Nomadic workers for Amazon

The Secret Life of Amazon Elves:

"Every shift starts with what they call a 'Stand Up.' You gather in one area with your usual department—ours was called 'Sortable Singles,' which sounds like it should be the name of a dating site—and they'd count off how many people they needed in each department. Run through a few announcements. Give you a few safety tips. And then they lead you through five minutes of group stretches."

Cherie was mainly a packer, putting items in the box and scanning them. Chris, on the other hand, was a "water spider." He explains, "A water spider is responsible for keeping all the packers supplied, so ideally they'd never need to stand up and leave their station to get any other supplies like all the different sizes of boxes, plus making sure their tape machines and paper-spitter machines are operating."

"I never quite exactly figured out why they call it a water spider. My guess is back in the history of assembly line jobs, the water spider would be the person who would bring people on the line water to drink. Nobody seemed to know!"

Amazon's snatching back books

Amazon and the Kindle are examples of a new way to store and use materials, somewhat like cloud computing, where your content rests out in the cloud, and so is available to you everywhere. The problem with Kindle taking books back while you are sleeping is that it was showing the world that you have no real local storage, and millions of people thought they owned those books now, locally.

This is why I hesitate about truly being in the world of cloud computing.... I have seen too many crashes, too many faulty software upgrades, too many things go wrong with just local and network storage. What if the cloud site goes down? What if they upgrade an application, and it is a bad upgrade? Do you lose all your data? What if they decide a certain app is not worthwhile, and they pull it while you sleep? No more data for you?

Jamais Cascio of Fast Company agrees....

You couldn't have spent more than a few seconds online over the past few days and not have heard about Amazon remotely deleting copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from the Kindles of people who had purchased them. It turned out that the publisher selling this Kindle version didn't have US rights (the copyright on the books has expired in most countries, but not in the US), and the current rights holder demanded that Amazon do something about it. Since Amazon is in constant communication with the millions of Kindles out there, they did what any centralized provider of a service could do--they zapped the infringing copies not just from the storefront, but from any Kindle on which they could be found.

Now, the Kindle is not a cloud computing system, but the Amazon-Whispernet-Kindle infrastructure mirrors many cloud features. More importantly, this incident is indicative of what kinds of trouble can emerge when we reframe "content" as "service." As numerous pundits have noted, the physical book analogy would be Amazon breaking into your home and taking away a book you'd purchased (leaving you a refund on your desk, of course). But a Kindle book isn't a physical book--it's a service, one that (as the Kindle license makes clear) you don't really own.

The cloud computing model may be a wonderful system when it works, but it's a nightmare when it fails. And the more people who come to depend upon it, the bigger the nightmare. For an individual, a crashed laptop and a crashed cloud may be initially indistinguishable, but the former only afflicts one person and one point of access to information. If a cloud system locks up--or if a legal decision, change in ownership, or service provider whim alters the rules unilaterally--potentially millions of people will lose access....

For me, a resilient cloud would be one where the data lives simultaneously online and in local storage, and is in a format that can easily be read (and edited) by both cloud software and local applications. Simply put, it's a retreat from thinking of content as a service. This isn't where the computing world is heading, however, and as we've seen in the last few days, we may well be giving up more than we think for cloud convenience.

Taxonomies and tags are political, or #Amazonfail

A week or so ago, some authors noticed that their GLBT-related books on Amazon had lost the sales ranking figures that Amazon uses to rate books as "most popular" or "most copies sold." These rankings, whether your book is #1 or number 678,900, are rather important -- they can determine whether your book is shown or not when someone types in a search for a subject, and then chooses to rank the results by sales ranking to see which are the best selling books for a topic.

Complaints, firestorms on Twitter, blog posts, and general mayhem ensued. Many people thought it was an act of out and out bias, especially since gay marriage in the states has been a big newsmaker in this last month. Authors asked Amazon what was going on, and received a tepid response. Evidently the powers that be at Amazon had decided to no longer display books tagged with the "adult" tag in their rankings anymore. And somehow, this "adult" tag included books like Heather has Two Mommies and Lady Chatterley's Lover, not just adult books. It meant that if you searched on "homosexuality", your searches would only reveal anti-homosexuality books and items. Several blogs took screen captures and posted them. Many people went into Amazon's book listings and started tagging books with #amazonfail. User tagging as a protest tool! Twitter posts quickly spread with the #amazonfail tag as well.

After reading a ton of articles and postings about this mess, I think I agree with Patrick at Making Light:

I’d bet lunch that the sequence of events, in its simplest form, went something like this:

(1) Sometime in the middle-distance past—maybe a couple of months ago, maybe a year, it doesn’t matter—somebody decided that it would be a good idea to make sure that works of straight-out pornography (or, for that matter, sex toys) didn’t inadvertently show up as the top result for innocuous search queries. (The many ways that this could happen are left as an exercise for Making Light’s commentariat.) A policy was promulgated that “adult” items would be removed from the sales rankings and thus rendered invisible to general search.

(2) Sometime more recently, an entirely different group of people were given the task of deciding what things for sale on Amazon should be tagged “adult,” but in the journey from one department to another, and from one level of the hierarchy to another, the directive mutated from “let’s discreetly unrank the really raunchy stuff” to “we’d better be careful to put an ‘adult’ tag on anything that could imaginably offend anyone.” Indeed, as Teresa pointed out, it’s entirely possible that someone used a canned list of “adult” titles supplied from outside, something analogous to the lists of URLs sold by “net nanny” outfits, which would account for the newly-unranked status of works like Lady Chatterley’s Lover. (As one net commenter observed, “What is this, 1928?”)

I have found when doing taxonomy that it is an activity with almost no neutral ground. Every decision has its opponents, and you have to build consensus for a particular worldview when you are working with groups who see the world differently, and that's nearly every group of more than two people. I was working in a relatively calm area like PC hardware or software tasks, where you would think a printer and a monitor are not the same category of item, and yet I heard arguments that were valid showing me why they were the same! "It depends," as we always say about indexing.

Things are starting to get fixed. Some recent searches under homosexuality on Amazon were starting to show more normal results, so I think the #amazonfail tagging effort has had some effect and Amazon is doing something about this, after their feeble first response. The Seattle PI has a response from Amazon's Drew Herdener:

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.

Amazon does need to look at its taxonomy structures and labeling, and see where they might be failing. You cannot let machine algorithms replace human sensibility. I think Amazon is importing tags from publishers, and probably importing taxonomies. At a session years ago I heard from an employee that they let all of their fact-checking people go, and rely on users and publishers to supply correct and corrected data on all of their bibliographic information. It saved them 400 jobs. Libraries I knew had stopped their subscriptions to Books In Print, thinking Amazon would be easier and faster and just as good, not realizing that it is full of errors until corrected. We have all seen examples of wrong covers for books, or indexes for the first edition showing up in the second edition's listings. I would bet they are relying on publishers for taxonomic structures as well, but I don't know for sure. Probably piecemeal, using them in places, finetuning them in others.

As Laura Dawson says:

I've done so much taxonomy work, both for Muze and - and my colleagues and I have all agonized over the political decisions we've had to make because in a taxonomy you have to articulate concepts and arrange them. Like staying-awake-at-night agonizing, because these articulations and arrangements either bring books to light or tuck them away where few can find them, depending. (Richard Nash also makes a great point up this same alley.)

And it's worth getting upset about. What happened at Amazon is the result of dozens of small decisions about how to name things and the structure of those names - whether the decisions were made by people at Amazon or they were importing other companies' taxonomies (probably both) or using semantics to create algorithms. Shirky is right in that it probably wasn't a person or group of people deciding that they didn't like gay people that day. But (as Richard points out) it was the result of heteronormative thinking creating search rules that ultimately resulted in...#amazonfail.

What taxonomizing teaches you is that no worldview is neutral, and the best you can hope for is to keep trying to reach in that direction. Detangling what happened at Amazon is compounded by the fact that they aren't talking to anyone, but it appears to be a compilation of complacent taxonomizing, linking certain concepts to the theme "adult", imposing some sort of filter on the "adult" titles (without realizing what "adult" meant in terms of the terms that linked to it) in a misguided effort to make explicit books less visible, not fully investigating the problem when it first came to Amazon's attention (but dismissing it as a "policy" decision, which is most likely never was in the first place), and now not really responding effectively. Probably because those in charge of responding really have no idea how it happened.

Laura wrote that last bit before Amazon's second response.

Taxonomies and tags are political. Indexing is political. Labeling structures are political. So I wonder what tags I'll use to categorize this post - ;-)

If you want to read up on what happened, and many people's responses, here's a list of blog postings:
Laura Dawson
Clay Shirky
Mary Hodder
Richard Eoin Nash
Jane at Dear Author

Ebook reader and format wars, nth edition

Mike Shatzkin says:

It is also critical to keep in mind that the ebook market for consumers has not happened yet! Publishers are seeing sales of about 1% of their revenue. I am a bit abashed about how over-optimistic I have been about ebooks for the past ten years (a by-product of having personally read more books on devices than on paper, by a factor of about 4 to 1, in the 21st century, and about 40 to 1 since I got my Kindle.) I can see ebooks getting to 7-10% of the units sold for consumer books in the next 3-to-5 years and I’m the optimist.

And with 85% of even that incipient market having not happened yet, most of which will be read on devices that haven’t been delivered yet (including future versions of Kindle, Sony Reader, iPhone, etc.) and, further with whole business models (subscriptions, book-of-the-month plans, bundling of titles together, offers by publishers to give ebooks away with print or audio books) which have hardly surfaced yet, we can only imagine what more changes we might see between now and then.

He goes on to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Amazon, Apple, and Google in the market-to-be.

Amazon's history

The Dear Author blog has an interesting post on just what Amazon has been up to, and how it has left publishing empires in the dust.

SXSW held a publishing panel called New Think for Old Publishers. The publishing panel did not go well as the panelists were idea bereft and turned the seminar into a mini focus group.

What struck me most out of the controvery that erupted wasn’t the lack of new think for old publishers but that the publishers were seeking new ideas outside its corporate structure. In other words, it doesn’t seem that there are forward thinking individuals at the helm of mainstream publishing. Jeff Bezos, on the other hand, is a long range, innovative planner. Say what you want about Amazon being an evil empire (and they are and can be) but Bezos is a visionary and he has created an internet retail empire in just over 15 years.

Read the rest of the blog entry to see just how many companies Amazon has bought, and where it leaves them in these uncertain times. It is an incredibly long list. (And did you know, if you misspell "uncertain" it can come out as "uncretain," which is an interesting thought. How uncretainly!)