Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Did Amazon Really Fail This Weekend? The Twittersphere Says “Yes,” Online Retailer Says “Glitch.”


Last fall, a small but vocal group of Twitterers managed to shame Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) into apologizing for one of its Motrin ads.

This weekend’s replay: a howl of outrage, amplified and directed via Twitter at Amazon (AMZN), which may or may not have instituted a boneheaded policy  regarding “adult” books on its site. Or “adult” books aimed at gay and lesbian readers. Or something.

What happened? It’s not clear. But search for “#amazonfail” on Twitter and you’ll find that many Twitterers believe that Amazon has stripped the sales rankings from all manner of books that deal with gay and lesbian, and/or “adult” topics, making them less likely to appear on the site. In essence, the Twittersphere charges Amazon with trying to hide material it finds distasteful or that it thinks some customers will find distasteful.

Example: Amazon’s listing for Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” doesn’t have a sales rank. But the author’s newest book does have one.

From what I can tell, the meme started up on Saturday, but didn’t start building steam until Sunday afternoon, when I noticed mild-mannered types like New Yorker writer Susan Orlean railing about Amazon on Twitter.

And it’s still going. As I type this, after 10 p.m. Eastern on Sunday night, the “amazonfail” keyword is generating a dozen hits on Twitter’s search page every couple of seconds.

Amazon hasn’t helped its case by remaining more or less mute throughout the weekend. But, by Sunday evening, the retailer had issued the same line to me and several other reporters: “We recently discovered a glitch to our Amazon sales rank feature that is in the process of being fixed. We’re working to correct the problem as quickly as possible.”

Not a terribly illuminating response, and I’ve asked for more information. But no matter what really happened, Amazon now has a real problem on its hands: A vocal group of people believe the retailer has discriminated in some way against gays and lesbians.

When Johnson & Johnson got caught in the Twitterstorm last fall, it had a relatively easy way out: A profuse apology to people it had offended. But Motrin has a very specific customer base and Amazon has a much broader one, and anything it says or does regarding gays, lesbians and “adult” material of any stripe is bound to upset some people.

But the company should do the right thing and clear the air anyway.

UPDATE: Here’s an apology from Amazon, which doesn’t really explain what happened, but says the problem didn’t just affect books aimed at gays and lesbians.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald