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Amazon.com Provokes Online Firestorm Over "Banned" Books

Using blogs, Facebook and Twitter, angry authors and readers go on attack for apparent censorship -- company claims "glitch."
 
 
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Over the holiday weekend, a firestorm let loose on the Internet: For no apparent reason, books on Amazon.com with feminist, LGBT and sexual-empowerment themes were removed from the sales rankings, numbers that show how well a product is performing on the website.

Angry authors and readers responded by launching a full-on social media assault, using blogs, Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness and to collect signatures on a petition.

Rapid response campaigns not affiliated with any one organization are increasingly becoming the norm in the age of free communication tools.  The Amazon incident (dubbed “ AmazonFAIL,” drawing on usage of “fail” as an indicator of strong disapproval in online cultures) is a fascinating example in part because of the cultural motivation behind and the mechanics of the removal and the implications for sales of “banned” books.

 For those just waking up to the scandal, here’s what happened: Amazon has a policy of removing books labeled as “adult” from its sales rankings (which by itself could discourage sales). This, in turn, has a ripple effect of removing books from elsewhere on the site, such as in search results and “related books” listings. The Amazon system is proprietary, so it’s hard for outsiders to determine the full implications of such a removal. Anecdotal evidence from authors searching for their banned books returned wildly different results at different points over the weekend, but it was clear that if allowed to go unchecked, the “adult” label would have a severe impact on sales—if the readers can’t find it, the readers can't buy it.

Deanna Zandt is a contributing editor at AlterNet.

 
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