It is weird that is has only been about 24 hours since writer Mark Probst posted a report of Amazon’s odd, arbitrary (and therefore most likely human rather than computerized decision [okay here is the human/machine factor and a good explanation via Technology, Books and Other Neat Stuff]) to disable sales ranks, and therefore remove from searches GLBT work from its catalog. “Glitch” or no, this whole thing touches on several ways in which new media has positive and negative effects on the production of culture. On one hand, it is easier for anyone to produce unmediated content. Just visit Lulu and upload your manifesto or that novel that you have spent years writing. At the same time, new media has absorbed and consolidated huge swaths of the media landscape include retail (bookstores and record stores) and newspapers.
Nice how one really big bookseller can just suddenly decide to change the whole landscape for gay people isn’t it. I just have to note here that the Lambda Rising in Baltimore closed last year, due to declining sales. They’re not the only small booksellers who have had to close by any means, and I can appreciate how a place like Amazon was good for all the gay folk who didn’t have a local gay bookstore to go to, but I can’t blame the folks who were raising the alarm about the decline of the independent book sellers for having a round of “I Told You So’s right about now.
To me, it has been amazing to watch how quickly this story ballooned, sped by the unmediated and yet also organic fact checking and verification at Twitter against the actual listings at Amazon. At the moment the major media, who only began to report the story last night, were already stuck with a story that had been born and shaped by blogs and microblogging.
Amazon has been glacial and inept in its response. I’m sure this is mostly to do with the story gaining legs on Easter. But it also strikes to the very core of the issue — that Amazon has repeatedly used its weight and power as a central, highly connected node and gateway to corner the market in online book sales. For instance, a few years back when it began to sell used books alongside new copies of books, various publishers and author’s organizations were alarmed and outraged. Amazon essentially said it would do what it needed to do.
And yet here, the response is more like a steer getting dropped into a river seething with piranhas. I think Twitter is eating Amazon as we watch. And so far Amazon has done nothing to save itself except mutter, “a computer glitch.” I don’t think this is the end of Amazon, sure, but if Comcast — a friggin nuts and bolts infrastructure company that puts the internet in a wire to your house — takes Twitter seriously, then Amazon is either already dead or in a state of shock while it figures out what to do. At this point it seems like, too, Amazon doesn’t quite realize the financial damage being done it, the erosion of its customers base, and the instant rerouting of the Web as people begin to point at other online booksellers such as Powell’s Word of Books.
While the events in Mumbia solidified Twitter as an important channel, Comcast found itself being mulched by Twitter and has since really started using Twitter. Before I left my last job reading blogs, microblogging looked like it was being adopted by corporations faster than users. But in the last five months this has really changed. I’m kind of addicted to the aggregate stream of information — it was a matter of scale for me. Just as blogging isn’t really a listserv, microblogging isn’t really blogging. And now Twitter and FaceBooks are to me what I think CB radio was in Smokey and the Bandit.
I suspect the combined effect of Facebooks/Twitter will have a serious impact at Amazon. For one thing it clarifies how central the online booksellers is to the availability of books with the decline of independent bookstores, and in this case gay and lesbian bookstores, across the country. While I think this decline has more to do with the gradual assimilation of gay culture for better or worse (assimilation I think being co-opting/homogenization) I think it also points to the fact that ostensibly Jeff Bezos’ business model exploits the virtue of digital delivery’s lack of mediation between someone who wants to read a book and the book itself. To insert (even if by “glitch”) mediation does a tremendous amount of damage to the transparency of this mechanism. Google finds itself in the same position — where it juggles both the idea that users wants relevant information, but at the same time inserts various filters into its relevancy algorithm — sometimes at the behest of centralized authorities such as the Chinese Government.
Now that there is suddenly this presence — Amazon has shown it’s hand and presence in how it structures and sells books — I can’t really see how it will hide itself after this. At this point they lamely claiming it is a glitch. When that doesn’t work — and it won’t since there has been a pattern for sometime and the narrative has had a whopping 24 hours to form and spread without a real response yet from Amazon — what will they do? They can’t go back to people trusting unmediated listings. At the very least it is going to be very expensive in terms of information architecture and outreach for them to convince the consumers who care that they can be trusted. The issue is that these are the wired, Twitter freak social media consumers they’ve pissed off and are most likely vital nodes.
Update: So at this point in the PM, it looks as if Amazon will stand by the glitch story. It is perhaps even true, which begs the question how a problem like this could sneak into production is beyond me. Craig Seymour shows that this was a persistant problem (and in fact only changed after the Easter Day Twitter Storm.*) Provided Amazon corrects the problem quickly, I think many consumers will return to their old familiar patterns. But I for one will am removing any pointers to Amazon from my site. My own books haven’t really shown up in searches on their site for some time (most likely due to thier really low sales rankings). So I’m not exactly a consumer-saint, really. In any case, Powell’s has been great, I always enjoy shopping from them, and they have a dedicated Small Press shelf. They actually care if they have my books in stock or not. And I can buy new and used books from the same vendor — which has always been a problem when buying from Amazon.
* Okay … so maybe it was a glitch that dates from earlier this year. If someone at Amazon knew about it, they may have assessed it and then thought, hell .. only 57,000 titles by gay authors (mostly) are affected. We can fix it, at some point. They of course don’t realize by consolidating books as they have done, they have suddenly taken on a kind of cultural responsibility. Yet they are supposed to run it as a business. They make a cost-benefit decision. Only 57,000 titles perhaps not worth it. Suddenly it is worth it when there are hundreds of thousands of irate customers and it is fixed pronto. As a consumer I kind of want to deal with a bookstore that has the same freak-relationshiop with books that I have. Amazon is clearly not that store.