001-2008 saw censorship and removal of information on US Government webpages, which included:
- removal of information regarding use of condoms as prophylactically valid method to reduce transmission of diseases
- replacement of information regarding efficacy of condoms and other devices for preventing pregnancy with religious dogmatic ideological propaganda about abstinence
- revising and redacting of material seen as too incompliant with particular ideologies with dogmatic views that women should be "subordinate" to men [see e.g. the Southern Baptist Convention website pages on "What We Believe" or some such similar entitling.... dogma which enshrines women as "submisive" and subordinate in definition, is dogma which to me is innate evil...]

The ratings that Amazon has seem to not be based on actual content, but rather on rather hearsay-like metadata.... not on whether the content of the book would, if made into a faithful to the book movie, get an X rating were it a film, but rather, on the idea of the "category" the content falls into.

Amazon falls far short of e.g. romance novel metadata, wherein I think there are such terms as "sweet" which is G or at most stressing, maybe PG, "spicy" which is considerable hotter, and then there are books which one imprint publishes with "~Warning, this is a really hot book!" on the back, which if turned into a movie, would be highly restricted in distribution!

One of the issues, is the different axes of acceptability/objectionability. There are some axes which are relatively easy to identify and which there are relatively easy to delineate metrics: degree of explicit sexual activity is one such axis. Another relatively easy to quantify axis is violence, in the sense that one can count incidents and detail level of lopped off limbs, homicides, rapes, etc., that get described.

Where things get off the binnable quantification bases and onto ideological contestation, include such things as:
a) religion and religious values. Lots of fantasy novels have religious material in them, particularly of religions that don't really exist in this world--all those fansty novels with their pantheons, which if one looks at from the perspective of someone who's an observant monotheist of one of the major religons extant contemporarily on this planet, could easily be construed as blasphemous idolatry...
b) Other values issues -- the doctrine of "women are submissive to men" for example. To an observant adherent to such a doctrine, books in which women are commanders or civilian or religious etc. leaders, and men are their subordinates, are blasphemous.
c) sexual preference--Lois McMaster Bujold's novel Ethan of Athos posulated a male-only planet, Athos, and that character Ethan, a baby doctor, sent out offplanet on mission critical to the planet and society's future. To Ethan homosexuality is normal, and heterosexuality is completely outside his experience and worldview. Women are something he's never seen before. His focus and interest are all in other men, but he's also not a character who's a caricature of promiscuous homosexual male--he's a person first, and yes, he is a homosexual, but then so's everyone else he's ever met until sent off planet!

To those with bipolar world views and values, e.g., women are submissive to men, heterosexuality is "natural" and homosexuality is heinous abomination, military service is good and civilians are no-account, religious devotion is the highest value and atheism is perverse, or for that matter, metrosexuality is good and gender preference limits are heinous, etc., if something isn't compliant with the bipolar "good" value, then it is abomination and one should strive to excise it from existence, and participate in extermination campaigns....

#460 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 01:08 AM:

debcha, #454: Seconded. The poor woman isn't responsible for her name, unless she had it legally changed to that, and she probably gets more than a bellyful of being dissed because people hear it and make exactly those assumptions. Not to mention the distressing similarity to the people frothing at the mouth over Barack Obama having a "Muslim name"...

#461 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 01:38 AM:

heresiarch #456:

Intent doesn't change the impact of the action, but it does change what sorts of corrective action make sense. If you dropped the anvil on my foot because you're clumsy with anvils, I need to stay away from you when you're carrying anvils. If you did it because you didn't like me, I just need to stay away from you.

JESR's earlier comment is right, too. Amazon's response is offering us yet another example of ways that standard customer support/tech support mechanisms don't do a good job of handling important situations. There's some deeper problem lurking there. I suspect part of it is that customer service is seen mainly as a cost, and its effects on future business are not easy to measure, which probably leads to spending too little on it. Another part, I guess, is that customer service is a relatively low-status job; that makes it easy for higher-status people to ignore their complaints and short them on resources and treat them like barely-literate idiots. But it would be interesting to dig deeper into this at some point.

And this whole thing demonstrated a couple of very good things: P-ssing all over the GLBT community doesn't work out too well, at least for businesses (most of them) that need to keep their business, and the business of all their family and friends. Lots of people will have noticed that, and it will presumably stick in the minds of folks in other businesses that might do something similar. That pretty-much can't help but be a good thing.

And doing the silent almost-censorship thing with search results is something else that didn't work out too well--in the netted world, it was too easy for word to get out, and get around, and pretty soon, the silent action was right out in the open, being complained about. Again, that's a very good thing, and hopefully it teaches the right lesson to people in many other businesses.

#462 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 01:49 AM:

I'm sorry I made a bad joke and offended people. It also gutted the point of my post, which albatross managed to see, even with my self-sabotage.

CSRs are not taken seriously, customer service interactions are not seen as critical feedback for the system, and things get worse than they would if more attention was paid to what people are asking about, and when, and how.

#463 ::: legionseagle ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 04:40 AM:

albatross@460: And if a statistically significant number of the total anvils dropped land up on the same toes, time after time after time - well, perhaps the answer is investigation of the reasons why and toe-protection legislation to protect the feet of the vulnerable group.

In which case, incidentally, I was surprised more of the people whom I saw peddling the line in places like the bbc and the Guardian comments columns that Amazon, as a private entity, was entitled to do what it liked, weren't aware of the existenc of exactly such legislation, namely The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 . The relevant provisions are those dealing with discrimination based on sexual orientation in the provision of goods and services - services including the listing of books on Amazon, as a service offered to the publisher/author as well as to the would-be purchasers of books. And no - I'm not advocating that anyone should prosecute Amazon, but I am pointing out that since the criminal offence Amazon uk appeared to be committing does not require intent to be proven, then those complaining about it should not have to prove intent either.

#464 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 05:27 AM:

but I am pointing out that since the criminal offence Amazon uk appeared to be committing does not require intent to be proven, then those complaining about it should not have to prove intent either.

Since that was apparently directed at albatross, perhaps you should keep in mind that albatross didn't say that anyone should have to prove intent.

#465 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 09:18 AM:

#463: This is really stretching. The existence of a British law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation is interesting, but criminal law does not usually penalize accidental and harmless violations.

"the criminal offence Amazon uk appeared to be committing does not require intent to be proven"

Are you quite sure about that? I see nothing in the statute to exclude the normal requirement for intent in criminal law.

[A] person acts....'intentionally' with respect to a result when:
(i) it is his purpose to cause it; or
(ii) although it is not his purpose to cause that result, he knows that it would occur in the ordinary course of events if he were to succeed in his purpose of causing some other result.


Note several things: "he knows that it would occur", "in the ordinary course of events", "if he were to succeed in his purpose of causing some other result".

None of those applies to someone making an innocent database change in the course of their work, one which - if it had gone as planned - would not have caused the eventual results that occurred when it went wrong. Nor is the always-present danger that "something could go wrong" specific enough to have predicted this particular result.

Negligence - which would still be hard to prove in this case if this person was using procedures that had been used successfully before - is not usually an element of criminal liability, only civil liability.

#466 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 09:34 AM:

Paula #459: You're drifting again -- the ShrubCo censorship had nothing to do with metadata, everything to do with ideology, and was done with malice aforethought. Extracting your points about classification:

not on whether the content of the book would, if made into a faithful to the book movie, get an X rating were it a film

That's actually a pretty good rule for spotting explicit sex... except that it depends heavily on the USA's sex-phobic rating system.

To those with bipolar world views and values [...] if something isn't compliant with the bipolar "good" value, then it is abomination and one should strive to excise it from existence, and participate in extermination campaigns.

I think everyone here can agree that this sort of thinking is simply not compatible with pluralism, which is one of the original pillars of American
legal and political tradition. Of course, there are also some people who are actively trying to undermine the very concept of pluralism, and replace it with their own binary(1) ideologies.

One of the issues, is the different axes of acceptability/objectionability. [...violence, sexuality...]

I'd say the more important question is: "acceptable/objectionable" in what context? I have no problem with preventing pornography from from swamping ordinary searches -- the stuff is not only plentiful, but it tends to pick up all kinds of diverse "tagging", precisely because it mirrors the diversity of the larger "universe" (films, novels, whatever). ISTM that this mirroring is one way in which porn specifically differs from violent material.

Another way they differ: Books and movies about, say, war and/or crime may have upsetting contents, but they're rarely presented with covers showing graphic murder, dismemberment, etc.! There's a reason for that -- both sex and violence are "pop-out" stimuli, which command attention whenever they appear in the field of view.

But for any given viewer, such commanding stimuli can be aversive and/or attractive(2). Either way, we don't much appreciate being hit with commanding stimuli without warning, much less against our will -- but we tend to be more forgiving of "attractive" stimuli. (Something which is variously or simultaneously aversive and attractive, is controversial.)

Semi-digression: Inappropriately commanding stimuli are a commonplace in social interactions. They're often associated with the idea of "tackiness". The root meaning of "tacky" is something that's sticky, like wet paint or glue. The social meaning is a straightforward extension of that -- and it's generally accepted as a bad thing! </semi-digression.>

Pretty much by definition, pornography is "attractive" to its target audience. Gore and explicit violence are almost universally
aversive, but sexual stimuli can also be aversive -- to those outside their target audience. (This leads to a rant about presuming who your audience is, but I'll leave that one to Paula. ;-) )

So, Amazon faces, and is clumsily trying to solve, two distinct problems:

First, Amazon really want to avoid presenting their potential customers with unexpected aversive stimuli!

Second, that they have a large category of material, "porn", for which their metadata behaves very poorly -- by almost any categorization except sexuality, the tagging of porn mirrors the patterns of everything else they've got, so it tends to get included in all sorts of searches, to the point of annoying even the folks who would like that porn, if they weren't looking for something entirely different. (Say, "medical stories", rather than "nurse/doctor porn".)

Frankly, I can't think of any solution to the second problem other than having, and defending from abuse, specific tags for not only pornography, but also "adjacent" categories such as nudism, nude photography, text erotica, etc.

The first problem is much easier to solve -- they can censor the search display. The problem is, they tried to do that by altering the search results, when all they really needed to do was suppress particular cover images and taglines. Of course, the latter strategy takes a lot more attention and effort, which leads all the way back to my early questions about "how many staff are needed to properly manage a given dataset". Without enough humans on the job, there's no hope of dealing with this, let alone edge cases and Scunthorpe problems.

(1) Please, Paula -- not "bipolar"!

(2) Interestingly, Googling for "antonym of aversive" didn't work very well.

#467 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 09:43 AM:

BTW, I see there are two wrapping errors in my last comment. Use of the "back" button confirms that both were coincidentally inconspicuous, in both the comment box and the preview display above it. (Bah! Bah, I say! ;-) )

#468 ::: legionseagle ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 10:52 AM:

Jacob Davies@465

There is a vast (and growing) group of criminal offences which are offences "of strict liability": that is, provided the actus reus of the offence is made out, no specific mens rea need be shown. Or to clarify, for the non-lawyer, provided you've done those acts which the statute specifies as constituting the crime, the state of mind with which you did them or the reason why you did them is completely and totally irrelevant. That is, you can be guilty of a criminal offence without even having to reach the negligence standard (failure to take such care as reasonable in the circumstances) though there may, in some criminal offences, be what is called the "due diligence" defence. This requires the person charged with the offence to prove they had taken reasonable steps to avoid committing the offence. This tends to come up with regard to things like selling alcohol to people under 18.

Many motoring offences are strict liability: for example; I'm still going to be pulled for speeding if it happened that my foot was absent-mindedly beating time to Bat out of Hell just as I passed the speed gun or if I'm rushing my dying granny to the hospital (though my chances of proceedings being brought in the latter case would be slender, and I'd have stonking plea in mitigation).

Where a particular sort of intention is required (negligence, recklessness or wilfulness) the statute states it.

#469 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 11:08 AM:

heresiarch @ 457:

*snerk* *stifles howls of laughter*

David Harmon @ 466:

You make a good point about where the filtering should be. I think that the reason they went with the censorship/filtering mechanism that they chose is because it was the most expedient way to do things, not the right way.

I think that all of us have stories of how Amazon's search didn't immediately point us at the things we wanted and turned up some decidedly odd results as well. Searching is difficult, especially because Amazon is not in the business of categorizing and cateloging items themselves. They don't make their own metadata, they just take what the publisher gives them. (They also occasionally manage to do horrible things to what the publisher gives them, such as to the Doyle and Macdonald books that Teresa mentioned.) I would also suspect that their search code is rather convoluted, hairy and fragile, so that they don't want to touch it too much.

I and others have remarked on Google's SafeSearch feature, but I think that Amazon has an additional difficulty in implementing such a feature properly. Admittedly, I haven't gone and looked at what metadata the pornography has and how it differs from the other stuff, but you're probably right that it's not all that different. Websites specializing in pornography have certain cues, such as stock phrases, and statements of compliance with certain laws that blurbs and metadata for books and DVDs just don't have.

They need to throw people at the problem, but I don't think that's what they want to spend their time and money on.

#470 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 12:09 PM:

#465: "There is a vast (and growing) group of criminal offences which are offences 'of strict liability'"

Yes, I know this. Is this one of them? Should it be?

#471 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 12:17 PM:


There's a really interesting underlying problem here, which is very hard to solve. It amounts to the fact that on the internet (and in the country, and even in a medium-sized town), there's not universal agreement on what is "adult material," what's offensive, etc. Indeed, there are many different, irreconcilable, views of what is offensive. And there are also people who want to be able to find stuff that most everyone would classify as offensive. If I want to read The Turner Diaries or the Gor books, I ought to be able to find them on Amazon.

I think two pretty obvious requirements to doing filtering to address this are:

a. Make sure it's visible that the filtering is happening. Don't just make the offensive content disappear, tell me you're doing it.

b. Give me a choice about whether the filtering happens or not.

Both of these make the filtering much less threatening. They decrease the risk that someone will manage to strong-arm Amazon into silently de-emphasizing certain books that offend them, whether that someone is the feds, the Christian right, gay and lesbian activists, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the CoS, the Catholic Church, etc.

#472 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 12:30 PM:


I'm not sure we are (or should be) concerned with criminal law here. The relevant questions, to me, involve stuff like:

a. Why did this happen?

b. What does it tell me about Amazon?

c. Will it or something like it happen again?

For example, if I became convinced that Amazon, as a matter of policy, was p-ssing all over gays, I'd stop doing business with them. For this scale of apparently accidental screw up, I don't see a reason to do that.

If this is a problem that happened because of evil intent on the part of the management of Amazon, then all this discussion of problems with tagging, silent censorship, the added potential for anvils landing on your toes when you're the exception or special case instead of the default case, is pointless. The only reason to care about that stuff is if you think this wasn't intentional--then you want to ask why it happened and how it can be made less likely to happen again.

#473 ::: James ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 12:35 PM:


I had been under the impression that (1) strict liability offences tend to be for regulatory offences such as weights and measures (or, as mentioned above, some motor vehicles offences) and (2) (at least here in Canada, which may not map well to elsewhere, though it ought to be similar to Emglish law, at least, and a quick search finds at the very least H.L. dicta supporting this view) the canons of statutory interpretation will involve reading in the need for mens rea unless the opposite is specifically provided for in the statute.

It's arguable that human rights legislation resembles weights and measures legislation more than it does criminal law (i.e. the aim is to provide a level playing field for customers/clients/employees affected) and that infringements would be strict liability offences; but it would still be the case that a requirement for mens rea would probably be read in unless either the statute explicitly excluded it or (more recently) evidence led regarding the intent of the drafters indicated that it was their intent to create an offence of strict liability.

#474 ::: legionseagle ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 12:55 PM:

Jacob Davies@470

Most of the offences in the Regulations are ones of strict liability, yes. With direct reference to the Amazon case, and the alleged reason for the cock-up, paragraph 30 provides that

"30.—(1) Anything done by a person in the course of his employment shall be treated for the purposes of these Regulations as done by the employer as well as by the person.

(2) Anything done by a person as agent for another shall be treated for the purposes of these Regulations as done by the principal as well as by the agent.

(3) It is immaterial for the purposes of this regulation whether an employer or principal knows about or approves of an act."

As to whether this should be the case, I'm generally inclined to say yes; where offences relate to discrimination and, in particular, the implementation of discriminatory systems are concerned, it would be fatally easy for people to get out of a claim of discrimination by saying that their actual intention was to do something else and the discriminatory effect was collateral damage. Obviously this policy question is often disputed, but it's how EU anti-discrimination has been formed.

albatross@472. I probably should have tried to wrap two points up in one comment without distinguishing them more clearly. The second half of my comment wasn't specifically directed to your anvil point, but to the wider issue of the (to me) puzzling claims which were made in the debate that Amazon as a private business was entitled to discriminate if it so chose (without necessarily asserting that this was what they were doing in this case).

#475 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 01:15 PM:

albatross @ 471:

Agreed emphatically.

I still believe that the original issue that led to the implementation of their adult flag system is that their search engine does not do a good job of figuring out relevance. This is still very much a guess based on hearsay and experience with crap search results, but it makes sense to me.

What I like about Google is that, even when SafeSearch is turned off, the search results are typically relevant. If I type in a search for "children's literature" I get results for children's literature; if I type in "girl scout cookies" I get results for girl scout cookies; if I type in "throbbing man flesh" I get results for throbbing man flesh; and so on.

Google has the advantage of a huge corpus of web pages with heaps and heaps of context and links. Amazon doesn't. How to figure relevance from non-standardized categories, blurbs, and otherwise patchy data is left as an exercise for the reader.

#476 ::: debcha ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 01:17 PM:

JESR, #462: Your point is well-taken. However, I don't think the idea that 'customer service should be taken seriously' is novel to a company like Amazon. Navigating exactly how to best to do so, in an ever-evolving technological and cultural environment, is a different matter entirely, and you highlighted this yourself with the kerfuffle over 'Amberlyn.'

#477 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 02:33 PM:

KeithS @475

Google has the advantage of a huge corpus of web pages with heaps and heaps of context and links. Amazon doesn't. How to figure relevance from non-standardized categories, blurbs, and otherwise patchy data is left as an exercise for the reader.

Funny, libraries pretty much figured this out ten years ago.

No, I'm not sympathetic to Amazon. They had a bone-headed agenda, they engaged in stupid IT practices, and have demonstrated similar cluelessness about customer relations and PR.

It is terribly interesting to compare Voyager, CIP, and British Library cataloging data for the same ISBN records at Amazon.

#478 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 02:51 PM:

Lisa Spangenberg @ 477:

Libraries have librarians to actually do the hard work of making sure that books are categorized properly. They care about books, too. Amazon doesn't do that. They seem to aggregate data from other sources and hope for the best.

They've been seduced into thinking that there is a purely technical solution, rather than one that involves humans.

Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not trying to make excuses for them, because I think they made a complete pig's ear of the situation from beginning to end as well.

#479 ::: James ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 03:03 PM:

To emphasize what Keith said in #478: I used to have some connection in both an editorial and then a systems role with a bibliographic publication called the Index to Canadian Legal Literature, which used the LC Subject Classification as adjusted for a Canadian context to organize its data. It took quite a bit of effort to do the classification, by a trained law librarian, which could not be short-circuited. Similarly with legal classifications for other publications, such as the Canadian Abridgment. Generating consistent and correct classifications for the latter (which had far more context in the text available than would have been available with CIP or similar data) would have been a nightmare and effectively impossible, and I looked into the possibility several times, as a developer who also had an LL.B.

There is no magic way to patch up this sort of metadata (and make it internally consistent): it requires a large (and ongoing) investment in human eyeballs and judgement.

And that's just to get consistent information where you have complete control over it (and Amazon also has to juggle user-supplied metadata via its tags). Applying that data for anything more than a convenience to the user is another huge step entirely.

#480 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2009, 08:47 PM:

re strict liability (setting aside the oddities, such as statutory rape; where one can be trying to do the legal thing, and still be in the soup when the other party lies to you):

I am of a mixed mind on it for discrimination. On the one hand, it prevents gaming the system, on the other it makes certain types of honest mistake (such as this one, if we accept, arguendo, this is the case), really problematic.

At which point I suppose what I want to see is that swift response is a strong enough mitigating factor to keep people/business from doing their best to bury the errors which will happen.

To be tautolgical, complex system are complex, and things will go wrong. I think there is more indicative meta-data to be had (and I'd be curious to see how the stock phrases compare across the various porn genres, I am sure there are some for "honest" lesbian porn [as opposed to the female/female stuff marketed for me], which would never show up in het, and surely not in gay-male porn), and a well-built system would look to using that, as opposed to the more generic (and therefore containing lots of stuff which isn't, "adult" [and am I the only one who resents the idea that adult=sex?]).

But hey, maybe that's why I'm not losing hundreds of millions of dollars in asset value when Amazon dips a couple of bucks, which is what happened to Bezos on Monday.

#481 ::: Rob Hansen ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2009, 03:11 AM:

While I'd usually be all for giving Amazon the benefit of the doubt, the fact this was pointed out to them a year ago, threads discussing it were deleted by them, and people were quite deliberately given the runaround, speaks to something different going on. For more on this see:

#482 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2009, 07:00 AM:

#483: Wow.

Have other authors reported a similar experience?

#483 ::: Rob Hansen ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2009, 01:30 PM:

Beats me, but this certainly deserves to be more widely known since it casts a different light on things.

#484 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2009, 02:50 PM:

I agree, that casts things in a very different light as to how this capability was intended to be used in the first place. If that post is true and reflective about how Amazon has been using its "adult" filtering in the past year...

Would it be too late, in that case, to withdraw my musings in this thread about moderation and honest mistakes, and grab a pitchfork and a couple torches for the midnight march to the castle?

#486 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2009, 03:28 PM:

Rob Hansen @ 483:

Yeeech. Sounds like it's time to send them a nastygram and close my account.

#487 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2009, 03:58 PM:

Yep. Regardless of interpretation, if the author of the article mentioned at 483 isn't outright lying about the sequence of events, Amazon will have to do some pretty massive groveling before I spend another cent with them.

#488 ::: Rob Hansen ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2009, 12:02 PM:

If you check back on that page, the author concerned has posted back today urging those wanting to boycott Amazon to continue buying books by gay authors from them but to boycott all others, and giving her reasoning.

#489 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2009, 06:57 AM:

And, on checking back, one finds out that Amazon does have a "pornography" category, which is not affected by any "adult" filter.

#491 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2009, 09:42 PM:

Jim #492: I just left a comment there grouping his roles into a third as many groups.

But it's probably about time for me to wrap up for the night... I'm slowly getting the clue that I get really fuzzy around 10 PM.... ;-)

#492 ::: Summer Storms sees possible spam ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 01:14 AM:

It's hard to tell, one mystery meat from another, though.

#493 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2009, 09:52 AM:

And a completely different sort of bad behavior by Amazon UK:

Chris J Brady, in Risks Digest 25.64, complains:

I have just been sucked into an unwanted near 48-pound annual premium membership subscription by Amazon and
there is no way to unsubscribe.

#494 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2009, 10:23 AM:

David Harmon #497: AOL did this to me six years ago. Since I was paying my subscription through my bank, I got the bank to stop payment. I also cancelled my subscription. I note that AOL is no longer a subscription service. I wonder why.

#495 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2009, 03:32 PM:

It appears that there still has been no redress of grievances from Amazon. Or, at least, that thread doesn't have an update to that effect.

#496 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2009, 03:38 PM:

Perhaps there could be a small update to the main article with the information from the link posted by Rob Hansen @483, and from the post @490, for the benefit of readers who don't have that information yet and don't usually read comments threads?

#497 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2009, 07:55 PM:

I'd still like to hear more answers on this, if anybody has pointers to any. I would be very interested to see an actual substantive response from Amazon to any of the GL&c. authors who've posted about a longer-standing policy, problem, etc. or better yet an actual discussion.

So far, it seems like Amazon is relying on the Internet's Short Attention Span. (Sad to say, that's probably a safe bet.)

In the meantime, Powells just got my latest book order. Looks like it will take a little longer for the free shipping, but the prices were just as good.

#498 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2009, 08:04 PM:

Clifton Royston @ 501: I'm curious, too. And I bought some books in Powell's "Powellswin" 20% off sale.
What I've found interesting is asking friends and co-workers if they heard about Amazonfail. I was surprised how many hadn't, but I forget what an internet bubble I live in.

#499 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2009, 08:45 PM:

"Powellswin" 20% off sale

Dang, I missed hearing about that. I haven't been buying a ton of books lately, but there are always some on my wishlist - or, as this last order, books for the boy. (More volumes of The Cartoon History of the Universe, among other things.)

Then again, considering the size of the to-read pile, including 4 unread library books due next week, maybe I don't actually need more books right now. Heresy, I know.

#500 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2009, 09:45 PM:

Clifton Royston @ 503: I spotted the Powellswin 20% off sale at 11:30pm Pacific Time, and it ended at 11:59pm. If there had been more time, I might have broadcast it, but I was too busy filling my shopping cart. As I recall, I found out about it through an update in Facebook -- I'm a fan.

#501 ::: joe woods ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2009, 10:38 AM:

I'm back. I've been contacted by Tania at Strategic book marketing and she proposed to publicize my works of fiction for a small price ($650.00). Does anyone have any experience with this person or company?


#502 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2009, 11:10 AM:

joe, legitimate publishers do NOT CHARGE for publicizing your work.

#503 ::: Pendrift ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2009, 11:43 AM:

And Joe Woods, please beware. In addition to what Xopher said (i.e. Yog's Law: Money flows toward the writer), if this is the good old Strategic Book Group you're talking about, they are known scammers.
You should not pay these people to publicize your books. Please do take time to read the links.

#504 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2009, 12:05 PM:

Just to amplify what others have said:

The publisher is the customer of the writer. They pay you, and in return you give them permission to make a bunch of copies of your book which they will then sell to the reading public.

If you pay a publisher to bind your book, not only are you not making any money, but you're dealing with a publisher whose main source of profit is writers rather than readers. They will not get your book into bookstores. They will not get your book read.

Don't deal with publishers who think you are their customer. Only deal with publishers who know they are your customer.

You can usually make the distinction by reading the publisher's web site. Who is the target audience of that web site, and what product is being advertised thereon? If their web site says "Hey, writers, get published!" stay far away. Start with publisher web sites that say, "We publish a bunch of books you will love to read."

#505 ::: fidelio sees finds a spam ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2010, 10:03 AM:

And yet, on some of our other threads, this one might have slipped by as a weak effort at a pun.

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