Monday, April 13, 2009

An Open Letter to

amazon fail

Dear and company president, Jeff Bezos:

I first heard about your company in high school, but it was not until I got to college at Miami University (Oxford, OH) that I ever visited your site. My hometown -- Mt. Pleasant, SC (outside of Charleston) -- did not have a huge bookstore, just a few minor local ones. The closest, Books-A-Million, was almost impossibly far away for a kid who did not learn to drive until he was 19. During my senior year of high school, Barnes & Noble opened up closer to my home and just down the strip from where I had gotten a job. At the time, I was still not out to my family (but was to everyone else), had not ever visited a gay bar, and had almost no connections to the LGBTQ community in my town.

When I came to Ohio and "landed" in Oxford, though I was thrilled by the greater opportunities presented to me as a gay man, one thing still lacked: access to a reliable bookstore with a large LGBT section. I had spent my summer on the floor of the local B&N in the LGBT Section reading but had not ever bothered to purchase anything. Ironically, perhaps, considering the shit storm unleashed upon you this weekend, the first things I read about were Harvey Milk. So, naturally, my first searches on when I got my account? Harvey Milk.

Granted, I am not the most dedicated purchaser. In fact, since I voluntarily surrendered my credit cards a year ago, I don't think I've even bothered to search your site simply because the appeal is too great.

This weekend, the LGBTQ community -- specifically the Twitterverse (my Twitter, Cody's Twitter, Penny's Twitter) -- has been in an uproar over the great #AmazonFAIL of 2009. I don't know the story well; I barely know how it all started (though there are many great blogposts detailing it, like this one, or this one). It appears that the automated rubric you use to judge offensive content is slowly but surely knocking books with LGBTQ-positive characters and/or themes off your searches -- a process known as "deranking" as unranked books are not made available in general searches -- whereas other books that are harmful to LGBTQ individuals remain on the list (searching for "homosexuality" this evening at 2247 turns up the following titles in your top ten search: A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality (#1), 101 Frequently Asked Questions About Homosexuality (by a member of Focus on the Family, #2) Can Homosexuality Be Healed (#8), and Coming Out of Homosexuality (#9). To your credit, that list also includes many books that are positive (What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality (#4) and Homosexuality and Civilization (#5)), but how long before your system shuts those down? And what about those top two choices, seriously? Meanwhile, other books -- like Nathaniel Frank's book on LGBTQ individuals in the miltary, Unfriendly Fire -- get deranked and considered offensive? *

OK -- so you've said it's a glitch. I'm tempted to believe it. In fact, there is a great theory out there that this is a Bantown event -- an internet move where a third party (here, fundamentalists) pit an activist community (LGBTQ) folks against another group (here, a business) in an attempt to cause general mayhem for you and for us. It's been done before. I'm really, really tempted to believe that because of the timing (over a weekend, on a holiday, meaning that you would have a skeleton staff). And I really, really hope that you move quickly and assuredly to fix it.

I needed, when I was coming into my own in Oxford. I needed to know that we existed, and I needed to see the titles and become exposed to the literature, and the movies, and everything. A young queer kid in Oxford, with no access to a bookstore except the one provided by the college, needed So, if this isn't a glitch, I'm disappointed. If this isn't a glitch, I will cancel my account. If this isn't a glitch, then I will sign the petition.

But I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt, for now, and see what happens tomorrow, or perhaps the next day. You've got to remember, as my friend Dan M. points out, "Amazon is so crucial to the publishing industry at this point that they really, really have to be top-notch at this sort of stuff." In short: you've got to be better, and you've got to try harder. You can't have these glitches, it's not enough for the biggest bookseller in the world to make that kind of excuse. It's simply not enough, especially when you still have content like Playboy: the Complete Centerfolds ranked.

If it's not a glitch -- and there are some indications this may have been going back as far as February, but they may be isolated incidences -- and the best a kid searching for the first word that comes to their head -- homosexuality -- comes up with are books about preventing or curing them...

...well, then you deserve the shitstorm you've created. And you will be hearing from me, either way.


Barry Floore Member since 2000

*Since I first did the search, the list has changed up a bit -- now adding You don't have to be gay as #2, but a book by Bishop Gene Robinson as #3 (if you do a search, there is a different #2, actually, where you can subdivide your search between Fiction and Non-Fiction... I'm not counting that in my calculations).

Also, somewhat ironically to add to my readers: Apparently, was in a lawsuit a few years ago over its name, which it seems to be a copyright infringement of a feminist coop bookstore in Minnesota. Thanks to @gendercrash for the heads up! has a great write-up, btw, that you should check out -- what is our cultural currency on homosexuality?

1 comment:

Left Coast Oracle said...

Barry, did you go to Miami? I grew up in Middletown; went to Miami, and both of my daughters graduated from Miami.