Apr 14, 2009

What kind of a childish game is this?

Since I don't watch TV news, sometimes it's hard to gauge how "big" a story has become. The upside is that getting my news from teh interwebs allows me to pick and choose the stories that are most interesting to me. Mel Gibson's wife files for divorce? Couldn't care less. How the chemical make-up of elephant tail hair demonstrates how they compete with other species? Oh, hells yes! The downside is that while I am ready to chat around the water cooler about the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (worst acronym ever) study on pachyderms, no one else is. What are the people watching, nowadays? What do they care about? I honestly have no idea.

So I guess I should assume that you all don't know about this Amazon SNAFU, and describe the situation a bit before I rant. Apparently, Amazon has removed a number of LGBTQ books from their rankings and product searches. This had the affect of burying these books, so that they would not show up as easily to consumers. Reportedly, an email complaint about this situation received this response:

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.

Hence, if you have further questions, kindly write back to us.

Best regards,

Ashlyn D
Member Services
Amazon.com Advantage

"Adult" material included children's books like Heather Has Two Mommies and a YA novel called The Filly, which contained gay themes but zero sexual content. I believe that some of the books involved had nothing LGBTQ in them, and were included in this purge because the authors themselves were gay. And a number of books that feature explicit heterosexual content were left alone.

As you can imagine, when this hit the internet people got so mad their faces exploded. Petitions were created (and soon accumulated over 20,000 electronic signatures). A hacker tried to take credit (to no avail). The Twit-ter lines lit up (while I still don't approve on principle, I have to laugh that #amazonfail became, for a time, the most popular hashtag) And Amazon scrambled to CYA, claiming that this was a "ham-fisted cataloguing error" that wasn't targeting LGBTQ authors or novels - it was all just a coincidence.

I think Gore Vidal said it best: "What kind of a childish game is this? Why don't they just burn the books? They'd be better off and it's very visual on television."

Still kickin' ass and takin' names, after all these years.

My question is this: was it "ham-fisted" or an "error?" I realize this is semantics, but when literary freedom is at stake it seems appropriate. To me, an error is something done unintentionally, while something is ham-fisted when it is an intentional action executed clumsily. And when you're talking website management, errors occur when a computer misinterprets a command. If all of the LGBTQ books had disappeared at once, I would be more likely to believe this was purely an error. But this has been going on for months - and while some titles have been re-ranked, progress is similarly slow. It seems more likely (possibly because of my latent cynicism) that Amazon was trying to reduce the LGBTQ presence on their site. Now that they've realized that this community and its supporters account for a significant proportion of their consumer base, they're scrambling to reverse what they've done. Even if they fix the problem, what's to say they won't find some other way to carry out this intent (i.e. censorship), a way that is not "ham-fisted?"

Will we ever get to the bottom of this? Sure, this story is all over the internet. But until it's in everyone's living room on the 6 o'clock news, inflaming us like a stack of burning books, I wonder if anything will ever be done to find out what caused this "error."


Ducks said...

I think the whole Amazon mess brings up interesting questions about how they (and people at large) categorize gay content. Is content about sexuality the same as sexual content? Is "adult" the same as erotic? And is "adult" the same as offensive? That's the part I find the most ridiculous. I don't think Amazon intended to de-gay their site, but I do think we all need to re-evaluate the way we think about gay and adult content.

Monkey Sri said...

In related news, I've seen the blogosphere reaction to this situation being characterized as an angry mob of gay rights activists thirsting for Amazonian blood. I hope my little post did not add to this feeling ... though considering my readership consists of (1)Facebook friends, (2)people searching "battle toads" on Google images, and (3)my mother, I probably didn't incite any riots. Probably.