April 16, 2009
Spread of #amazonfail

Unless you had real compelling plans for this Easter Sunday,and even if you did, chances are that you caught wind of the "twitstorm" surrounding Amazon's de-ranking of books that could allegedly fit the "adult content" category. Whether this indefensible act was intentional or not, caused by a glitch, sabotage, hackers or aliens, is still not clear. Lucky for us, that is of no concern to this post, the reactions elicited by the event, are. More specifically, I'm interested in looking at how users leveraged the different roles they play in relation to the store and how obfuscating discoverability has come to be synonymous with censorship.

It all started at 2:08 am on Easter Sunday when author Mark Probst published a Live Journal entry regarding his concern over the disappearance of Amazon's sales-ranking for gay and lesbian novels. From the somewhat private world of LJ, the news moved to the "twittersphere", the #amazonfail hashtag was created and things took off from there.

Now, Amazon was actually one of the first companies in the online world to understand that empowered customers could be very useful. They created the associate program, through which users could serve as intermediaries for by linking to books on their websites. It was a win-win niche audiences were reached through specialized websites and customers stand a chance of earning a commission as a result of their involvement.

Thirteen years later Amazon is a 2.0 store whose loyal clientele is web knowledgeable by default. These are people that not only buy, but tag, review, recommend and sell, letting their public participate in such diverse manners is probably one of the keys behind the company's success, but, as we've seen this week, if they're unhappy they're going to let you know from each of those places.

Immediately twitter messages popped up threatening to boycott the store, followed by stronger threats from participants in the associates program. Authors and publishers shared the informations they could gather, along with their indignation.

These responders could not be classified as "the Amazon customers" or as the "Amazon community", they used the leveled platform Twitter provided, but they were speaking from different places, those they had previously negotiated with Amazon. And to prove that they couldn't take that away from them, they broke into the store and tagged over 1500 books with the movement's motto: amazonfail.

But, with Amazon's widespread success and the amount of user participation surrounding it, what has this store come to mean? what is its significance? who does it speak for? and what does it say? Amazon is usually pretty careful to not say much. It is the place for everything and everyone, they don't put gatekeepers or gates for that matter. As long as Amazon kept up with its ideologically bland image, all was good. But as it turns out, metadata spoke volumes and the users were anxious to hear what the online retail giant thought.

Reactions ranged from "Darwinism is next" to "I hope Chrstian authors pay attention to #amazonfail. It's not a stretch to think we could be next." Although their interpretations were quite different, the general consensus was that Amazon was as powerful as Big Brother or the government and it could censor, but more interestingly, somewhere along the way the definition of censorship shifted. Making something harder to find while we negotiate with the daily informational overload is seen as an aggression. Discoverability has become as important as existence. Ironically, by providing access to many hard to find items, Amazon was probably fundamental in transforming discoverability into a value.

But Amazon's loss, became Twitter's gain. The relatively new player, once again, became the site for not only information, but for a way to participate in the evolution of the story. This was certainly Amazon's turn to play the villain, and even though Twitter couldn't really play the hero, it lent a sympathetic ear, and as we know, that can be equally important.