It must be really tough being a stupid company on the Internet. Once you make a silly decision and it's out there, travelling via the Interwebs, you'll pay for it very dearly - and probably would be paying for it forever, as it is likely to become the first thing that customers discover about you on Google. We have a growing number of various consumer advocates blogs and online groups to thanks for that. The rise of Twitter has even compensated for the relative decline in the power of once very powerful blogs like The Consumerist - which have seen themselves somewhat silenced by the proliferation of aggressive "search engine optimization" services like ComplaintRemover.com, which remove / demote links to online complaints about companies and their products (or that Mother of All Complaints - their customer service). And still - blame it on social media, but almost every time I see a group of bloggers and social media guys take on a company that has made an outright stupid decision, they usually win. Not only because they are right, but because the company usually ends up paying much higher fees in publicity services to deal with a swell of the negative publicity - all embedded in the precious Google juice - than the losses it would incur from dealing with complaints from their conservative customers, who may want to restrict the publication of certain materials - be that photos of breast-feeding mothers or rankings of adult products.
I still find it very hard to reason my way through the majority of plainly stupid decisions taken by big companies on matters of technology - which, to me, also includes ways in which you decide to treat your online community. This is strange: big companies, in my experience, usually have a lot of smart people working for them and somehow manage to navigate through groupthink and all other problematic issues. Usually, I blame it on big companies not yet understanding how technology, Internet, and social networking works; senior managers are usually not familar with social media or its effects, thus, they never factor in the potential online backlash into their decisions - and the junior staff are too afriad to tell the truth.
Frankly, I find it much, much harder to understand stupid technology and Internet decisions made by big technology companies. Usually, they actually define the norms of the technology profession - and, to say the least, have some of the best tech minds on their payroll - people who know their Twitter from their Facebook. For these companies to mishandle a big tech decision, something must be totally wrong with their corporate culture (and probably, their share price).
Thus, I can't reasonably explain what good Amazon expected to gain by removing sales ranking data from all LGBT books that it sells. All it did was to fuel a Twitter-swarm that is now ripping Amazon apart (not surprisingly, using a shared Twitter tag of "#amazonfail"). Even though LGBT books are not singled out by the company's policy and are included as part of the "adult" category, I thought that a company like Amazon - weren't they supposed be the powerhouse of tags and labels, the emperor in the kingdom of the miscellany, the master of the new digital disorder?- would know the value of tags as emotional symbols and wouldn't stupidly insist on a policy, which, to say the least, is misguided and belongs to the pre-digital world. It's as if they didn't know that anyone armed with Amazon's own search engine would discover those books within seconds anyway - why even bother with removing sales ranking? This is no longer a physical vault, where stealing the catalog would leave people without access to the books they need...
But deranking Lady Chatterley's Lover, seriously? What year is this, 1928?
Here are a few things to watch for:
1) Will the protest spill into bigger things than just an online petition (currently signed by 460 people)? Some of the advice pages that I've seen, tell people to write to Amazon's CEO and complain to its representatives. I can think of a few other ways in which Web users can push Amazon to change the policy, some of them less aggressive, some more agressive than that (I once wrote about angry Web users in Russian faxing copies of the Russian constitution to a company they didn't like, in order to halt their fax machines - but I don't want to give anyone any creative ideas; readers of this blog should limit their protest to complaints and boycotts!). Let's watch this space - I am really looking forward to seeing new ways of anti-corporate cyber-activism. I bet that in the next few weeks Amazon would announce some consultative online body - like a townhall - to deal with the public anger. This is what other companies - from Digg to Facebook - have done in similar situations (with various rates of success).
2) Will sales of LGBT books skyrocket as a consequence? This would be perfectly in line with the Streisand effect - a phenomenon on the Internet where attempts to suppress information usually backfire and have the opposite effect. I can imagine that as the story is now being thrusted into both old and new media, many more people - who have never bothered to check the LGBT section on Amazon - will do so, buying many more LGBT books in the process. I really don't want to think that someone inside Amazon thought that selling LGBT books is a bad decision (they can't be that stupid)- but if they did, their new policy is only likely to have opposite results. I don't think that anyone in their right mind needs to be convinced about the policy's inappropriatness, but studying the quantifiable impact of the Streisand will effect would make it more apparent - and also a lesson for other companies to see and learn their lessons (we have seen many of similar battles before - most recently with the breast-feeding mothers on Facebook - with the corporate side loosing in virtually every case). Let's watch this space and track the data. The partial list of titles banned by Amazon is already available here - all we need is a bot to track their sales from now on. I am also betting on niche online book-retailers capitalizing on Amazon's silliness and stealing their entire LGBT customer base. I propose to dub it the Streisand-Amazon effect: it happens when one's actions not only backfire and generate opposite effects but also significantly benefit one's competitors.
3) What kind of mash-ups would we used to bring back the banned rankings back to Amazon's site? For example, will someone start compiling the same lists elsewhere using Amazon's API? I am pretty sure that some tech genius would be able to re-create these lists elsewhere. The only question of what good could they be; the point was to have them integrated into the Amazon shopping experience, to increase sales. If I ever wrote GLBT book, I would be pretty unhappy with Amazon right now, as it is basically stealing my customers from me. What would be really great is for someone to build a Firefox add-on to somehow generate the same ranking in a sidebar, when you are browsing Amazon - just an idea to developers out there. We should watch for new and exciting ways to integrate this banned data into the main site. The creation of such "unbannable" content would offer an intriguing panacea against censorship - I am very intrigued by the idea of bringing content which is banned in new innovative ways back to our browsing experience...
A few days ago I wrote about the Twitter revolution in Moldova. Today we are beginning to see Twitter used politically in a slightly different way, to trigger an anti-corporate Twitter riot against Amazon. Looking forward to see how events unfold - and might soon post a more detailed analysis of the situation.
P.S. Please leave comments with truly interesting initiatives/examples of cyber-activism in action!
UPDATE #1: first attempts to build anti-Amazon Google bombs; interesting advice to sellers on how to punish Amazon via Twitter; the creation of an #amazonfail logo; Powell's Books considers LGBT sale; template of a letter to send to Amazon; advice to keep calling 1-800 numbers to squeeze more money/resources from Amazon
photo by MikeBlogs/Flickr
Evgeny Morozov, originally from Belarus, is a visiting scholar at Stanford and a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.