At the time of this posting, my friend Keith Hale’s book Clicking Beat on the Brink of Nada still hasn’t had its sales rank restored, though the AP reports that “a ‘glitch’ had caused the problem and [Amazon| promised that the numbers would be restored” (no ETA provided).
The other markers I’ve been using for the status on this issue are sales ranks on E. M. Forster’s Maurice (currently restored) and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (still missing), and the search results for “homosexuality” (” A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality” is still at the top). So it would appear that things are starting to get better, so far as this particular “glitch” goes, but there’s still some work to be done.
What’s more interesting than the particulars of the sales rank debacle, though, are the responses (and lack of response) to the issue. Here are the things that I see as the most important outcomes of the #amazonfail kerfuffle:
Amazon’s silence is deafening.
It’s been very easy to track this story (the Google news page even has a timeline chart), but it’s been difficult to find any direct public response from Amazon itself. They made a statement to Publishers Weekly on Sunday, and to the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer today, but the prime web real estate that Amazon controls is silent: the Amazon home page continues to plug the Kindle, and the popular Omnivoracious blog still has its “kid lit roundup” post at the top (with a string of off-topic complaints about #amazonfail under the latest video from Nacho the Party Puppy).
The momentum of Twitter is incredible
If you can harness the power of Twitter for your cause, through a catchy hash-phrase and the compounding effect of re-tweets, you’ll capture more eyeballs than the priciest PR campaign could possibly buy. The #amazonfail hash tag has been in the top two or three topics on Twitter for almost 24 hours, with thousands of people (and not just “some gay and lesbian activists,” as the Seattle Times piece would have it: yours truly, for one, is neither gay nor lesbian, and hardly much of an activist) commenting, observing, and passing the word.
The issue promptly left the Twitter reservation, spreading quickly through the blogosphere (just from my own RSS reader favorites, I see Edward Champion, Jacket Copy, The Daily Beast, The House of Mirth, Andrew Sullivan, Waggish, Neil Gaiman, Maud Newton, Bookslut, C. Dale Young, Mashable, and Ron Silliman have all weighed in). From there, it was hardly a huge leap into the mainstream media, with the Gray Lady herself coming in to sweep up the pieces this evening.
A harbinger of changing attitudes?
I’d be careful to impute too much from this situation, and suggest that attitudes toward gays and lesbians are shifting significantly in the United States. Twitter, Facebook, and the web in general is populated by a very different demographic than the off-line world, and participating in the Twitter trend is certainly a self-selecting phenomenon. Still, it seems like a positive thing (from the point of view of someone who supports full and equal civil rights for all Americans, regardless of race, class, creed, gender, or sexual orientation) that such a furor was raised over what appeared to be a “glitch” that affected primarily gay- and lesbian-themed books. (And that the furor was over books especially heartens a devotee to 15th century technology in the digital age.) Certainly it would have been difficult 20 years ago to get so many people to make a public statement of support for a minority still seen as suspicious and unsavory by many people, even in a somewhat anonymous venue as the Internet. It’s also striking to see the “crowd” confront the “corporation”; crowds aren’t always right, but neither are corporations, and if Twitter, Facebook, et al can help to balance that power, then a solid two cheers at least for technology.
What should Amazon have done?
I’m still perplexed by Amazon’s silence. Jeff Bezos, after all, has invested heavily in Twitter, and Amazon itself has been a trendsetter in Web 2.0 technology. With some of the most valuable real estate on the web, it’s surprising that they’ve turned to the old print media–Publishers Weekly, Seattle Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer–to get the word out about a controversy that really exists only in cyberspace. Perhaps the “glitch” (apparently, caused by a SNAFU at Amazon.fr) was “ham-fisted”; the PR response has certainly been.
A smarter response would have been to engage the situation on its home turf, before it got too far out of hand. A few Amazon tweets of “OMG, this is so wrong! We’re working on it #amazonOK” would have been a great start; a couple of Amazon PR interns could have been put to work following the #amazonfail trend, sending quick messages to the people tweeting the most about the topic in an effort to cool the flames a bit. The #amazonfail trend could even have been used as a diagnostic tool, giving leads as to what the true scope of the problem might be, and helping to target efforts on fixing the most obvious problems first.
Amazon should also use its home page and blogs to make a public, ideally non-corporate-speak laden (I know, I know, no chance…), statement about the situation. Explain in simple terms what happened, how it happened, how it’s being addressed, and when the resolution will be in place. Addressing the customer directly and honestly would help to rebuild some of the trust that was wrecked by the original “glitch” and further mangled by the botched PR.
The purported root cause would appear to be a laudable goal: provide a “safe search” option that keeps “objectionable” material out of customer searches, should the customer opt to be so protected (emphasis mine). The “objectionable” filter was set much too aggressively, though, and globally to boot: unlike the Google “safe search” settings, there’s no way for customers to opt out of the “fugitive and cloistered virtue” imposed by the filter. This is something Amazon should address, publicly and clearly, and something they should correct before they try to implement any such filtering again.
Finally, it would be nice to see Amazon make amends to the authors whose books were briefly (we hope) blacklisted. Perhaps a sale on GLBT titles? A special “buy Lady Chatterley’s Lover, get The Price of Salt for half price” deal? A few well-placed features of de-listed titles? At the very least knock “A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality” down a few pegs until this all blows over …
Do I expect Amazon to do any of this? Not really. They may be on the cutting edge of Web 2.0 technology, but Amazon is hardly on the cluetrain. It would behoove someone at Amazon to look at the cluetrain manifesto, particularly thesis #30, as they ponder their next move in a game that they’ve yet to engage in any meaningful way:
Brand loyalty is the corporate version of going steady, but the breakup is inevitable—and coming fast. Because they are networked, smart markets are able to renegotiate relationships with blinding speed.