Kara Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

What We Learned from #amazonfail

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Note: This post was written before I realized I was trans and/or before I came out online. As such, I might refer to myself as a man or use my deadname. Please read my name policy to understand how you should refer to me.

I quite enjoyed on Easter weekend watching the instantaneous outrage across the Internet, particularly #amazonfail on Twitter, as it became apparent that Amazon had removed sales rankings from books with "adult" content. The outrage stems more from the fact that the application of the "adult" label seems skewed toward books with homosexual content; the heterosexual books are safe. In the ensuing light-speed confusion: Mark R. Probst shared his limited interaction with an Amazon rep, in which the rep revealed the "adult content" policy; the LA Times book blog covers it, then covers it again when sources claim that Amazon has blamed a "glitch"; and some posited it was the result of gaming the system.

Take the time to read the above articles before reading on.

What Definitely Happened

In lieu of any definitive statement from Amazon regarding this debacle, it would be irresponsible to say, "This is what happened." At best, we have theories. But all theories start with facts. Here are the facts, what we know did happen, even if we don't know why it happened.

Amazon Has a Safe-Search Policy

As evidenced by Mark Probst's post, a representative for Amazon has confirmed that there are policies in place to differentiate between "adult" and "non-adult" content and restrict the former content from appearing in some search listing. Apparently, this policy necessarily requires that adult materials have their sales ranks removed, since search listings depend, to some extent, on the sales ranking system.

Now, a search for "gay sex" quickly reveals many books, coincidentally about gay sex. So apparently that search listing isn't affected. Visiting a listing for one of the books in that result reveals the conspicuous absence of a sales rank. Thus, while I can't quite see how this is affecting search results, the removal of a sales rank from a book is definitely a penalty when it comes to Amazon listings.

Not All Books are Equally Adult

Craig Seymour points out that this policy isn't new, and in fact, some adult materials have a sales rank. So at first glance, Amazon's policy appears to be quite unfair. But having a policy isn't the same as implementing it, and maybe Amazon's laziness is to blame instead of its morality.

Nigerian Princes Have Taken Over Amazon

At first, the assumption across the Internet, fuelled by the likes of Probst and Seymour, was that this was all an intentional move by Amazon. Now, this is a natural reaction. Probst and Seymour's responses from Amazon are pretty damning testimony. But it inevitably isn't the whole story, and soon cooler heads suggested that this is the result of an exploit by spammers.

For its part, someone else at Amazon reported that this is a "glitch" they are in the process of fixing. This would seem to support those who theorize that one or more spammers have abused Amazon's reporting system. Thus, Amazon's adult content policy itself isn't to blame, but rather the way they've implemented it: poorly.

In a previous tweet of mine, I joked that the glitch explanation implies Amazon has a "homophobe mode", but when presented as an exploit by spammers instead of an internal problem, it makes more sense. I am more than willing to eat my words (mmm, yummy words!).

Still, the existence of this glitch raises several questions about Amazon's responsibility to its consumers. Firstly, is the existence of an adult content policy in any way fair? If such a policy should exist, is a user-reporting mechanism really the best way to mark books as "adult"? Why doesn't Amazon have someone manually reviewing user reports? And even if they get too many reports and have to automatically process them, shouldn't the system be protected from common exploits?

Apparently I Need a Big Brother to Buy Books

I was very surprised to learn about Amazon's "adult content policy," of which I was ignorant until #amazonfail occurred. It's not a new policy, apparently. In our haste to discuss the fallout of #amazonfail itself, it's imperative we don't ignore the very existence of this adult content policy and its implications for both authors and consumers.

Google has long had a "safe search" option that screens out adult content. There are two important distinctions between Google's safe search and Amazon's safe search. Firstly, I don't buy stuff (directly) from Google. Secondly, I can turn off Google's safe search.

The fact that Google's safe search is opt-out instead of opt-in is debatable on its own, but this article is not a place for that debate. For now, since I'm using Google to find information and not to sell or buy a product, I'm of the opinion that an opt-out safe search is acceptable. If I want to expose myself to both "safe" and "unsafe" content, I can turn it off--which, for the record, I have. Unfortunately, Amazon doesn't seem offer me the same flexibility. Not only do I fail to see an option in my account settings to disable this "safe search" of theirs, I see no mention of it. In other words, Amazon's adult content policy isn't a secret, but they aren't practising full disclosure either.

This is unfair to authors who sell on Amazon, people like Craig Seymour who only find out after they contact Amazon looking for an explanation. If one wants to sell through a distributor, one expects the distributor to be up front about anything that may hinder sales, such as a restrictive adult content policy. Regardless of the cause of #amazonfail, Amazon's adult content policy is just a bad business practice. It would be great if they would be more open about disclosing the policy's existence and provided a feature to turn it off. It would be ideal if they scrapped the policy altogether.

We are the Patients; Amazon is Our Asylum

The speculation regarding Amazon's "glitch" revolves around the fact that users can mark a book as featuring adult content. I can't actually find that functionality on a listing page, but I may be incompetent or Amazon may have removed that feature as a reaction to #amazonfail. An alternative is that the system is transparent and only invoked when someone actually sends Amazon a complaint instead of clicking a button. Nevertheless, it appears that Amazon doesn't actually base its content rating on an objective standard. Rather, it trusts its users.

Insert laughter here.

User reporting works well for small communities, or for large communities that double check the math. It is irresponsible of Amazon to rely solely on user-reported mechanisms for rating content. Even if Amazon does use such mechanisms, they should at least periodically verify that these reports are valid. It's all too easy for a human to instruct other humans or robots to game the system. Remember how Colbert won the vote for NASA's new module on the International Space Station? He gamed the system by getting his audience to write-in his name as a suggestion. But don't forget that some of the other write-in suggestions were "XENU" (Scientology has its robot adherents as well) and "MYYEARBOOK" (obviously a spammer). Any automated system that allows user feedback is vulnerable to exploitation. Shame on Amazon for letting this happen, if this was in fact a glitch.

When the dust clears and Amazon releases a statement about #amazonfail, we need to walk away from this with one thing clearly in mind: while it's unfortunate that #amazonfail happened, it's a stark reminder of any company's vulnerability to the masses who populate the Internet. I'm not just talking about Twitter--Twitter made #amazonfail a faster, and probably a larger, discussion, but that discussion would have happened nonetheless. And whether #amazonfail was caused by a glitch or a policy run wild or the alignment of Venus with Mars and Sedna, the fact remains that Amazon should rethink its sales ranking system. Censorship is a problem no matter what the source, and we can't expect the spammers to spontaneously drop their weapons and surrender any time soon. So it remains Amazon's responsibility to defend against external exploits and to craft internal policy that makes sense. As the heated reactions this Easter weekend demonstrate, that means being vigilant.

Update: Amazon has provided what is likely as good an explanation as we'll get. I agree with Cheryl Morgan's analysis of the entire episode.