Amazon Fail: A Follow-Up

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, April 14, 2009 21:23 EDT
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Well, the hopes that Amazon was just an innocent victim of a bantown event or right wing complaint campaign have been shot to hell. The company released an official statement about deranking nearly 58,000 titles that had feminist, LGBT, or sex-positive* titles, and unfortunately, it’s not satisfactory and indicates that the deranking was, in fact, intentional-ish:

“This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error,” Drew Herdener, spokesman for the online retailer, wrote in a statement.

“It has been misreported that the issue was limited to gay- and lesbian-themed titles,” he said. “In fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as health, mind and body, reproductive and sexual medicine, and erotica.”

Don’t lie to us, dude. Yes, the books were in those categories, but there was a thick political difference between who got dinged and who didn’t. Heather Corinna’s teen sex ed book got hit with a de-ranking, but a bunch of abstinence and sex-negative books are still ranked. “Heather Has Two Mommies” somehow got hit for being “adult”, but books on preventing your kid from being gay weren’t. The pregnancy and dating guides that got hit were gay-centered, but similar books aimed at straight people were spared. Feminist titles like “Full Frontal Feminism” and “The Means of Reproduction” got deranked, and these are predominantly political books. #amazonfail may be slowing down, but mostly because people suspect the problem was fixed. But even if Amazon didn’t intend for their policy to be ham-fisted, somehow they bought right into the assumption that liberal views on LGBT issues and female sexuality are more suspect than more conservative ones.

Heather agrees with my suspicion:

And how a machine or an errant finger would discern between supportive books about homosexuality and books against homosexuality is a head-scratcher. If it was merely about tagging, then all books tagged with “gay” should have been de-ranked, not just certain kinds of books. If it was merely about material considered “adult,” why were young adult books such as mine affected, along with many reference books and literary classics, when Playboy: The Complete Centrefolds was not?

Why was this policy put in place? Brooke Warner of Seal Press dogged Amazon on this issue, and got this response:

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.

That said, Amazon is a big company and not everyone knows what the decisions at the top are. But even though it’s actually a bad business decision on its face to pander to “family friendliness” like this, it does make a rough sort of sense. Yes, Amazon is a big company is liberal Seattle and no doubt their executives are as infected with big city liberal attitudes about Teh Sexx as the rest of us, they probably buy right into the same bullshit as mainstream media bigwigs do about what the Average American Asshole Customer wants, and they’ll go out of their way to pander to the dickweeds of the world at the expense of majority of their actual customers, who are adults and act like adults. Even a lot of conservative and homophobic customers, probably most, aren’t going to suck an entire wad of Hanes up their asses if they do a search for a book about human sexuality and have to browse past the pro-gay and pro-feminist ones to get to “How To Lie To Stupid Bitches Until They Suck Your Cock”, or whatever the It manual of assholery is right now. And even the customers who do think the world should pander to their prejudices are ashamed of being such babies, and they hide behind actual babies when expressing these opinions. The Harry Potter thing is about implying that Amazon should be child-safe. Which means wingnut emotional child-safe, because a) children that really are too young to see even the covers of sexually explicit materials don’t have credit cards and b) the materials that got tagged weren’t sexually explicit so much as liberally explicit.

The problem really goes back, regardless of how this happened, to the danger in putting up an “adult” wall that could be misused in this way. Even by accident. It’s important to keep in mind that feminists and LGBT folks are the first people who get hammered when this sort of censorship mechanism is put into place. Once the wall is in place, it takes a lot of effort to police it to make sure this doesn’t happen. Consider, for instance, how Playboy and biographies of porn stars didn’t get hammered. Why not? Straight porn is so mainstreamed now that their own publishers don’t feel the need to label these materials pornographic. But people get easily alarmed by anything gay, which is assumed sexual even when it’s not. This affects tagging, and is the reason this happened.

Amazon needs to go above and beyond the usual spin machine, dismissive nonsense on this one. Why? Because the people attacked are the sort of people that are always under attack, and we’re a tad touchy as a group. We have a right to be—the deliberate abuses outnumber the honest mistakes 5 to 1 when aimed at gay people and feminists (and disabled people and depressed teens, to name two other groups who saw books about their concerns de-ranked), and that context means that people are going to need a little something extra if we’re going to believe you. And now that it’s been made pretty damn obvious that Amazon did in fact intend to give certain books demerits for being left-leaning and inclusive, they need to think even harder about how bad this is.

I’m disappointed. I’ve always been pretty happy with Amazon. Yes, it hurts local bookstores, and I feel bad about that. On the other hand, I can’t deny that the internet makes providing a better service much easier—books are a thousand times more likely to be in stock, and you don’t have to drive anywhere to get your books. For people living in non-urban areas, online book stores give them access to entire swaths of reading material they may not otherwise even know existed. These are legitimate customer needs that Amazon meets. But I admit I liked them specifically because they seemed so apolitical. In the brick and mortar world, your options were explicitly liberal-leaning bookstores, or crappy bookstores with hefty amounts of non-moving right wing stock, huge sections of pure trash, a few novels in the back (half of which are classics you’ve already read and the other half offering no guidance on what you’d like), and almost nothing worth mentioning in terms of interesting political sections. But on Amazon, you sort of created your own sections, especially with their links and recommendations. The fact that users can influence books’ pages and rankings added a lot, too.

But now it seems they do in fact feel the same pressure that dictates that most of your brick and mortar big chain bookstores will forefront crap and right wing nonsense, just because they think that’s how it’s done. Hopefully, this entire experience will scare them off that path, and make them realize that they might want to focus on selling books to the more literate crowd, just because it makes good business sense, if nothing else.

*In the sense of being inclusive, pro-female sexuality, and sexy without endorsing the soul-destroying hostility-through-sex genre that “Girls Gone Wild” personifies.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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