Apr 14, 2009
The trouble with wildfire is, well, it spreads. Quickly. And uncontrollably. With dangerous consequences.
On the day I arrived in Australia earlier this year, the country was reeling from the loss of whole communities in the state of Victoria which had been decimated by raging bushfires which, kindled by a gruelling midsummer heatwave (which hit 46°C), had swept through townships on the outskirts of Melbourne leaving nothing but the blackened ribs of buildings and cars smouldering in their path.
Scores of people died, along with several million native animals.
As someone from a (thankfully) bushfire-free country, it’s all-too-easy to read about situations like this and wonder why people don’t just run away – until you realise a crucial fact: wildfire runs quicker than you.
In forests and dense undergrowth, the frontline can advance at a rapid walking pace (10-20km/hr) but across open farmland and urged on by a following wind, in some cases it can advance at 80-100km/hour – that’s the length of a football field in a matter of seconds. Twisty turny country roads and raining embers slow down those trying to escape, if they managed to even reach their cars at all.
Hitting temperatures of up to 1000°C, the radiant heat from the racing wall of fire destroys everything before the flames even get close.
The best advice for those who choose to stay and defend their property, is to put out spot fires as long as possible, then find somewhere safe that won’t burn – usually inside a building, and wait until the front passes over – less than ten minutes, in many cases. But that will likely be the longest ten minutes of your life.
So even though they can be survivable, wildfires are dangerous and the fact that they spread so, quickly, virulently and unpredictably makes them worthy of suspicion and careful regard.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the internet.
This weekend, something happened to the Amazon sales rank infrastructure which meant that lots of (fiction & non fiction) books which it had classified as adult, erotic or about sexuality suddenly had their sales rankings zapped.
Cue mass public suspicious blamestorming, name-calling and moral outrage, fuelled in no small part by Twitter.
Some of the kvetching was justified: certain books were harder (but not impossible) to find – which must be frustrating if you’re an author trying to sell books in those categories – plus the changes seemed to be applied inconsistently across the service (viz. a Playboy centrefold photo book retaining its sales rank, while Stephen Fry’s tender and gently rollicking (but not steamy in the slightest) autobiography lost its statistic. Weird.)
Some was not particularly justified, and just plain knee-jerk overreaction: “This is outright censorship!” people frothed. “Amazon have a homophobic policy!” “Let’s googlebomb them,” cried others, “I can’t wait to see them squirm!” “Boycott them!” “Book nazis!” “Why is Amazon removing the sales rankings from gay. lesbian books?”
That’s a big leap – making an assumption that it was a deliberate and malicious attempt to suppress a particular kind of literary work, or to discriminate against particular authors. And we all know what happens when you assume things.
It’s worth remembering Hanlon’s razor here:
Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.
(as mentioned by at least one Twitter user)
Now, it’s still not completely clear what happened, or why – and doubtless there’ll be repercussive rumbling and grumbling about this online for some time to come, until the full story is revealed – if it ever is.
(Though whether it should be Amazon’s responsibility to submit to public interrogation of their software release practices and allow a public hue and cry to take place is another question entirely – but let’s gloss over that for now.)
But for now, it seems to be a cock-up (no pun intended) which has been/is being rectified.
Anyone who’s ever worked in big complex technology organisations knows that stuff like this happens, and that 99.9% of the time, it’s because someone didn’t test something, or didn’t think that X schema would affect Y, or one bit of the business (the bit that handles the doohickeys) failed to consult another bit (the bit that slams the whammer) which meant some small, key issue was overlooked.
That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, obviously, but it does mean that – as Occam and common sense instruct – the simplest explanation for some phenomenon is more likely to be accurate than more complicated explanations.
Sometimes, stuff fucks up.
Usually, no-one outside of technology knows about it.
Mostly, it gets fixed.
But as explanations go, it’s not as sexy or controversial or worth spreading as an explanation which includes the board of Amazon in a photo line-up for next year’s annual report, all wearing neon comic sans “We hate teh gayz” badges, though, is it?
FWIW, I think that what happened can be explained thus:
the implementation of a tweak to the discovery algorithm (rather than an actual homophobic policy – perhaps they were creating a safe search equivalent, or something similar) which had unintentional and widespread knock-on effects
an unhelpful interaction with an underinformed customer help exec (they do tend to throw phrases like “policy” around all the time because it’s opaque and mysterious enough to make most people shut up – unfortunately, it tends to enrage those persistent enough to care)
an unhealthy dose of internet hysteria (lots of uninformed supposition and conclusion leaping and twitter stoking indignation and crowd-think behaviour)
a lack of response from Amazon on the issue (it was a holiday weekend, which meant any “official” information was patchy at best: the only bit of official communication which people could reference in the middle of all the hysteria was that customer help rep, referring to adult content policy, above. The internet mob abhors a vacuum.)
one giant, ugly, rabid conspiracy
In classic internet style, the voices of the Twittering community – so keen to call Amazon homophobic or start an immediate boycott or googlebomb just 36 hours ago – aren’t apologising for misunderstanding, or admitting they were wrong to lump a fairly liberal internet bookseller (which, let’s remember, still stocks all sorts of literature to cater for every persuasion) in with the Nazis.
Instead, they’re pouring suspicion and scorn on the explanation, criticising Amazon for not fixing the problem, or allowing it to happen, or speaking up earlier – essentially, blaming Amazon for all their hysteria.
It’s yet to be seen how Amazon publicly react to this particular public relations shitstorm in the long run – and they have doubtless learned a big lesson in being more responsive to PR issues, but one thing has become abundantly clear – even lauded and applauded in some sectors, without irony: that social media tools like Twitter and the like can quickly transform “the wisdom of crowds” (which Amazon has spent so much time and effort tapping into, with its collaborative filtering algorithms) into an astonishing display of “people power” (a good thing, when applied appropriately, and the internet is a powerful tool for organising and expressing precisely that)…but something that can all-too-easily can turn into “the baying of the mob”.
Amazon may come out of this looking a little bedraggled, but I can’t help feeling that the social media mob isn’t coming out of this smelling of roses. The kind of ugly, prejudiced, underinformed, sneery, rude, kneejerk activity we saw over this weekend on Twitter and around the web makes me concerned, not proud, about the potential of social technologies.
They say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But a little information, misassumed, miscommunicated and fuelled by internet attention and sneery schadenfreude (or whatever the opposite of goodwill is), can also spark a wildfire.
Destructive. Damaging. Virulent. Unapologetic. Unrelenting.