Monday, April 13, 2009

Surprisingly, internet outrage builds on rumors

Over the weekend, started quietly de-listing gay and lesbian (GLBT) books apparently under the pretext they were 'adult' even when they were clearly ordinary stories with GLBT content. The internets, primarily Twitter, exploded with outrage.

It's an interesting new phenomenon. The type of technology that allows flashmobs to gather and do daft stuff for fun also allows people to find out about bad stuff, react to it, form a feedback loop and overreact to it, then work themselves up into a frenzy over it, and then still have time left over to wonder what the hell is wrong with the offending company for not having apologized already, and all this before the offending company has managed to prise its head out of its ass.

It appears that Amazon didn't mean it. They seem to have made an error based on customer tags that disproportionally affected GLBT books. It started and was over in a couple of days, but the fuss on the internet did that thing meters do in films just before the reactor blows. In my prior experience this sort of hysteria has been confined to LiveJournal, which has all the requisite positive feedback loops and little way to damp feedback, leading to what's commonly known as "wank" there. Twitter, the new player on the block, seems to have even better positive feedback and yet retains absolutely no way at all to damp wank down, as the 140-character limit of a tweet is just right for an opinion but too short to provide any sort of context, analysis or apology. (Just for the record, wank on Twitter is called Fail...more or less. This incident, for instance, is called #Amazonfail.)

I'm not going to try to explain the whole thing - it'll just start it off again here on this blog, which is not what I'm aiming for - and there's a news story in the New York Times called Amazon Says Error Removed Listings which explains it in a nutshell.

Amazon, once they woke up to the sound of the tweets, offered this hurried explanation.

But in the meantime, almost every blog I read, apart from the terminally sloth-like[1], had covered the story with thousands of commenters getting in the act. Many swore never to use Amazon again. Most, I would say, assumed the worst motives of Amazon. Some suggested that the correct way to address this was to follow the time-honored order
1. Investigation
2. Trial
3. Execution
and not leap to the third one simply because it is now technologically possible to do so. I have to say I'm with this latter group.

Charlie Stross finds out about it and pulls his links to Amazon, apparently for damage control, not wanting to be associated with even the merest hint of a shade of a possibility of a taint of homophobia.

Making Light takes a more measured approach but gets more than 300 comments, some of which should come with a pitchfork smiley face.

John Scalzi keeps pitchfork-guard locked until he learns more.

More Words Deeper Hole (general link below), being on LiveJournal, manages to remain relatively calm, except for the commenters calling each other names like asshole, lazy and stupid.

I read recently that Twitter is not a young persons' medium, like texting, but is being adopted by people in their mid-forties and early fifties. In other words, this new power of the masses is in the hands of people supposedly intellectually and experientially equipped to deal with it. I dread to think what could happen if it were to get into the hands of the impulsive or under-educated.

[1] Yes, that includes this one. I had no idea this was going on for a whole 48 hours!

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