Two good write-ups today on the weekend phenomenon in which many smart people became swept up in moral outrage based on flimsy logic.
If you missed it, Clay Shirky summarizes it thusly:
After an enormous number of books relating to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered (LGBT) themes lost their Amazon sales rank, and therefore their visibility in certain Amazon list and search functions, we participated in a public campaign, largely coordinated via the Twitter keyword #amazonfail (a form of labeling called a hashtag) because of a perceived injustice at the hands of that company, an injustice that didn’t actually occur.
Mary Hodder would probably agree with most of that history. But in her take on the event, she finds there is still reason for outrage, even if Amazon wasn’t deliberately trying to sweep gay titles under the rug:
The issue with #AmazonFail isn’t that a French Employee pressed the wrong button or could affect the system by changing “false” to “true” in filtering certain “adult” classified items, it’s that Amazon’s system has assumptions such as: sexual orientation is part of “adult”. And “gay” is part of “adult.” In other words, #AmazonFail is about the subconscious assumptions of people built into algorithms and classification that contain discriminatory ideas. When other employees use the system, whether they themselves agree with the underlying assumptions of the algorithms and classification system, or even realize the system has these point’s of view built in, they can put those assumptions into force, as the Amazon France Employee apparently did according to Amazon.
Shirky found himself part of the #amazonfail mob, and is now embarrassed by his assumptions:
Though the #amazonfail event is important for several reasons, I can’t write about it dispassionately, because I was an enthusiastic participant in its use on Sunday. I was wrong, because I believed things that weren’t true. As bad as that was, though, far worse is the retrofitting of alternate rationales to continue to view Amazon with suspicion, rationales that would not have provoked the outrage we felt had they been all we were asked to react to in the first place.
Shirky calls this “conservation of outrage.” Once you realize the original thing you were upset about doesn’t exist, there is a great temptation to find an alternate target. We’ve all done that.
Beyond the conspiracy theories, what I found most interesting about #amazonfail were tweets demanding to know why Amazon hadn’t corrected the problem just hours after the term had surged on Twitter. It speaks to the speed of popular culture — and the sugar-high of Twitter — that we expect every problem to be identified and remedied immediately. Five minutes feels like an eternity.