By Kakie Urch
What is #amazonfail, how did it happen on a quiet Easter afternoon and what does it have to do with "The Filly?"
Why will the word "glitch" never be the same? (#glitchmyass)
Can we get them to put their pants back on? (#nopants)
If you're just waking up to #amazonfail, it may be too late to jump on the bandwagon. Or to take off your pants in support.
But you will surely hear about it.
Essentially, yesterday afternoon, as Easter dinners were being digested, family photos uploaded and Masters playoffs watched, something called the Twitterverse woke up and roared.
Tweeps rising up
Thus the # -- known as a hashtag -- in #amazonfail. The # is a symbol that indicates a discussion topic on Twitter, a social networking site that trades in "tweets," simple 140-character messages to people you "follow" and hail by their names that always begin with @. To send something to a topic, you add #topicname to your tweet. To call up that topic's tweets, you enter #topicname in the search window, or for a top trending topic, you can just click on it.
If you want to "pass it on" on Twitter, you "RT" or "re-tweet" a message, deploying the digital version of the "...and they told two friends, and they told two friends, and they told two friends" shampoo commercial from years gone by.
(For example, I'm @profkakie on Twitter. @kakie was already taken.)
And Twitter handily trends the most popular topics in real time. Yesterday #amazonfail was No. 1 from about 4 p.m. EDT on, beating #Masters, Jesus, Great Easter, and even the name of the Chicago Cub who made that grand-slam fail catch and then got beaned.
The "fail" in #amazonfail is the digital set's current argot for well, fail. Often used in the phrase "epic fail."
This is the Tylenol case for the 21st century, happening in real time on Twitter. PR folks take note.
And I might add, don't be like Amazon. Silent. While the voices multiply and tell two friends. Easter or not.
As DDB Worldwide CEO Chuck Brymer told a University of Kentucky audience at a talk here recently: "Fast is the new big." He was speaking on "swarm marketing." The swarm, apparently, knows no religious holidays.
Amazon, the Seattle-based online retailer for books, in the past weeks, has been tweaking its computer code, yielding some different search results. Mark Probst, an author on the West Coast who is also a blogger and a registered "publisher" of his books with Amazon wondered why his Young Adult fiction title, "The Filly," a book about a young man in the historic West (you know, with horses) realizing he is attracted to men, but with no overt sexual content, was de-ranked by Amazon.
That doesn't mean the book is unavailable. It means that it is not ranked on bestseller lists, is more difficult to find on search and certainly doesn't pop up as people browse... a recipe for etailingfail.
Probst did three things: searched other book titles, asked Amazon for an answer and posted his findings on his blog
The answer he got, from "Ashlyn D." in customer service, indicated that his book had been classified as "adult" material.
"In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude "adult" material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature."
Probst included, as proof, a screen shot of the e-mail. And, because he's a blogger, not a "traditional" journalist, did not have to go to the executive suite for a response. After all, it was Easter.
What was de-ranked and what does it mean?
This of course sounds like a fine business policy -- if, as a business, you want to exclude all adult material, that's your business.
Except it appeared that only materials that had a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender trace (and I do mean trace as it included 1928's "sexless" lesbian classic "The Well of Loneliness") were really being removed from bestseller lists.
Works of, excuse the wording, straight history of the gay and lesbian movement, works on rape survivorship and the classic conservatives' favorite bad actor "Heather Has Two Mommies" were removed from search.
Ron Jeremy's heterosexual porn memoir: still ranked.
Sidney Sheldon's "The Other Side of Midnight" (which I will tell you rocked my 10-year-old world with its heterosexual explicitness when I borrowed it from a babysitter) still ranks.
I checked on Judith Butler's classic "Gender Trouble" and it was still ranked #2 in books on feminist theory. (Of course, the search engine may not have been able to get through the dense Butlerian tag.)
Top trend -- and falling
By 4:30 p.m. EDT #amazonfail was top trending on Twitter. So I looked. A petition, a boycott and an e-mail, customer service phone campaign was underway. Tweeps (Twitter people) were posting titles that they found excluded or included in search...many highly ironic in light of the policy.
There was first no response from Amazon. Then, Publisher's Weekly published a statement on its Web site from an Amazon spokeswoman saying that the exclusion of gay and lesbian trace books was a "glitch" that Amazon was working on.
The Publisher's Weekly Web site, on Easter Sunday, crashed because of all the traffic coming from Twitter posts of its information. Then, that information disappeared from the PW site.
This new statement,however, prompted a new topic #glitchmyass, in which tweets questioned both on the basis of sheer conspiracy and sheer computer tag feasibility, whether this could be anything but intentional.
Still, no word from Amazon, which is not an known as a gay-unfriendly company, other than "glitch."
Then, CNET, the digital news service, popped up with one of the most comprehensive reports. Here's a sampling of books titles the petition's backers noted are still ranked in the listing system (all notes and descriptions on the titles are supplied by the petition supporters):
"Playboy: The Complete Centerfolds" by Chronicle Books (pictures of over 600 naked women)
Rosemary Rogers' "Sweet Savage Love" (explicit heterosexual romance)
Kathleen Woodiwiss' "The Wolf and the Dove" (explicit heterosexual romance)
Bertrice Smal's "Skye o'Malley," (which are all explicit heterosexual romances)
Alan Moore's "Lost Girls" (which is a very explicit sexual graphic novel)
The petition supporters note that the following titles with gay and lesbian themes are no longer ranked on Amazon:
Radclyffe Hill's classic novel about lesbians in Victorian times, The Well of Loneliness, and which contains not one sentence of sexual description;
Mark R. Probst's YA novel "The Filly" about a young man in the wild West discovering that he's gay (gay romance, no sex);
Charlie Cochrane's "Lessons in Love" (gay romance with no sex)
"The Dictionary of Homophobia: A Global History of Gay & Lesbian Experience," edited by Louis-George Tin (non-fiction, history and social issues)
"Homophobia: A History" by Bryan Fone (nonfiction, focus on history and the forms prejudice against homosexuality has taken over the years)
Over on the Twitter, the Easter holiday kept some usual watchers of authority away. Finally, Harvard's Nieman Center on digital matters chimed in, later in the evening. Within moments, it said, its link got 1,300+ visits.
By the time PaidContent made note, the grassroots had moved to further action, with one strand starting #amazonfail #nopants, asking that everyone take off their pants to protest Amazon's action.
Over on the Google, people "Googlebombed" the search "Amazon Rank" up to No. 1. And, using Google search to track the "traditional" news media we find:
Over on the New York Times, silence. Until it posted, for a few moments, a wholly unsatisfying summary by the AP and then removed it, sometime around 8 p.m. At 7:38 a.m., EDT, the next day, the leading "book maker" newspaper hasn't weighed in.
(Now, this may be due to a slowness on Amazon's part, the time difference between New York and Seattle, or simply the Times' admirable insistence that everything be super-sourced to the source. It's 5 a.m. in Seattle and Jeff Bezos may not be up. Though he should be.)
Over on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which would be the newspaper that went all digital just recently, letting go a staff of journalists, news on the action of the hometown team hit the Internet first.
Probably because the guys working the P-I Web site had apppointments to meet the guys working the Amazon help line for beers after work.
Over on the Los Angeles Times book blog site, good journalism, with updates, was done on Pacific time (as Easter dinner was being served in Seattle) but silence for the most part, continued.
I decided to send an e-mail when I walked straight up to the Amazon search, entered "Gay Bestsellers" and got a result that yielded no books but 10 variations on Black Rose: Men's Long Sleeve Black Fashion Shirt, 100% Cotton with Special Soft Effect Surface, Gorgeous Embroidery. Ideal for Special Occasions, Excellent Clubbing shirt!
That to me indicated that the gay tag was also being used in a way that wasn't exactly equally administered.We'll rank your BLOUSES, but not your BOOKS?
(I can walk into my local brick and mortar bookshops -- the Morris Book Shop on Southland Drive, the University of Kentucky's Follett-owned bookstore, the Joseph-Beth Booksellers or the Barnes & Noble at Hamburg and straight-up so to speak, walk over to the gay bestsellers display. And there will be books, not blouses, on display.)
I can also, in these bookshops, walk straight up so to speak to innumerable works on other topics, including how to pray the gay away and how to fight a zombie.
It's bad PR, but it's not censorship
Now, this action by Amazon is not censorship, though that word is being raised. As strange as it may seem, the ubiquitous Amazon is not the government. It is a business. And businesses can set policy without violating the First Amendment. If I don't want to sell turquoise blouses, I can decide as a retailer to hide all the turquoise blouses because that color just made my mother sick.
There are a number of theories going around, including the fascinating (and complex) idea that the whole thing is something of a computer "troll," with Easter weekend chosen purposefully as the perfect time for it to take off. http://tehdely.livejournal.com/88823.html
Of course, the easiest theory for a community that has borne a history of discrimination, bashing, violence, hate and exclusion to accept is that someone is doing this on purpose. Especially when no one steps up and says otherwise, quickly. They were waiting, they were begging, for Amazon to say something to stop this boycott.
Unfortunately, the company that has some of the best understanding of how the digital world works hasn't seemed to understand anything in this case.
Reading the Twitter feed on #amazonfail, there are scores of people who are saying they love to order from Amazon and they hate that they cannot any longer do so because of this "policy."
There are tweets that say that the people answering the phone at Amazon last night were saying, "Please stop calling."
The dollar figures of purchases made monthly quoted by these tweets was astounding. People were asking if Amazon was analogous to California's beloved In N Out Burger -- a company that has a wonderful product but very conservative ideas.
The very digital tweeps that Amazon is banking on to early adopt and spread the Kindle book delivery system are saying they will never buy another Kindle book and they are demanding refunds on their Kindles.
I still see no press conference planned by Amazon. For newswatchers, marketers and public relations practitioners, this incident, like the one known as #motrinmoms that prompted a profuse apology from Johnson & Johnson about an advertisement, demonstrates the power of social networks quite aside from the traditional media and the 24/7 nature of the work.
And with silence, we still have no idea what is happening.
Is it a monster? Let's wait and see.
As for the Big Horrible Amazon theory....yes, Amazon is huge and I do shop local for most of my things. To name names: CD Central for the Robbert Bobbert CD and Morris Book Shop for the Erik Reece and Silas House.
But, with a major distribution center on Mercer Road less than 1.5 miles from my house here in Lexington, I also consider Amazon to be a locally contributing business.
I had Thanksgiving dinner with real local people who really work on the real Amazon distribution line. And really spend that money in local businesses.
And, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, you may or may not know, dropped by Kentucky quietly for a week in March to work on the line as a regular person, though declining the Herald-Leader's request for a interview.
But, when I need to send packages to the niece and nephews and order fast,or want to get a reference in a student's hands quickly, I use Amazon, pay the freight and have never had a problem.
I do worry now that I will be tracked for sending that subscription to "Cat Fancy" magazine to my 5-year-old nephew in Chicago because he loves cats.
My e-mail to Amazon noted that the woman who announced in tears the murder of Harvey Milk at the San Francisco City Hall, announced with joy the 44th president of the United States in Washington, D.C., so they better remove all that "Obama" selling stuff and for good measure, Jeff Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and all that "Pirates of the Caribbean" stuff too, as that guy who played Harvey Milk has been known to toss one back with that guy who plays Jack Sparrow (who wears an EARRING) in a dark Hollywood corner.
And I may have taken off my pants.
Kakie Urch is an assistant professor of new media in the University of Kentucky's School of Journalism and Telecommunications.