There’s a storm brewing for Amazon this evening, in case you haven’t caught it already, and it honestly has less to do with homophobia and more to do with the public’s general understanding of technology, and a little bit to do with the pervasiveness of political correctness on the edges of America.
Journalism in general, and literary and tech journalism in specificity, is dominated by organizations and individuals on both of the coasts. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, these same regions are also dominated by fear-based political correctness (particularly when it comes to feelings about the African American community as well as the “GLBT” community).
That’s why no one is really taking the time to delve into particulars of this fiasco and try to explain it technically – just like Marshall Kirkpatrick’s Magpie Incident and Rathergate, it doesn’t fit well with their worldview to do the research, so they don’t.
Author Mark Probst was told his gay-themed novel lost its Amazon sales rank “in consideration of our entire customer base” because it was “adult material” but an Amazon spokesman responding to our query said the de-rankings of an untold number of gay and lesbian titles are due to a “glitch” that’s “being fixed.” In the meantime, Amazon has a mess on its hands—a big one—that is getting messier by the minute. The sales rank, which Amazon tells customers is “a good indicator of how well a product is selling overall,” disappeared from a host of gay, lesbian and erotic titles over the past few days. You can search for the books and they will show up (that was my experience though others have reported titles completely disappearing) but the titles no longer turn up in bestseller lists or in listings by rank.
For those that may not want to read the dry explanation, here it is in 100 words or less: Amazon applied an algorithm to remove explicit and erotic books from the public rankings, and “GLBT” titles that maybe shouldn’t have been included got caught in the cross-fire.
An Explanation as to Why Amazon Isn’t Evil
George Bush Amazon hate black gay people? No, Kanye Twittersphere, they don’t. It’s an algorithm, and it apparently wasn’t worked through enough iterations before it was applied to the production site. Algorithms are mathematical expressions, and as such have no particular biases or phobias (homo or otherwise). The algorithm was applied to content of an erotic and sexual nature, and not enough exclusions were made.
Another thing about algorithms? Unless they’re very complex – that is, much more complex than as is the norm these days – they won’t be able to discern intent. They can’t tell if a book talking about Heather having two mommies (tagged as lesbian, gay, gay inclusive, controversial, and lesbian moms) is substantively different from The Whole Lesbian Sex Book (tagged as lesbian studies, lesbians, lesbian, safer sex, and girlfriends).
The algorithm doesn’t read the book and see if it gets sexually excited. The algorithm scans for certain keywords and tags. If they match, a Boolean value is set. If they don’t, it’s set the other way. That Boolean value determines whether it’s listed on the top list or not.
Further Evidence Amazon Isn’t Anti-Gay: Seattle Gay News
We’re talking about a company based out of a town that plays host to Seattle Gay News. Seattle is on the West Coast, a region that prides itself on liberal multi-culturalism. The SGN is so much so that it’s dedicated to “serving LGBT news with pride to the Seattle area” in forty different languages.
Keep in mind, here, that there’s no censorship taking place here, as is being alleged. These books, both the explicit ones and the ones who aren’t, are still listed on the site as being available for sale. They simply aren’t being allowed in the rankings. That may be unfair on a number of different levels, but censorship it ain’t.
There are some interesting PR lessons to be learned here. For instance, you can’t just explain something as “simply a glitch,” and expect folks that are socially media savvy to understand that. Just because someone reads Mashable and ReadWriteWeb doesn’t mean they understand the mechanics of semantic web and search.
More importantly, because someone’s on Twitter doesn’t mean they have the foggiest about how technology functions (hell, Britney Spears is on Twitter, people).
That means the power of technology is in the hands of the world’s biggest idiots (yes, as well as it’s geniuses. relax, I’m not calling you an idiot, so wait at least another paragraph before you angrily bang out a reply in the comment box). That means, if you’re in a position like Amazon dealing with the world’s most explosive hot potato, simply using a tech buzzword to explain it away isn’t going to work.
Although, at this point, not much is going to help Amazon…
I don’t expect this post, a pebble in the torrent of commentary coming out on this topic, to really make a dent in anyone’s opinion of the company.
Heck, you’re going to have to get the ten most flamboyant homosexuals
on staff at Amazon to put together a five minute Bob Fosse choreographed musical YouTube clip, and hope it goes viral to explain the nature of the issue in laymen’s terms to counteract a backlash of this magnitude.
That’s the reality of the new PR, and it’s only going to get more unstoppable. Right now, Twitter is the most mainstream social media tool that’s integrated seamlessly into people’s real world routines. You don’t need a computer to belong to that global conversation – the one thing that almost everyone on the planet has one of connects you: your phone.
Humanism is the new religion, and the Lord’s Prayer is now political correctness.
As technology evolves closer to the singularity, you’ll see more of this. News becomes “the conversation,” and you won’t be able to easily wrangle it back in a favorable direction to you if you make a PR misstep, particularly if you’re locked in with a corporate-sounding front to your organization. Social media navigation is now required standard operating procedure for any mid-sized to major corporation, and the requirement will only continue to move downstream the corporate size.
More importantly, you can’t navigate the waters of social media if you aren’t aware of the true motivations behind movements like this. It’s important to realize that folks aren’t going to connect the technology dots in the mainstream most of the time, and that social media doesn’t consist strictly of tech savvy people.
When you deal with hot-button issues like race and sexuality, you’ve got an even larger hurdle. It doesn’t matter how far-fetched it realistically is to assume a conspiracy of homophobia at Amazon, it takes critical thinking skills to realize that. Most people, for years, have been conditioned to never engage critical thinking skills when it comes to race and sexuality. To go against the tide carries more or less the same consequences for most people that it carried for Galileo to suggest we didn’t live in a Geocentric Universe.
To counteract that, the smart PR person will never say these things out loud, they’ll reach out to the most influential technology pundits they can find with an explanation and offer for interview explaining the technical details. They can’t hope someone like me writes a piece like this.
I almost didn’t. Had I not had a conversation with an interested individual and a cup of coffee tonight, this piece may never have come out. Even still, it’s out is no guarantee that the story will be heard. Folks that are generally renowned critical thinkers (like Duncan Riley, Pete Cashmore, and Peter Kafka) are drinking the kool-aide on this one. They have much louder voices than I do on this one.
Will they prevail to Amazon’s detriment? Time will tell.