Dely. (tehdely ) wrote,

On Amazon Failure, Meta-Trolls, and Bantown

Yet another UPDATE: Amazon claims embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error

Some UPDATES:
  • weev has come forward and claimed responsibility for #amazonfail, in a manner similar to what I describe below. I can not attest as to whether or not his claim is factual. bryant rebuts.
  • Amazon now claims this is a glitch. Only second-hand information seems to be available; there is no official posting from Amazon at this time
  • It is worthwhile to note that during strikethrough, not everybody at Six Apart was naive to the reality of what was going on. I feel like I implied otherwise below. What I can say is that Six Apart learned a lot from that episode about managing PR and relations with your user community; lessons that I'm sure Amazon is learning very fast right now.
Onwards with the post:

Disclaimer: Please note that this is just a theory, and take it as such.

*ahem*

Relevant links first:
Basically, #amazonfail is the name for a brewing Internet shitstorm that started some time on Easter Sunday regarding Amazon.com's sudden decision to blacklist any books with LGBT(QQI) content from appearing in best-seller lists or search results. The blacklist also apparently extends to books with feminist themes, books about dealing with rape, etc. Initial complaints to Amazon resulted in the following stock response, which just angered people more:
In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude "adult" material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.
"GAY CONTENT IS ADULT??!! RAPE SURVIVOR CONTENT IS ADULT?!!?? HOW DARE YOU AMAZON RARARGH INTERNET RAGE!" responded the masses, freely pointing out the continuing availability of straight porn and sex toys in Amazon search results (or dog-fighting books or trashy romance novels or Mein Kampf or anything else that would be found "objectionable" by any reasonable standards). Clearly a double standard was at play.

Now, let's just put ourselves in Amazon's shoes. Keep in mind that Amazon is a smug, fairly liberal company headquartered in fucking Seattle of all places and, last I checked, Jeff Bezos is not exactly a Christian fundamentalist. Why on earth would they suddenly censor only a specific group of content that deals with a marginalized and politically active community? Why would this policy change not take the form of a specific policy, but rather of very discriminately flagging only certain titles as "adult" content? Why would this happen over a weekend?

It's obvious Amazon has some sort of automatic mechanism that marks a book as "adult" after too many people have complained about it. It's also obvious that there aren't too many people using this feature, as indicated by the easy availability (and search ranking) of pornography and sex toys and other seemingly "objectionable" materials, otherwise almost all of those items would have been flagged by this point. So somebody is going around and very deliberately flagging only LGBT(QQI)/feminist/survivor content on Amazon until it is unranked and becomes much more difficult to find. To the outside world, this looks like deliberate censorship on the part of Amazon, since Amazon operates the web application in question. To me, this looks like one of two things:
  1. Some "Family"-type organization astroturfing Amazon in an attempt to rid the world of EVIL PRO-HOMOSEXUAL FILTH!!
  2. Bantown
A theory starts to emerge. Now let me backtrack for a bit, and talk about a similar event that happened to my own company, Six Apart, back in 2007, called Strikethrough. Here's how Strikethrough worked:
  • Somebody enlists Warriors for Innocence, a "To Catch a Predator"-like organization (but significantly more fundie and batshit) in the battle against "pedophile" content on LiveJournal
  • Warriors for Innocence brings down holy Jihad on Six Apart, consisting not only of complaining directly to 6a, but also threatening to involve the media, as well as directly threatening companies like Google, which advertised on LiveJournal, to pull their ads, lest they be viewed as supporters of pedophilia
  • Six Apart, faced with a sudden and unexpected and multipronged attack, reacts rashly, and in an unannounced and unexplained policy change bans thousands of accounts from LiveJournal for listing certain sensitive keywords in their profiles, without the chance for appeal, and hopes that WFI will leave them alone
  • The ban ends up targeting mostly fiction writers, and is so sweeping that it includes communities for discussing famous works of literature, rape and incest survivor communities, and more. The collateral damage is massive
  • Butthurt users rise up en masse and create a shitstorm the likes of which Six Apart hadn't seen since the "Boob Nazi" debacle
  • With its tail between its legs, Six Apart backpedals. Not too long afterward, LiveJournal is sold to SUP, who quickly roll back many of the more objectionable policy changes
That, my friends, is pure Bantown. What is Bantown? Some things Bantown is not:
  • A trolling organization
  • A group of people (at least since 2007)
  • An IRC channel
Bantown is a tactic for inciting meta-lulz on multiple levels through the alignment of third-parties against each other. Bantown is like the plot of most James Bond movies, wherein some nefarious evildoer brings the US and the Soviets close to war. Bantown is a trolling technique of the highest order, which usually pits communities against each other, or communities against companies, or organizations against companies, or companies against organizations... Lest I sound too starry-eyed, let me list a few successful Bantown trolls:Of these, the Firefox shitstorm, Nipplegate, and Strikethrough stand out. Friends, #amazonfail is simply more of the same. I don't mean to imply that any of the same people are involved, but rather that the same tactic is involved, and it is working devilishly. Cleverly as well, this troll was perpetrated on a weekend AND a holiday, when Amazon's customer service would be operating on a skeleton crew and most of those who would be able to fix the problem would be at home and possibly unavailable or on vacation. Also, like Nipplegate and Strikethrough, this troll pits a marginalized and activist community against a big company, with the Internet and all its various discussion media (in this case, blogs and Twitter) as the facilitator.

Amazon will spend weeks cleaning up this PR mess. Trust will be destroyed for many, and may not ever be repaired for some. People have already mentioned canceling orders and canceling accounts, and by this time the controversy has found its way to MSM blogs and newspapers. Expect the fallout to last a while, and when you scratch your head at why Amazon would allow such a thing to happen, remember "I told you so".

This whole event also brings to mind an ongoing debate I've had about the merits of trolling, which I define in its simplest form as "exploiting and demonstrating the weaknesses of online trust relationships". In this case, it is Amazon's trust relationship with its users, upon whom they rely to flag objectionable content. Whether or not exposing vulnerabilities in trust systems is, in itself, a net positive is a whole other debate, similar to the debate over "full disclosure" in the Internet security world. I'd like to bow out of this debate entirely, though you're encouraged to discuss it in the comments if you'd like :)

The author is a former non-member of a non-IRC channel called Bantown which no longer exists, never existed, and will never exist again. He also worked at Six Apart during Strikethrough and complained loudly to his superiors, to no avail, that they were being trolled. The author now enjoys the simpler things in life, keeps his trolling to the comment sections of local blogs and newspapers, and is by and large a better and happier person as a result. The author has no relation to any of the Epic Trolls enumerated above except for perhaps not knowing some of the non-entities involved in not perpetrating them.
Tags: amazonfail, bantown, lulz, theory, trolling
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