Amazon.fail: … and now the conclusion

Amazon’s spokesperson has now announced:

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This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.

It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles – in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.

Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.

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In the universe of all possible outcomes, this is a relatively good outcome. But, I have some additional thoughts. Mostly it relates to how the world is now quick to view this problem as a technical bug.

There are some interesting inside details provided by Mike Daisey:

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A guy from Amazon France got confused on how he was editing the site, and mixed up ‘adult,’ which is the term they use for porn, with stuff like ‘erotic’ and ‘sexuality.’ That browse node editor is universal, so by doing that there he affected ALL of Amazon.

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So: at one level, it’s not JUST a glitch at all. Clearly Amazon really does have a policy of removing the sales ranking of some books, and the “glitch,” we’re being told, is that somehow LGBT books got lumped in with the icky books. There’s still a part of me that’s fundamentally unsatisfied with that answer but, whatever.

One can look at this whole fiasco with an Agile programmer’s eye and wonder: where were the automated tests? Why didn’t the French programmer get feedback that she or he was about to do something Really Bad? And those are all interesting questions. Perhaps Amazon’s “new measures” should include tests like that.

But. I think it’s a truth of software that errors get out to production. Sometimes errors get past the developer testing and get past QA testing and they get found by real, actual users. And if your company is organized in a way that prevents user problem reports from being recognized and acted on (which seems to be what happened at Amazon — people have reported raising this as a problem since last August) then your organization is broken. And that’s not, in my opinion, a technical problem; that’s an organizational problem.

It’s not “a glitch”. It’s “a glitch AND…”

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