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Image: #amazonFAIL button
CafePress.com
Helen Popkin
By
msnbc.com
updated 4/16/2009 9:02:41 AM ET 2009-04-16T13:02:41

It took Amazon nearly two days — roughly 80 billion eons in Internet years — to fess up to what it calls “an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.”

For anyone who ever attempted to receive an actual human response from Amazon, it’s hardly surprising the online bookseller took its sweet time letting customers know just what in the Sam Hill was going on. Unfortunately for this Internet pioneer, by the time it was ready to talk about its meat-pawed mishap, a much uglier explanation had taken root — one that Amazon attempted to diffuse in its official statement on the matter:

"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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Yet the fatal flaw in this public relations debacle wasn’t its "ham-fisted cataloging error" or even the seemingly-infinite time it took Amazon to publicly announce "our bad." This whole mishegas could have been easily avoided but for the one thing Amazon (not to mention a whole lot of other online entities) is notoriously remiss — actual human-on-human customer service.

As angry netizens know, the missing sales ranks were brought to the world’s attention by Mark Probst, author of "The Filly," a gay-themed romance novel for young adults. He contacted Amazon to inquire about his book's missing sales ranking. This was the response Probst received from an Amazon representative, so befuddling; he posted it on his blog:

"In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude 'adult' material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature."

The wisdom of the masses quickly ascertained that Probst’s young adult novel was just one of many gay-themed books suddenly de-ranked on Amazon, and an angry #AmazonFAIL soared into Twitter's top trends and stuck. Sudden onset homophobia on Amazon's part was just one of many eventually disproved conspiracy theories, all of which distracted from truly shocking story here: Mark Probst attempted to contact someone at Amazon ... and someone actually contacted him back!

Seriously. Dude. Is that something you ever expect to accomplish in your life? Doubtful. To be fair, it isn’t often one needs to consult Amazon customer service immediately. The buying process is generally considered quite smooth. But good luck buddy if you need actual human attention, help you just can’t get from an e-mail response form. Want an actual phone number? Have fun on your safari through the Terms of Use legalese to find it.

Still, given the shameful state of gay rights in the United States, the immediate — albeit incorrect — assumption that gay and lesbian books were targeted out of prejudice is understandable. But capitalism is amoral — it doesn't care who you are or who you do as long as you have a credit card — so other theories were plausible too.

No wonder we fell for it when a prominent hacker attempted to take credit for a hack designed to show flaws in both Amazon’s infrastructure and our mob mindset. Alas, this too was untrue. The hacker had simply succeeded in achieving a clever meta-hack — making us believe he was responsible for something he didn’t do. Bravo, clever hacker. Bravo.

In the end, as with most things, the real answer is the most obvious. And yet, to avoid this entire public relations nightmare, the petitions, the boycotting, the stumbling stock prices, all the responding Amazon employee had to do was take a two-second timeout to put on his or her abstract thinkin’ cap and conjugate something along these lines:

Using Amazon’s easily navigated Web site, I shall scan the synopsis the novel of which this author speaks and, overriding the societal-ingrained default which tells me all things 'gay' equals ‘adult,’ I see that something is amiss! I shall now inform Mr. Probst that I will get back to him after further investigation, thus gracefully diverting a public relations s**tstorm.”

Some have posited that the powerful reaction to this Amazon glitch, now commemorated with “#amazonFAIL” T-shirts on Café Press, reveals a lot about America’s unspoken issues with sexuality and blah blah blah … I respectfully disagree. If you’re the one person in these United States shocked and amazed over our inability to deal with sexuality, just wait 'til you check out our issues with race and religion!

If anybody needs to learn anything here, it's Amazon … and any other company with a gaping disconnect with its customer service department … and by any other company, I mean all of them.

Helen A.S. Popkin won't axe your sales ranking on Twitter, but she will mildly annoy you after you've friended her on Facebook.

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