Monday, April 13, 2009

#AmazonFail and Occam's Razor

Over this Easter weekend, something went wrong for electronic mega-marketer Amazon. That much is undeniable. What exactly went wrong? That is not so simple to determine.

The problem: Somehow, in an escalation of a policy implementation that has existed in some form since at least February, hundreds if not thousands of books with erotic and GLBT content were excluded from Amazon's rankings and thus from many of their search functions.

The exclusions were remarkably targeted. For example, The Parents Guide To Preventing Homosexuality was not removed. Heather Has Two Mommies was.

Theories over how this happened abound. Amazon, after being confronted with a huge outpouring of protest, especially on Twitter, says it was a glitch. At least one person on LiveJournal has posited that it was a deliberate attack by a Focus On The Family-type organization. Because of how specific the targets were, many are convinced it is deliberate discrimination from someone highly placed in the online retailer. Some believe that it was simply another example of a corporation being stupid.

By applying the most basic form of the principle generically known as Occam's Razor (All things being equal, the simplest theorem is most often correct), I would bet on the last being correct. And yes, I am aware that the Razor is actually far more complicated than this and that this is a pop culture application, not a scientific one.

Think no one could be that stupid? Please. New Coke. Hilary Clinton landing in Bosnia under sniper fire. John McCain choosing Sarah Palin.

The really interesting thing here is the reaction and the power of the internet. Amazon is going to be reeling under this for days if not months. Especially because other entities are smart enough to be jumping at opportunities. Phaze Books is running a protest 25% off sale. Twitterers are telling people to get a checklist of de-listed books and go buy them...from All Romance eBooks or Barnes & Noble or Borders.

One thing I am sure of is that the glitch explanation, by itself, does not wash. This was not an accident. That it may have been the exploitation of a found "glitch" by a small group of people, inside Amazon or out, with an agenda? That is most certainly reasonable.

But if Amazon is this vulnerable in their basic business practices, that doesn't make me feel very confident about the information security of my address, direct deposit info or, worst of all, my credit card info.

If you want to view the outrage, the information and some of the very funny opportunistic humor that lies at the base of this controversy, search Twitter under #amazonfail or, even better, under #glitchmyass. A good analysis of one of the possible causes is at Dear Author and you can find some interesting discussion at CNET.