Amazon Flail and General Reflections

April 14, 2009

[info]tablesaw points out [info]tehdely ‘s intriguing post On Amazon Failure, Meta-Trolls, and Bantown in his own post here. Not sure I buy all that, but the concept of ‘bantown’ is certainly worthwhile food for thought.

[info]rydra_wong passes on a link to a post quoting directly from a sales rep email: Feministing: Amazon Rep: This was not a “glitch”
[ETA: Anthony Heitch offers an international angle: Re: Amazon and The Gay (French) Glitch, Mike Daisey Responds ]

And a blog on the LA Times offers a final thought that sums it all up to me:

But as troubling as the unevenness of the policy of un-ranking and de-searching certain titles might be, it’s a bit beside the point. It’s the action itself that is troubling: making books harder to find, or keeping them off bestseller lists on the basis of their content can’t be a good idea.

What does it mean when a company like Google or Amazon doesn’t provide unbiased service the way most people assume it does? How does one access information if one doesn’t know it exists in the first place? I think what we’re seeing here is not just an incident of discrimination or trolling or customer targeting gone bad, but a spotlight on trust built on shaky ground. How can we ordinary, non-l33t skilled citizens of the internet verify that the Big [Potentially Bad] Companies are providing the services they say they provide in the way they claim? If most of us don’t even fully understand how the internet works, or how binary translates into pixels on a screen, or how Google tweaks our search results to the location of our IP addresses, how do we know what they can or can’t hide? What’s the limit of what ‘they’ can do, and where are the incentives for not abusing that power? If the financial crisis has taught us one thing, it’s that the non-military branches of the government don’t pay enough to hire IT people who can keep up with all the innovations of the financial-secter IT folks, which suggests that government regulators are also lagging well behind the IT innovators at big companies like Amazon or Google.

Who can we trust? It’s not just a matter of character, but also how refined one is at seeing patterns, and analyzing the truthworthiness of various information services. So perhaps the real question we should be asking is this: who can we trust to investigate information and give a shot at analysizing it before they pass it on? Who can we consistently trust for accurate information?

All this reminds me of some thoughts I’ve been having recently about Facebook. Sometimes, when the people who run Facebook make changes, it causes a big splash. Think about when the News Feeds and Mini-New Feeds first came out, and the immediate concerns that came out about privacy, especially considering the interlinking between Facebook and the cookies of other sites; remember the story about the guy who bought a diamond ring for his girlfriend online, and had that show up in his Facebook feed? Protest mainly consisted of a Facebook group, and the company’s reaction was to make a few minor concessions, and otherwise ride out the storm. Now think about the Facebook ads you see when you’re logged in. Do they correspond to networks you belong to, such as a particular city or college? So far, I don’t think they’ve been linked to, say, the keywords in your various interests catagories–yet.

People who’ve talked to me about Facebook in person know that I’m fond of saying that Facebook is an online social clearinghouse for information, a social resume, if you will. In the world of internet archives, where no one (except Google) can make information disappear entirely once it gets out on the web, Facebook offers us a place where we have some control over our online image. We provide our interests, before someone else can do so for us. We have some power over what photos are associated with us via de-tagging, though it requires constant maintainence. And in turn, we provide all this information not just to our friends and potential social contacts, but also the company that runs the website. Of course they’re going to make use of that information. The question is whether we, as in the public at broad, notice, and whether we have sufficient leverage to demand limits on how that information is used. Facebook’s more recent changes have been made more gradually; aside from a few grumbles here and there at the really obvious ones, such as changes in site layout, no one seems to be paying much attention.

Some wrap-up thoughts on ‘#AmazonFail’:
People organize around their social networks. When there are trustworthy people willing to document and update on all the information available re: an explosive issue, others will feel comfortable passing the information from one of their social networks to another, and from one medium of networking to another. This means that organizing can happen very, very fast, but it is also vulnerable to credulity-fatigue and trolling. If a campaign is successful, however, trust is built in the information linkeage, and organizing on a new topic with the same people can happen twice as fast. I suspect that part of the reason #AmazonFail built so quickly into a Twitter storm is that it spread not just through author/reader networks and LBGT organizations in general, but it was also championed by some people who distinguished themselves well in RaceFail ’09. Months of very hard conversations and constant analyses built up an unusual amount of trust and confidence in a particular set of new or expanded networks. No orc hordes in sight, but definitely a strong, articulate group of people are emerging who are willing to translate analysis and outrage into activism and community organizing. Community-based companies like Verb Noire and Dreamwidth are hopefully just the start.


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