Echo Chamber

Mobs and knights: #amazonfail and the Dubai Literary Festival

Recently I was going on about how instant connnectivity is changing the way events unfold; to add to that there’s this post from net guru Clay Shirkey on the Twitter #amazonfail brouhaha that took place a couple of weeks ago.

For all those who missed it (that includes me as I was on holiday beyond the reach of the internet that weekend)  it started when author and publisher Mark Probst noticed that his book The Filly, had lost its sales data on, and because of that was no longer appearing in book searches. The book contains homosexual characters. A quick check of other gay-themed literature showed that this had happened across the board.

The brilliant – and scary – thing about Twitter is how fast outrage can spread on it. Within hours the net was alive accusing Amazon of purging gay and adult literature. A massive army of digital warriors gathered to defend the cause.

This is how the BBC’s Bill Thompson reported amazonfail:

It emerged that thousands of other books had been similarly delisted, including such radical texts as The Well of Loneliness and John Barrowman’s autobiography, while a little research by interested bloggers found Playboy: The Complete Centerfolds, the Parent’s Guide to Homosexuality and Hitler’s Mein Kampf were all still searchable and proudly displayed.

Two years ago this would have resulted in a collection of angry, interlinked blog postings. A year ago there would have been a Facebook group to join. But this time it was the Twitter microblogging service that led the way, with thousands of tweets linked by the tag ‘amazonfail’.

The timing was perfect. It was a slow news weekend on what is an extended holiday in many parts of the world. Amazon’s ability to respond quickly was limited, while the echo chamber of Twitter, LiveJournal and Facebook meant that the noise of outrage quickly reached a crescendo.

Within a couple of days, an apparently more complex narrative emerged. Clay Shirky takes up the story:

After an enormous number of books relating to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered (LGBT) themes lost their Amazon sales rank, and therefore their visibility in certain Amazon list and search functions, we participated in a public campaign, largely coordinated via the Twitter keyword #amazonfail (a form of labeling called a hashtag) because of a perceived injustice at the hands of that company, an injustice that didn’t actually occur.

This was cock-up, not conspiracy. Apparently. Amazon had been facing complaints because books with adult material turn up in searches for children’s books. By attempting to filter the results, they effectively made anything with a content that’s deemed adult invisible. And that included lots of gay and lesbian books – even classics like The Well of Loneliness.

Shirky’s post is a cautionary, self-flagellating mea culpa. He was one of the outraged. This, he says now, wasn’t homophobia it was stupidity. Stupidity on Amazon’s part for creating an algorithm that would wipe out gay and lesbian literature so thoughtlessly; stupidity on his part as an experienced technology writer, to join hounds chasing Amazon, he confesses.

As a post-script, the blogger Bookkake doesn’t agree with Shirky, and he’s not the only one:

…the issue at the heart of #amazonfail is not – should not be – whether Amazon’s recategorisation was accidental or not, but how LGBT books came to be classified as not suitable for “family” viewing. How Amazon attempted to place them in the category of things of which we shall not speak.

Which is also 100% true. What Amazon’s algorithm did was effectively exaggerate a societal prejudice.  This wasn’t just a technological failure, it was a cultural failure too. Shirky is letting them off the hook too lightly.

But Bookkake also draws the parallel to  the Dubai Literary festival. Back in February Bookkake and several other bloggers had complained about the Dubai Literary Festival banning Geraldine Bedell’s novel The Gulf  Between Us, which also features a gay relationship.

The outrage surrounding this banning led to Margaret Atwood refusing to attend the festival. Only as Atwood later discovered nothing of the sort had happened. The book was never “banned”. As I wrote in the A&E blog back in February, the book was never invited to the Dubai literary festival at all. The whole “banned” story was seeded by a press officer at Penguin and took off on the internet.

I don’t agree with Bookkake that there is a parallel. Yes, Dubai is an institutionally homophobic culture, and yes, the literary festival still ducked confronting that homophobia, but this was outrage manufactured by Penguin, exploiting another evil, Islamophobia. Bookkake and others who expressed their outrage were being manipulated to sell a minor novel. It was a cynical incitement of the mob.

What both stories show is how fantastically easy it is to manufacture outrage in our instant culture, whether justified or not. That can be good – Amazon are now having to prove they don’t discriminate against LGBT literature.

What frightened Clay Shirky is that he became part of a mob. The sheer speed with which events unfolded overtook his rational side. And what should worry anyone is that the idea that the internet naturally favours a liberal, progressive viewpoint is an absurd one. There has been an assumption, from Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs onwards, that the electronically connected mass is greater and more virtuous than the individual. The classic smart mob case was the toppling of President Estrada of the Philippines in 2001 by protestors who self-organised on using mobile phones.

But here’s another example. Last year  ethnic violence was stoked up in Kenya for deliberately cynical reasons, leaving 1,000 dead and 300,000 more displaced. That too was a smart mob, organised through mobile phones. The mob also destroys.

Image: Hung Drawn & Quartered II (Treeson), 2005, (detail), by Matthew Day Jackson from the Saatchi Gallery’s USA Today.

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