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 Amazon.com -- 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.
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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#amazonfail, Jeff Bezos, metadata, book
Labels: Amazon, blogging, film, gay, Twitter, writing
The Amazon Cluster Fark : The Return of the Jedi-Author
As I write this, Amazon has not yet explained what it calls the “glitch” that saw books with gay, lesbian, feminist and similar content delisted from best sellers and sales ranking over the Easter weekend (April 13, 2009).
The Associated Press is now reporting that
“Amazon.com apologized Monday for an 'embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error' that led to the sales ranking being removed from tens of thousands of books.....On Monday, Amazon spokesman Andrew Herdener said that 57,310 books had been affected.
The Los Angeles Times is reporting that some of the rankings are being restored at this moment.
Amazon is still being stupid and ham fisted but let's go beyond the events of the day.
There is a very important lesson for Amazon from the events of this weekend. It's not just the usual public relations post mortem (even though this has been a PR disaster for Amazon. Why hasn't Amazon fixed things overnight ).
As Humans at Work says
Amazon has handled this communications crisis in the worst possible way, which is to ignore the outrage and throw corporate-speak at the issue. I was aware of the controversy early Sunday morning: there was no response from Amazon until late afternoon, and the company spoke through a press release to the Associated Press. Amazon is an online business, suffering an online publicity massacre, and they offered no online response of substance. No blog post of their own. No direct dialogue attempts on Twitter. Imagine that you’re on an arena stage in front of tens of thousands of angry people, and instead of speaking into the microphone, you get on your cell phone and call someone to take a memo to send those folks. That’s essentially how Amazon handled it.
So no wonder all authors were so outraged by Amazon's screw up. High Amazon ranking, being on the Amazon best seller lists mean sales. If Amazon could do it to the gay and lesbian community ( intentionally to please conservatives or through a series of mistake) it could do it anyone else (bird books maybe?)
If Amazon is smart and goes beyond the computer glitch strategy (and so far they have been just plain stupid), the company will realize that the authors, whose products they sell, are either the company's best friends and worst enemies. Although the Tweet hurricane, the Facebook tornado, may have begun with gay and lesbian writers, what happened at Amazon was an immediate threat to all authors and a huge number (Neil Gaimon, for example) reacted.
The calls to boycott Amazon are a big problem, a very big problem. Authors need Amazon. A boycott won't do any single author any good at all. Amazon promotes books that the chain bookstores won't touch.
Those calling for a boycott should think about this. How many of those gay and lesbian books that Amazon deranked are found in your local big box bookstore? A handful, and probably none published over three months ago.
If Amazon wants a long term fix to the business and public relations disaster, they must immediately create a respectful relationships with the authors that create those products.
The Cluster Fark glitch (or hack)
It appears that the “glitch” is some sort of meta data malfunction. It's easy to blame it on computers, (but of course the famous wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl was a case of humans doing their thing).
There are two theories:
- that some form of homophobic hacking manipulated Amazon's meta data.
- a series of perhaps unrelated management decisions created an unintended consequence.
The Making Light blog calls what happened a Cluster Fark where a series of management decisions led to this public relations disaster:
(1)Sometime in the middle-distance past—maybe a couple of months ago, maybe a year, it doesn’t matter—somebody decided that it would be a good idea to make sure that works of straight-out pornography (or, for that matter, sex toys) didn’t inadvertently show up as the top result for innocuous search queries. (The many ways that this could happen are left as an exercise for Making Light’s commentariat.) A policy was promulgated that “adult” items would be removed from the sales rankings and thus rendered invisible to general search.
(2)Sometime more recently, an entirely different group of people were given the task of deciding what things for sale on Amazon should be tagged “adult,” but in the journey from one department to another, and from one level of the hierarchy to another, the directive mutated from “let’s discreetly unrank the really raunchy stuff” to “we’d better be careful to put an ‘adult’ tag on anything that could imaginably offend anyone.” Indeed, as Teresa pointed out, it’s entirely possible that someone used a canned list of “adult” titles supplied from outside, something analogous to the lists of URLs sold by “net nanny” outfits, which would account for the newly-unranked status of works like Lady Chatterley’s Lover. (As one net commenter observed, “What is this, 1928?
(Aside: The Amazon disaster happened the same night that the Discovery Channel Canada premiered Who Sank the Titanic? with the theory that the deadly cluster fark was a series of management blunders, beginning with the substandard rivets and reducing the lifeboats from 48 to 16).
#amazonfail – Twitter comes alive on a holiday weekend: A lesson for the media.
The groundswell of rage against Amazon showed the power of the social media and the absolute failure of the bean counters in the mainstream media (as one who works for the MSM, I am sad to say)
The media managers assume that, in most cases, news doesn't happen on a holiday weekend, when they have to pay overtime.
Most media workers these days are so over worked they crave the time to relax, by themselves or with families or friends on a holiday weekend.
Newspapers, starving to death, still don't “get it” that today news has be posted NOW. It can't wait for 24 or 36 hours until the presses roll.
As history now shows (even though the history is only 48 hours old), blogger and author Mark Probst found that his young adult books about the old American west, which have gay characters, had been deranked.
From Probst's blog, the word quick spread to Facebook and Twitter., where the hashcode #amazonfail quickly became the top subject on Twitter.
I was watching as the events unfolded over the Sunday afternoon. I saw posts from other media workers, with no outlet for their work on the weekend, also posting on Facebook and Twitter. The Amazon glitch was and is a direct threat not only to authors of gay and lesbian subjects, it was a threat to all authors. So authors posted, cross posted, linked and sent out messages. So did the reading public, who saw those initial posts. Then came the online community at large on Twitter and Facebook.
The events of Sunday were not only the first time that Twitter became a viral phenomenon without parallel media coverage, it showed the power of crowd researching. People would go to Amazon and check their favourite books and authors and find out if the ranking was still there.
Hundreds of people doing targeted research all at once creates more information more quickly than a single reporter can.
That, unfortunately, is a lesson, for the mainstream media. When we weren't there, the public didn't need us. They cover the news themselves.
Return of the Jedi-Author
Here, dear reader, I am, without apology going to mix my metaphor, from Battlestar Galatica to Star Wars.
Authors are under threat from an Empire, publishing companies and chain bookstores, empires ruled by corporate Palpatines and Vaders.
Authors are like the lonely surviving Jedi holding out against the chain bookstore Death Stars and publishing company storm troopers that view authors as cannon fodder.
Amazon enters the picture.
A neutral Force. (yes a Force with cap “F') that might give power to the Jedi-author.
Is Amazon going to go to the Dark Side or Light Side of the Force?
That is the decision the Amazon corporate executives must face.
Every author (like me) today links to their books listed on Amazon. (In fact one of my frustrations is that due a rights Cluster Fark, people can't order A River Kwai Story from Australia on Amazon)
The long tail theory began when the sales of books were tracked on Amazon and those figures showed that a book could have a long and perhaps profitable life long after the three months that the chain bookstores carry a book.
Ask any author today and they will tell you that the publishing companies have no respect for them. At publishing companies, the corporate mail mobile (whether human or robotic) is more important than an author.
The majority of bookstores don't want authors around, in fact, they'll keep them at bay with a 10 metre pole (unless they're Stephen King or Neil Gaimon)
So I am hoping that the Force really is with the author. That Amazon will realize that they have completely farked their customer relations and they are still farking their customer relationships.
Hiring a PR firm that specializes in salvaging this kind of mess won't t help.
So here's what I think Amazon should do.
Will Amazon take advantage of a disaster and turn it into an opportunity?
- Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos should call a televised news conference with as many live cable news opportunities as possible, as well as a webcast, apologize to the gay and lesbian community, to gay and lesbian authors, the writing community at large and to all Amazon customers. Relying on third rate news releases won't cut it.
- Then Amazon should reach out to all authors and become the authors' best friends. Begin with gay and lesbian authors and come up with a way to repair the damage, perhaps a special sale of gay and lesbian titles to take advantage of the public interest.
- Then Amazon should begin a long term strategy, a win win strategy. Respect authors the way the publishers and bookstores don't and won't Figure out how Amazon's sales and marketing strategies can coincide with the desire of authors to sell their books. Amazon has already taken a first step in this by making it easy for self-published authors to get their wares on the Amazon database. Publishers refuse to niche market. Amazon can do that just retweet [bad pun intended] their database and create hundreds of niche markets. Authors know their subjects, authors know the market they are aiming for. As the publishers continue to sink in the current recession, as the ones that hope to survive are cutting back on acquisitions, that means there will be more and more self publishers in the future.
Or will it turn to the Dark Side of the Force and become just another literary Death Star?
Jeff Bezos. You have choice. So, from metaphor No. 3, take advice from Spiderman. With great power comes great responsibility.
Amazon really doesn't get it. It apparently issued a new release on the afternoon of April 13. Yet nothing but corporate/SEC stuff on the Amazon.com Press Release page. It was the public on Facebook and Twitter that alerted the media to the problem, yet it seems Amazon is only speaking to the media who ask. The public still doesn't matter.
Ad Age: Amazon's Silent Mistake in the Face of a Social-Media Firestorm
All weekend, as the firestorm spread, Amazon maintained silence. Amazon CTO Werner Vogels, who's on Twitter, has yet to write a word about the brouhaha. Finally, today, Amazon's director of corporate communications, Patty Smith, blamed the issue on a "glitch," which was not explained.
Whether the incident is a glitch or the work of a hacker is rather beside the point. Amazon should have been monitoring its brand in social media 24/7. And clearly it wasn't. It should have responded much sooner and much more clearly. If it didn't know the cause, it should have said so and explained what it was doing to find out.
LA Times updates Amazon blames book-search glitch on 'cataloging error'
Herdener did not respond to requests to clarify the cause of the error, nor about why works such as the "Milk" pictorial -- which did not appear to be listed in any of the categories mentioned by Amazon -- may have been removed from the search listings...
In striking contrast to all of the online uproar, Amazon -- a leading Internet company and media pioneer -- remained nearly silent. It issued a brief statement Sunday evening, citing "a glitch," then waited most of Monday before issuing the mea culpa.
writing, journalism, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook,gay, lesbian,
#amazonfail, Jeff Bezos, metadata, book
Labels: Amazon, blogging, Facebook, gay, lesbian, tweet, Twitter, writing
Hemingway's lost "blog"
This week the CBC issued a set of "guidelines" for employees who blog. The guidelines were immediately controversial and the debate on Tod Maffin's Inside the CBC is still raging at this writing (70 comments as of Aug 5 at 1032 ET). My colleague Paul Gorbould has posted a thoughtful response to the controversy.
Which brings me to Ernest Hemingway's lost blog (or what would have been a blog if there had been a computerized world when "Papa" was writing.)
Most people know about Hemingway's famous lost short stories. In 1923, Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson, was travelling from Paris to Lausanne to meet Hemingway and as she was waiting for a train at the Gare de Lyon, the suitcase with the stories was stolen from the station platform and so the stories were lost to literature and history. (Make a backup Ernest! Use carbon paper!)
The other lost work by Ernest Hemingway is less well known, his resignation letter from the Toronto Star. According to a number of Star histories, when Hemingway got fed up and decided to quit, he wrote a eloquent denunciation of The Star and its management on a long piece of paper taken from a teletype roll. (anticipating Jack Kerouac's method in On the Road by 30 years).
Imagine what it would have been like then if Hemingway had blogged? Now since it was a resignation letter, it wouldn't have broken any employee's blog restrictions, but that work, either on a blog or on teletype paper, would have likely have been the one the great documents in the history of journalism.
Hemingway apparently pinned the long sheet of teletype paper to a Star bulletin board and it remained there for months, and the staff kept reading it, loving it (one wonders what Star management thought) until one day it fall to the floor and was was swept up by the cleaning staff and ended up in a Toronto landfill.
I have had this website since December 26, 1999 (the date I registered robinrowland.com). It was created to promote my books and to put up the course outline and hints for my students when I taught at Ryerson University of School of Journalism. At that time, a few CBC employees had personal sites and when I started the site there was no objection, in fact I was told it was a great idea.
I posted my first blog entry on October 18, 2004, to track and promote the book I was writing at the time now called A River Kwai Story. Again, at the time, I was told it was a great idea.
Except of the time during the lockout, I have kept my blog tightly focused on my book project and on my photography along with occasional personal stuff.
But what do these guidelines say? That I can't talk about the brands of cameras I use, developments in the world of digital photography or the quality of my photo quality ink jet printer? As I do here and here and here and here. Is that endorsing (or not) a product?
A River Kwai Story is based on my academic research for my Master's Degree and it's about the history of war crimes and military tribunals. It could be, in some circles, be considered controversial. Does that mean CBC employees can't write controversial books--even if the work has done completely on their own time and has nothing to do what happens inside the corporation? (And for the record, stories based on my research have been offered to CBC News from time to time)
Which brings me back to Ernest Hemingway. If he was writing today, Hemingway would have to have a blog to promote his books, it is an absolute necessity in the 21st Century. Hemingway would have had to have a blog whether he worked for The Star or was an independent freelancer. I am sure Hemingway would use a blog as an outlet for his talents and ideas that might now, in the modern world of beancounting publishing, have no other outlet, even if the name of the author is Ernest Hemingway.
The problem is that most of the CBC employees who openly blog under their own names have been known from before the lockout. A year ago some of us issued the CBC Blogging Manifesto and signed our names to that document. It would have been easy to call a meeting and discuss these guidelines with the bloggers. I wasn't consulted and as far as I know, no other blogger was either.
Paul has quoted what the late CBC Ombudsman David Bazay said about blogging
If public broadcasters are to become bloggers I would hope that they would exercise their freedom of speech exactly the way they are compelled to exercise it within the CBC: with accuracy, fairness and integrity, with the responsible speech of CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices that has helped make this place one of the great places in the world where the citizen can be well informed.
I thought at the time that Bazay was right on and I have followed those guidelines.
If any corporation anywhere, respects its employees, that is all that is needed.
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Labels: A River Kwai Story, blogging, CBC, Ernest Hemingway, news, publishing, research, Toronto Star, writing