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A Rational Explanation of #AmazonFail and the So-Called 'Glitch' founder and "veteran Silicon Valley technologist" Mary Hodder offers the most rational explanation I've heard to date for what happened with regard to gay and lesbian book sales de-rankings on Amazon, in a post at TechCrunch. She expands on a report that a French employee was behind the "ham-fisted," as Amazon called it, mistake:

Amazonfail The issue with #AmazonFail isn’t that a French Employee pressed the wrong button or could affect the system by changing “false” to “true” in filtering certain “adult” classified items, it’s that Amazon’s system has assumptions such as: sexual orientation is part of “adult”. And “gay” is part of “adult.” In other words, #AmazonFail is about the subconscious assumptions of people built into algorithms and classification that contain discriminatory ideas. When other employees use the system, whether they themselves agree with the underlying assumptions of the algorithms and classification system, or even realize the system has these point’s of view built in, they can put those assumptions into force, as the Amazon France Employee apparently did according to Amazon.

This of course doesn’t explain how the problem arose two months ago, and why when Amazon was notified, they didn’t look into it then. I would suggest that the same underlying assumptions that drove their classification and algorithm system to be built to filter “gay” into “adult” also led their investigations in February and March to lead to nothing. It was only public outrage this past weekend that caused them to look harder, beyond their own assumptions, to find the underlying problem.

I would suspect that subconscious discriminatory assumptions are built into plenty of  algorithms as similarly as they're built into the human mind.

Why Amazon Didn't Just Have a Glitch [techcrunch]

Amazon Says Error, Not Hacker, De-Ranked Gay Books [tr]
Amazon Says Gay Book 'Adult' Label, Stripped Sales Rankings a 'Glitch' [tr]

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  1. I still don't fully accept their explanation. If it was an error then why did Amazon tell authors that it was a new policy?

    Posted by: dm | Apr 15, 2009 9:27:34 AM

  2. No surpise. To most of the world, gay means sex, even if they call it sexual orientation. Sex means adult. Same old story.

    Posted by: Paul R | Apr 15, 2009 9:41:23 AM

  3. Still don't buy it. Adult content in general wasn't de-ranked, so simple conflation of 'gay' with 'adult' doesn't provide a full explanation.

    Posted by: Mike | Apr 15, 2009 9:44:39 AM

  4. When all else fails blame the French!

    Posted by: kujhawker | Apr 15, 2009 10:15:12 AM

  5. Well, it's Wednesday now, and I just searched "gay" on Amazon and didn't seem to NOT find anything. This was plain stupid and I hope they learned a lot.

    This whole episode is surprising since Amazon generally has allowed me to find ANYTHING I was looking for, and I tend to look for some pretty obscure books. Excellent network of affiliates, etc. Let's hope for the best. I assume someone has been transferred to Amazon's Siberian office somewhere over this.

    Posted by: Craig | Apr 15, 2009 11:55:16 AM

  6. The question is: would it have been ok to de-rank (and thus make invisible on the default "All Departments" search engine) all books with sexually explicit content? My answer: resounding NO!

    If people are complaining they are offended by sexually explicit (i.e. "adult") content, why is the solution to restrict EVERYONE's ability to find the content? Why not give the complainers the ability to opt out of sexually explicit search results?

    What a bunch of goddamn prudes!

    Posted by: Scott Pomfret | Apr 15, 2009 12:58:59 PM

  7. I very much agree with the clear-headed analysis of Mary Hodder, the real issue here is that our society continues to act as if having a gay identity is some sort of X-rated adult information.

    This is why the Mor[m]on Church was able to use fear that your children will hear gay people mentioned in kindergarten to enshrine their sacred bigotry in the California Constitution.

    This incident has led me to create a new blog:

    Posted by: Steve Rider | Apr 15, 2009 2:01:14 PM

  8. I have to deal with Amazon a lot, and they are awful. The company is arrogant and employees regularly tell me things which don't fit the facts. If called on it they simply change the story. Often I'm told contradictory stories within minutes of the others. They insulate themselves from the public as much as possible. I've been given the run around numerous times, sent from one person to another, none of whom appear to be the right person. Our company is working to slowly cut Amazon out of our business plan entirely.

    Posted by: w.m. | Apr 15, 2009 5:40:44 PM

  9. is current for sale on ebay... 2 days left. future home for a blog, anti-amazon site, book seller site, etc.

    Posted by: shaun | Apr 16, 2009 7:43:28 PM

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