13 April 2009


Recently, all hell broke loose over the apparent disappearance of gay-themed books from Amazon.com's ranking system. This was a very serious matter. I don't want to bog down this blog in all the arcane details of why this was so serious, but the impact of it could have run from book sales to basic civil rights and liberties. It was bad and it needed fixing and redress, no matter what the cause.

Word of this (mistake? fucked up policy? attack by a hacker? no one knew for sure what started it) began to slowly leak out into the blogosphere, initially from some writers who were wondering why their books had mysteriously been "deranked" by Amazon. It achieved critical mass, however, when it struck the Twitosphere.

For those of you who don't know about Twitter - it provides a sort of online public instant messaging in what are called "Tweets" of no more than 140 characters, including spaces.

Over the course of Easter weekend, news of Amazon's deranking of gay-themed, and a bewildering mix of other books as well, exploded into the news. First in a flurry of Tweets, and finally breaking out in most of Monday's newspapers. People were outraged, as they well should have been.

Having at first made some stupid PR statements referring to the problem as a "glitch," by Monday afternoon Amazon said that it was a mistake and that corrections had started being made. It remains to be seen how complete those corrections are.

Most likely we will never know if this was really a mistake, a hacker with some sort of grudge to bear, or a remarkably bad policy decision that Amazon was forced to backtrack on by public reaction.

The rapid and large negative reaction on Twitter was, in this instance, a good thing. It brought the mistake, or malfeasance - whatever it may be - to light quickly. It is possible that the situation will be addressed satisfactorily a lot sooner than it might have been otherwise. Or even worse, without the public outcry, maybe it would have simply been allowed to slide on by.

What scares me, however, was the near immediate massive outpouring of assumptions based on speculation (and rumor) rather than fact. Fuel was added to that fire by the nature of Twitter, which doesn't have room for analysis or even nuance. It strikes me as something that can easily facilitate the spread of a mob mentality.

In this particular case, good, rather than harm, was done. But, it is terrifyingly easy for me to imagine any number of scenarios in which a great deal of harm could be done by masses of twits leaping to conclusions and basing assumptions on incomplete, inadequate, rumored, or just plain wrong information.

Two years before I lived in Hong Kong, there was a very popular local chain of cake shops called Maria's. The shops were famous for their coupons for free pastries. They were often given as gifts at office parties and other occasions. One day a rumor (false, as it turned out) began to spread that Maria's was going to stop honoring the coupons after a certain date. Over several days the rumor swelled, especially in several very densely populated neighborhoods. By the end of the week there was a run on Maria's cake shops. Rioting broke out in front of several of them. There were stampedes. By the end, three people had been killed.

There are a whole lot of people who believe almost everything they read, or hear.

I don't think there is anything that can be done about it. You can't ban Twitter, and it would slow the whole thing down far too much - and destroy much of its usefulness and appeal - if you had it constantly monitored in such a way as to quash stupid stuff that seemed to be dangerously snowballing. But its potential scares me. I think this episode with Amazon, though all for the best as it seems to be turning out, is a good example of the power it has to be harmful.


Rebecca Anne said...

After reading this, I imagined all the people, or organizations, businesses, etc. twitter could bring down just by sheer rumor RTing. Like a cancerous growth, if it started, I'm not sure anyone could do anything to stop it.

Amazon was the perfect example of rabid outcry, I wonder who will be next. It's inevitable.

Eric said...

Exactly my concern, though what is to be done about it? I don't know.

Julie Weathers said...

I almost didn't finish reading this even though I hold your opinions in high esteem. I assumed I was going to hear yet another diatribe about how Amazon and their employees should all be burned at the stake.

As I said on another, very popular writer's forum, when a book about wine tasting was deranked that should have been an indication there was some kind of a glitch. Seriously, there were some key words being targeted and it didn't make sense. It certainly didn't make sense that a corporation based on selling books would risk disenfranchising themselves from the publishing community and the gay community which are both notoriously vocal and activist.

I heard one single writer say it wouldn't hurt to wait 48 hours and try to get some facts before calling for boycotts. I shudder to think of how much business was actually lost because of the mob mentality.

While, as you say, it turned out all right this time, how long until a smaller business is destroyed due to false rumors, lives are destroyed or people endangered needlessly because we have the power and not the responsibility to verify.

Thank you for being one of the sane voices in this debacle.

"Just because you can doesn't always mean you should." Jurassic Park.