The Garret Tree
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
  Amazon situation updates
A few updates on the Amazon post.

My CBC colleague John Bowman posted a wrap up the Amazon situation in his Blogwatch column for April 14.

Although reports make it clear that Amazon e-mailed a news release to media that requested it, there is still no news release on the Amazon news release page, where the public would go to find it. So Amazon is still making mistakes.

One of the links that John points to in Blogwatch is a report from the Seattle Post Intelligencer, which was on the only media outlet on top of the story from the beginning (and, of course, is Amazon's hometown online newspaper)

In AmazonFail, An Inside Story,
"news gatherer" Andrea James (aren't there reporters any more?) recounts what happened as her sources at Amazon related.

Amazon is apparently still going with the spin that:

Amazon managers found that an employee who happened to work in France had filled out a field incorrectly and more than 50,000 items got flipped over to be flagged as "adult," the source said. (Technically, the flag for adult content was flipped from 'false' to 'true.')

I've worked with computers, programmers, IT folks good, bad and indifferent (often indifferent) for a quarter century, so I do believe it when Andrea James quotes her source as saying:

The source wanted it known that mistakes do happen at -- they're all human.

"Most everyone at one point who works with catalog systems has broken some piece of the catalog," the source said.

Not all the comments on the Seattle PI site are buying that problem. And there's one big problem not mentioned by James her item. The customer service response to the original query by Mark Probst

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.

Ashlyn D
Member Services

In his two latest Live Journal entries, the first written later on April 12 and on April 13, Probst has shown a great spirit of forgiveness:

So my guess is, yes Amazon has a policy in place not to display the sales rankings of adult material, but no, they never intended for gay and lesbian material, per se, to be classified as “adult.” It’s a major faux-pas which I’m sure they mean to correct.

As a person who has struggled with the issue of forgiving all my life (see my work on the River Kwai) I am not yet prepared to give Amazon the complete benefit of doubt in a murky situation. I've always liked Ronald Reagan's statement that you have to "Trust but verify."

I have inside knowledge from my own sources of how customer service works at big organizations. My source is not at Amazon but I think it applies in this case.
Most tech support and customer service support operations now have a large database of canned answers which can be called up on to handle 85 per cent of all queries. (The other 15 per cent are escalated for detailed handling but the rep has to beware that if he/she escalates without a good reason, they are in big trouble)

When you call one of the major telecom companies for technical support you are not speaking to a techie (as you would have done in the 1990s) you are speaking to an actor who is "between engagements," since that telecom company hires actors who can read the database scripts and can sound authoritative even if they don't know the difference between Linux and laundry.

So it is that canned response to Mark Probst that makes me suspicious. It's my belief that the situation at Amazon was a cluster fark but it was a cluster fark based on a real Amazon policy on classifying books as "adult," whether warranted or not, that through a series of human and computer errors did get out of hand.

So that Amazon policy on "adult" content is still a danger to the freedom to read.

Amazon should post the criterion it uses for determining whether or not a work is "adult."

And let's just hope some kid doesn't get a call from an Amazon computer asking, "Do you want to play a game?"


Excellent article from the Washington Post from a tech expert on the assumptions that likely went into the algorithms Amazon uses to rank all books (not just the ones in the recent controversy)

See Why Amazon didn't just have a glitch by Mary Holder

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I write in a renovated garret in my house in a part of Toronto, Canada, called "The Pocket." The blog is named for a tree can be seen outside the window of my garret.

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Name: Robin Rowland
Location: Toronto, Canada

I'm a Toronto-based writer, photographer, web producer, television producer, journalist and teacher. I'm author of five books, the latest A River Kwai Story: The Sonkrai Tribunal. The Garret tree is my blog on the writing life including my progress on my next book (which will be announced here some time in the coming months) My second blog, the Wampo, Nieke and Sonkrai follows the slow progress of my freelanced model railway based on my research on the Burma Thailand Railway (which is why it isn't updated that often) The Creative Guide to Research, based on my book published in 2000 is basically an archive of news, information and hints for both the online and the shoe-leather" researcher. (Google has taken over everything but there are still good hints there)

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