Amazon Unfail and the Power of Mobs

Amazon seems to be recovering from their large fail over the weekend (see Amazon Fail).

The root cause of the problem (according to Amazon) was a mistake by a French employee who incorrectly updated some 50,000 items in the global Amazon database. There is some suggestion that there was confusion between terms like “erotic” and “adult”. Amazon are correcting the problem and taking steps to prevent it happening again.

This is a good result both for free-speach and Amazon.

The #AmazonFail storm demonstrated that a large number of people think that access to a wide range material, even material they are personally not interested in, is important. This serves to remind large internet companies that they have a very broad user base that can mobilise themselves quickly.

When Mobs Go Bad

But mobs, real or internet based, can cause get harm.

In the PC game, Rapelay, you play rapist who has to attack a variety of women. This was picked up by the media / internet and Amazon removed the game from sale. Commercially this makes sense, not many people would stand up and say that a game where you play a rapist is a good thing*. So removing it appeases the moral majority and has little impact on the company’s bottom line.

This was a big mistake.

It moved Amazon from a neutral party that sells anything to anyone, to a moral guardian. One that can be threaten by consumer boycotts and tabloid outrage. If Amazon had an established policy that clearly stated they would not remove any legal product, the whole #AmazonFail reaction would of been smaller and less commercially damaging. People would of been more willing to give Amazon a chance to investigate, fix and explain the problem because their trust in the company.

When should a company listen to the mob?

If company policy is always to chase the short-term gain, then it should always follow the mob. However if a company wants to build a long-term brand than people trust, a strategy for long-term gain, it has to have a well defined ethical position and responded based on that. Even if that means bad publicity and losing sales.

Trust in a brand cannot be brought, it can only be earned and is very easy to lose. Something Wizards of the Coast could do with learning.

Source: AmazonFail: An inside look at what happened, Amazon explains cataloging error that banished queer books to “adult” purgatory

*I think there is nothing wrong with games where you play a rapist anymore than there is anything wrong with a book whose hero is a rapist. What matter is whether it is a good game or a good book. See Amazon: Modern Censors

2 comments

  1. That’s an interesting point. “We believe in an open marketplace” is kind of an ironclad defense in such cases (as the rape game), but since they instead took a stand there and declared there was a moral line in the sand, they don’t have that defense to fall back on when something like this happens. Their credibility as an open market is damaged.

  2. “If Amazon had an established policy that clearly stated they would not remove any legal product, the whole #AmazonFail reaction would of been smaller and less commercially damaging. People would of been more willing to give Amazon a chance to investigate, fix and explain the problem because their trust in the company.”

    I don’t believe that for one second. Political culture in the US has changed to where if there is any hint of homophobia, the dogs will come out in force. Even some gay friends of mine were willing to give Amazon the benefit of the doubt before learning the real cause of the problem. Whether or not Amazon had an established policy, the reaction would have been the same.

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