Amazon Is Embarrassed By "Ham-Fisted Cataloging Error"

The controversy over the "glitch" that caused hundreds of books to lose their sales rankings on Amazon continues to rage on, and the company admits they are embarrassed by what they deem "a cataloging error."

As Anna N. mentioned in her post this afternoon, there were several explanations being tossed around the internet, most notably on Twitter, where posters are furiously tweeting updates, links, and theories as to how this mess actually happened.

Since then, the company has released an official statement on the situation:

This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.

It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles—in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon's main product search.

Many books have now been fixed and we're in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.

What's frustrating here is Amazon's inability to pick a story and stick to it: there were several explanations floating around the internet today that reportedly came from Amazon employees, who claimed the issue was caused by everything from the now notorious "glitch" to human coding error to, disturbingly enough, an "experiment" being done by the company. Let's break down the explanations that have come out of Amazon since this mess started:

Amazon was quoted by Publishers Weekly late last night claiming that the missing sales rankings were the result of a "glitch," in Amazon's system, yet Jessica Valenti of Feministing, whose book, Full Frontal Feminism, was stripped of its sales ranking, claimed earlier today that her editor, Brooke Warner, contacted Amazon and was told by a company spokesperson that the missing sales rankings weren't a "glitch" after all, but an "experiment" of sorts.

Warner explained Amazon's response in this email to Valenti:

Basically he said that amazon has been experimenting with the way they dole out content specifically so that people who are searching Harry Potter or whatever won't run into links to products that might be offensive.

...It's super fucked up, but apparently he's saying that Amazon is a bully when it comes to stuff like this and it's all about sales for them and it's not about censorship. [He said t]hat they love you, love Seal, but that this is mandated from their bosses, who essentially want to be Walmart.

...He also said no human is responsible for the decisions per se, and that it's all about tagging and feeds which are constantly being tweaked. He does think that amazon will retweak the tags based on the uproar that happened over the weekend.

The fact that this representative gave Warner a completely different explanation than the one given Publishers Weekly only made the "glitch" explanation seem more ridiculous. Late this afternoon, Kate Harding of Broadsheet pointed out that "various anonymous Amazon employees are coming out of the woodwork now, offering accounts of what went wrong that differ from each other, yet all point in the direction of an internal fuck-up," including an anonymous coder who told Melissa Gira Grant that "someone internally changed 58K asins to be adult - whether that was accidental or intentional I couldn't say, but we're rolling it back."

Perhaps this "someone" was the person referred to in an email posted by Lilith Saintcrow from a source claiming that "a guy from Amazon France got confused on how he was editing the site, and mixed up "adult", which is the term they use for porn, with stuff like "erotic" and "sexuality". That browse node editor is universal, so by doing that there he affected ALL of Amazon. The CS rep thought the porn question as a standard porn question about how searches work."

As someone who works in a library, I'm slightly sympathetic here: I have seen cataloging disasters in action, (though not on this grand a scale) and can actually see how something like this might happen. However, a "glitch" doesn't explain why authors like Craig Seymour were receiving emails from customer service representatives all the way back in February and being told that their books were being flagged for "adult content." This wasn't some weekend whoops—this has been going on for months, a fact that will surely play into an ongoing skepticism of Amazon's apologizes and attempts to rectify the situation.

Sara Nelson of the Daily Beast, however, thinks Amazon has nothing to apologize for: "Yes, taking gay books-or any books-off the rankings list seriously limits how many will sell, but isn't it up to the bookseller to decide what the market wants, what it will sell and how it will sell it," she writes, before concluding that the controversy may actually help both Amazon and the authors whose books were stripped of their rankings: "Before Saturday, did the majority of bookbuying customers care whether gay-themed books were part of the general-book mix on Amazon.com? My guess is no-and that most Amazon shoppers had never even noticed if they were.But they know now, and, more important, they have now heard of books like The Filly and Transgressions and False Colors, books they might never have noticed on the rankings list.I don't doubt that Mark Probst's original post was full of genuine concern and outrage-but today he's got something better: free publicity."

Janet D. Stemwedel disagrees, arguing that Amazon will and should pay for the mess, regardless of the cause: "Amazon bears at least part of the responsibility and needs to own up to a failure — either a bad policy, or a bad algorithm (which some human being designed and implemented), or exploitable loopholes in tagging and meta-data, or rogue employees (whether customer service or tech folks) substituting their own will for official company policy. Whatever the official corporate intentions, Amazon gets to deal with the effects of what happened. And taking note of how many regular customers expressed outrage might be a smart business move."

Amazon's poor crisis management skills are also criticized by Kelley Eskridge of Humans at Work, who writes: "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 is Amazon anti-gay? Were they actually hacked? Looking for publicity? Hopelessly lacking in public relations skills? Is the coding story legit? Can we believe what the company is telling us? Who knows—and that's the problem. Regardless of whether or not the "cataloging error" is fixed, the fact remains that the company's flawed system has caused many customers to lose faith and trust in the retailer, something that will take a great deal of time (and perhaps an overhaul of the current cataloging system) to recover.

The failure of Amazon to jump into the very technology that was tearing it apart—Twitter—signifies that the company is a step behind when it comes to the social media and the extremely fast communications between customers that can cause a "glitch" of sorts to become an incredibly damaging public relations disaster. The way we communicate is rapidly changing, but Amazon chose to go with traditional methods, corporate shadiness, and hesitated in an era where you can. not. hesitate. Especially when your company is being trash talked by users all across the globe who feel that you've pulled an extremely offensive, homophobic, unforgivable move.

As Gene Grabowski, chairman of the crisis and litigation practice at Levick Strategic Communications in Washington, tells The New York Times: "Frankly, it's surprising to hear that Amazon, which was a pioneer in the digital space, would miss this opportunity to react in real time and to manage this crisis better than they did. You might expect that out of a steel manufacturer perhaps, or a bus company, but you would not expect that out of Amazon. If it happens too often and you show a disregard or disrespect for the online conversation, then you're going to be at a big disadvantage."

All Amazon had to do was be forthcoming and accessible, and though their customer service reps gladly took phone calls and answered emails, they provided little to no information regarding the situation—something that only made the conspiratorial tone of the Twitter discussions worse, as it came across like the company was either hiding something from its customers, or just had no bloody idea what was going on. Either way- AmazonFail.

Update: Andrea James of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has spoken with an Amazon employee who provided further insight into the "glitch": "On Sunday afternoon at least 20 Amazon.com employees were paged alerting them that items, possibly many, were incorrectly being flagged as adult. The employees also received links to the Twitter discussion AmazonFail," James writes, noting that the company assigned Sev-1 status to the crisis, a severity level that "is reserved for the most critical operational issues and often are sent up the management chain to the senior vice president level." The source tells James that "people got pulled away from their Easter thing when this whole thing broke. It was just a screwup. It's no big policy change, just some field that's been around forever filled out incorrectly. Most everyone at one point who works with catalog systems has broken some piece of the catalog."

AmazonFail: An Inside Look At What Happened [Seattle PI]
Amazon Says Error Removed Listings [New York Times]
The Lessons of AmazonFail [Humans at Work]
Some Thoughts On Amazon Fail [Adventures In Ethics And Science]
Is Amazon Really Anti-Gay? [The Daily Beast]
Amazon Calls Mistake "Embarrassing" And "Ham-Fisted" [Seattle PI]
Idiosyncratic Code? [Lilith Saintcrow]
Amazon Continues To Fail [Broadsheet]
Amazon Rep: This Was Not A 'Glitch' [Feministing]
Amazon Says Glitch To Blame For New Adult Policy [Publishers Weekly]

Earlier: You Say Glitch, We Say Fail
Why Is Amazon Removing he Sales Rankings From Gay, Lesbian Books?
Amazon Fail: The Pictures Say It All