There’s A Little Amazonfail In All Of Us

Clay Shirky has written a thoughtful essay on the fallout of #amazonfail and our collective culpability in it:

Though the #amazonfail event is important for several reasons, I can’t write about it dispassionately, because I was an enthusiastic participant in its use on Sunday. I was wrong, because I believed things that weren’t true. As bad as that was, though, far worse is the retrofitting of alternate rationales to continue to view Amazon with suspicion, rationales that would not have provoked the outrage we felt had they been all we were asked to react to in the first place.

When trying to explain one’s past actions, hindsight is always 20/400. With that caveat, I will say that the emotional pleasure of using the #amazonfail hashtag was intoxicating. There is no civil rights struggle in the US that matters more to me than the extension of equal rights without regard for sexual orientation. Here was a chance to strike a public blow for that cause, and I didn’t even have to write a check or get up from my chair to do it! I went so far as to publicly suggest a link between the Amazon de-listing and the anti-gay backlash following the legalization of gay marriage in Iowa and Vermont. My friend Nelson Minar called bullshit in public on my completely worthless speculation, which was the beginning of my realizing how much I’d been seduced by righteousness, and how stupid it had made me.

He’s right and we need to be more vigilant about our own reactions. Communication tools like Twitter made this bigger than it needed to be, all because we could collectively feed each other rage cake all day long, in real time. Twitter’s great for keeping up with what’s going on, but in this instance, it almost turned us into a lynch mob because of a cataloging error.

[…] Whatever stupidities Amazon is guilty of, none of them are hanging offenses. The problems they have with labeling and handling contested categories is a problem with all categorization systems since the world began. Metadata is worldview; sorting is a political act. Amazon would love to avoid those problems if they could – who needs the tsouris? — but they can’t. No one gets cataloging “right” in any perfect sense, and no algorithm returns the “correct” results. We know that, because we see it every day, in every large-scale system we use. No set of labels or algorithms solves anything once and for all; any working system for showing data to the user is a bag of optimizations and tradeoffs that are a lot worse than some Platonic ideal, but a lot better than nothing.

This was the unfortunate confluence of two neutral pieces of technology: an automated cataloging system and a crowd-sourced tagging system. Neither one is inherently evil by themselves but when you combine a complex metadata system with un-indexed tags and then tell some under-trained technician to push a button updating a massive batch of records, this is what you get: a technically innocuous FUBAR that looks like a politically motivated act of censorship.

I deal with this crap all the time as a catalog librarian.[1] I inherited a library catalog that has passed through a dozen hands in the last thirty years, been moved in and out of a half dozen systems and is just sticky with bad, lazy and outdated cataloging quirks. If I were to try and do a global update on 50,000 records, just to change one piece of metadata, three shades of hell would emerge from the barely spackled over database. Some of it would be full of political squick, I’m sure, just because of outdated terms that are still floating around.[2] And this is a good catalog. I’ve worked with far worse.[3]

Throw in user-generated tagging and you’ve got a big mess on your hands.

Now, this doesn’t make what Amazon did alright. They fucked up, big time. Why they even need an “adult” toggle is beyond me. But it was an honest mistake, one that we catalogers know all to well. The best part is, it can be fixed because it’s just a cataloging error. But there’s no “Undo” button for our outrage over the exposure of old bigotries still lurking in our own thought categories. That’s going to take a lot longer to fix.

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1. And not just me. For the most part this is the daily reality of cataloging. It’s why we all laugh at the notion that crowd sourced tagging will replace indexes and controlled vocabulary. If this is the sort of thing trained professionals with thesauri can do, imagine what would happen if all metadata in a system were maintained only by tags and whatever damn fool thing someone decided to calla book. That’s be a PR nightmare for Amazon and a ctastrophe for a University. Buty creatign a hybrid of the two is somethign else entirely and deserves more attention.

2. Some categories in the Library of Congress system still use “Muhammadan” as a subject term and “homosexuality” is still under “Mental Disorders” in some areas. This isn’t a coordinated effort against Muslims and the LGBT community by the Library of Congress, it’s just a legacy of our outdated cultural terms, biased categories that reveal old fangled bigotry and all around bad judgment on the part of our forecatalogers, who didn’t know any better. It’s also something that can be fixed. Eventually. When the LoC can afford to hire librarians again. But that’s a different issue entirely.

3. All I’ll say about that is this: 10,000 duplicate records.