Tarred and Twittered

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?

Tarred and Twittered

9 thoughts on “Tarred and Twittered

  1. 1

    I make it a policy not to retweet something that I haven’t looked into personally. That means visiting the links provided and at least a cursory google. After seeing the varieties of “theories” about the amazon incident and the general lack of any hard information, I couldn’t, in good conscience, retweet or otherwise participate in the furor.

  2. 2

    but … but … but … my Amazon Boycott made me look so smart and correct and sexy and stuff! Don’t take my righteousness away! Not my self-righteousness, anyway!

  3. 3

    CyberLizard, that’s one of the things I like about blogging and why I so rarely do “what she said” posts. If I’m writing something myself, I take it all a bit more seriously.Anonymous, don’t mourn your boycott just yet. Amazon did plenty of things that contributed to the problem, even if they didn’t target GLBTQ authors. It may well be worth boycotting them to make them understand that I don’t want another parent. I just want to make sure I know what needs to be fixed before I start demanding changes or else.

  4. 4

    I’m late catching up on all of this (as often happens with Internet furors). In reading the endless pages boiling up about it, I keep thinking of James Burke explaining the Great Northeastern Blackout in the first episode of Connections, particularly the moment at which he holds up a perfectly quotidian power relay and says, "This did what it was designed to do, with disastrous consequences."The whole business looks like people doing what they do naturally, in a complex system which magnifies the consequences of error.1. Somebody working behind the scenes at Amazon.fr bungles a routine operation.2. The effects of event #1 propagate in unanticipated ways because Amazon's architecture — both software and personnel — is downright wonky.3. The effects of #2 become apparent over a holiday weekend, the least propitious time.4. The initial outcry triggers the PR department, who are trained to spin all developments for “the good of the company”.5. The PR flacks’ definition of “good” clashes with that of their audience.6. Hilarity ensues.Incidentally, since my book is available through Amazon from both CreateSpace and Lulu, I suppose I have some stake in this. However, because my book is so thoroughly obscure, I don’t feel terribly bad in waiting another week or so to see what happens.

  5. 5

    It’s all good Blake, I’m further behind than you…Of course this is probably a good thing, because I don’t have to go put the torch and pitchfork away – never having gotten them out.I am definitely thinking that this is probably going to work out as a net positive – mainly because it is fostering an interesting conversation, several really. Definitely a lot to think about, before I get around to writing about the various dynamics involved – if I actually manage to find the time.

  6. 6

    This just reminded me of a post I want to write up.. I was in NYC last week and while using my laptop at NY Public Library, I searched for my favorite national GLBT Scientists organization and was flagged. Because my search string had the word GAY in it. Eff you censorship.

  7. 7

    Blake, I know at least one author who’s really not comfortable talking about the whole thing because they understand just how much of their revenue comes from Amazon. This bothers me.Duwayne, I want a “Why the geek I love is better than the tech company I don’t” post. Just sayin’. :)Dr. A, I’m not sure I followed exactly what happened there, so I’ll take my own advice and wait for your post so I know what I should be incensed about. :p

  8. 8

    I want a “Why the geek I love is better than the tech company I don’t” post.How about a “Why the geek I love is better than the scifi I also love” post? Because as painful as the loss would be, if forced to choose I would drop scifi in a heartbeat…(Thankfully I don’t have to choose)

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