Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Amazon - Resolution?

I am somewhat mollified. Amazon has apologized for their "embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error."

It's not necessarily the most satisfying apology, since it didn't actually contain any of the words apology, apologize, sorry, or even we regret any inconvenience. However, since big businesses rarely apologize for anything, getting something that can be summarized as "we admit we screwed up, and we're fixing it" is probably as good as it gets, and maybe a little better than I hoped for.

I do hope they issue a separate and sincere apology to the authors of the books that were de-listed. Even if it was only for a couple of days, that still represents a loss of income for the writers.

A hacker claimed credit for the fiasco, but he may well be lying. There's also a rumor that it was a mistake made by one employee in France, but that's hearsay from one former Amazon employee who claims to have heard it from a friend who still works there. ("I heard it from a friend of a friend" is the stock urban legends, and should always be regarded with a bit of suspicion.) However, that story does fit with Amazon's description of a "cataloging error."

As someone who works in a library and occasionally has to globally edit subject headings, I can see how this could happen. I once had an automated system flip the tags on biographies of boxers (the athletes) to Boxer Rebellion (an incident in Chinese history). At least that one was easy to fix. It was quite obvious which books had nothing to do with China.

However, tagging all gay and lesbian books as "adult" (Amazon's code for pornography) does not seem like an accident. The particular subject matter is too politically charged. I can see how it might have been the malicious act of one employee, unknown to and unsanctioned by management. Or the company may have picked a scapegoat. If the person who made the change did it maliciously, I hope they are fired. If they did it because their boss told them to, I hope their boss is fired. But the truth of who, how, and why may never be known with certainty.

At any rate, Amazon seems to be fixing the problem swiftly. Behold, the power of public outcry. Some people may point to the quick fix and say that the criers were all worked up over nothing, however, one wonders if the fix would have been forthcoming without ragestorm of negative publicity.

Thank you, Amazon, for fixing the problem and sort-of apologizing. And thank you, Twitterati and bloggers far and wide, for blowing the lid off and letting the air in.

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