Yesterday, I talked a bit about the broader implications of amazonfail for censorship on demand. If you read (or reread) the post, you’ll find it’s full of “I suspect” and “I think.” Some of that is me trying not to sound as though I think I’m an anointed prophet, but more of it was a reaction to the pronouncements about amazonfail that I was seeing around me.
I realize I’m surrounded by writers who’ve had the passive voice beaten out of them, but statements like “Google removed the sales rankings of GLBT books and authors” are somewhat presumptuous in our hacking age. So is a petition that asks for “the rationalisation for allowing sales ratings for explicit books with a heterosexual focus.” Even worse are the statements that Amazon was targeting gay writers and readers.
All of these statements were made before Amazon had said anything about what happened, and all of them show the dangers of zero tolerance. Not that zero tolerance is bad in itself, but before we apply it, we should at least know what we’re refusing to tolerate:
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.
For more insight into the glitch/programming error that turned an effort to “protect” us from explicit sex into an inability to search large categories of books, see this post with comments from a former Amazon employee. Then see the other comments in that thread and just about any other thread on the subject, or look at the Twitter amazonfail hash tag, and see all the people still insisting Amazon had this planned all along.
See people saying Amazon previously claimed to have been hacked, despite the links to some person on LiveJournal claiming to have hacked them. See people still claim this is Amazon trying to get rid of GLBTQ content, despite reporting in every forum I’ve seen that make it clear that other categories of books were known to have been affected before Amazon made any statement. See the sweeping away of facts that contradict the “Amazon is evil” narrative.
Look, I was wrong yesterday. As much as I enjoyed my little fantasy about some moralists getting results that were exactly the opposite of those they desired, I’m not going to cling to my ideas about what happened in the face of a contrary explanation that covers all the events that happened, even if I think the solution to either problem is the same.
Why? Because my righteousness and indignation, no matter how good they feel (and they do feel so terribly good) don’t actually get anything done on their own. At best, they can serve as a fuel to effective action–if I know enough to be effective. That was a problem in this case, with lots of speculation coming across as information and very few people putting it to the test.
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.”
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.
No effort required and no information. Today’s technology makes it all too easy for the broadcast of righteous anger to become an end in itself, which makes for great peer-bonding and catharsis. Change is harder.
Well, that’s not exactly true. It isn’t difficult to channel righteous anger into change. Any number of riots have been the direct result of righteous anger applied directly, as have tarrings, featherings, rides on rails and lynchings. It’s achieving effective change and justice that are difficult, and the hardest part is waiting for all the information to come in and be sorted through.
Don’t underestimate how difficult waiting is, particularly for people who have been waiting for justice all their lives. They have every reason to be upset, even paranoid, if paranoia can be based on experience. I’m upset, and I’m not affected directly. But justice is worth the work and the wait, and the alternatives are not always pleasant, as Jacob Davies noted at Making Light.
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.
I want Amazon to fix this yesterday. I want them to create public policies on how they treat what I’m tempted to start calling, “politically sensitive material,” so I can determine whether they’re a company I want to deal with. I want Amazon to state, very publicly, that they’ll treat my friends who are GLBTQ or who write GLBTQ characters or who write erotica with the same respect they’ll give to any other reader or writer. Ideally, I want them to recognize that they don’t want to be in the business of determining what is or is not offensive.
However, I’ll give them a few days to get it all done, particularly with a holiday weekend in there. I’ll give them time to investigate and to think about what the find. I’ll listen to what they do have to say about the situation and take enough care not to confuse it with things that other people have said. I won’t call them evil on the basis of processes and decisions I don’t understand unless they continue to make sure I don’t have enough information to understand. I hope others will do the same.
I’ll also suggest that authors and publishers should take a good, hard look at what they’re trading for the ease of working with one big, online retailer and ask that they understand that the pr
oblem isn’t that Heather Has Two Mommies wouldn’t come up in a search. The problem is that any time we set up a situation in which some content is filtered, even if it’s just a tiny amount, something will be screened out that shouldn’t be. The only way to keep their own work safe from the nannies is to make sure all work is accessible.
Now, do you think that will all fit on Twitter?