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Twitter and Goliath

Posted May 07 2009 9:25pm
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This was posted April 13, 2009 on my blog “Positively Media” at Psychology Today.

First it was “Dell Hell” and now it is “#AmazonFail.” For all the debates over the purpose, point, and value of social media, it is events like these that illustrate how important they have become and how powerful they can be.

“Dell Hell” is one of the iconic stories in the history of social media sending an emphatic message that consumers have a new power. In June 2005, blogger Jeff Jarvis shared his less than satisfactory experience with Dell’s customer service on his blog “ Buzz Machine ” with the title “Dell Hell.” (This story is documented in a number of places, including the books Groundswell and Citizen Marketers, both quite interesting.)  The reach of Jarvis’ blog got his story out there, but the fact that his experience resonated with so many other Dell customers coupled with the system properties of the Internet sent the story viral, ending up not only all over the web but in the New York Times and Business Week. Dell had quite a wake-up call that resulted in substantial internal changes. 2009-04-13-amazon-failwhale

To quote Yogi Berra, we’re having déjà vu all over again and Amazon gets to learn Dell’s lesson.

For those of you who haven’t been following the Amazon story, the company recently revised its ranking system. The system, like Google’s search algorithms, causes search results to be based not just on content match but also on popularity. An Amazon ranking is very important to authors because it allows their titles to appear on bestseller lists.

The furor began on Live Journal, when author Mark Probst noticed that the ranking had been removed from his young-adult novel with a gay character. As Probst remarked in his blog, he checked other gay titles and found that they too had been de-ranked. The story on his blog was picked up and reported on Twitter with the hashtag #amazon fail. (The hashtag is an identifier that tags Twitter posts to make them searchable.) Twitters and retweets (resending someone’s tweet) spread the information that Amazon had stripped the sales ranking from adult content (no pun intended). Although the de-ranking was intended to be targeted at all adult content, the result was the deletion of rankings from hundreds of gay and lesbian books while overlooking quite a bit of heterosexual lit-porn. The story and outrage reverberated through Twitter with #amazonfail quickly becoming the number one word on Twitter.

People began to collect lists of books of questionable content. Carolyn Kellogg on the The LA Times blog Jacket Copy reported that the sadistic murder story “American Psycho” remained ranked while the well-reviewed nonfiction work “Unfriendly Fire,” about the scoial costs of the current gay ban in the military, lost theirs. An online petition ensued.

New tools in the distribution arsenal since Dell’s misadventure, such as Google Bombs, were organized and deployed. Google bombs are a collective effort of people to link to specific words so that they disrupt the Google search and come up first. In this case the words are “ Amazon Rank,” taking searchers to an explanation of Amazon’s transgression. The story of Amazon Rank reached epic proportions in little over a day.

Amazon reported that this was an unfortunate computer error. Many, but not all, are skeptical. At the least, this episode has raised issues about Amazon’s control and the transparency of the de-ranking process. Either way, social media has scored another victory for the little guy by proving that individuals have a voice and can make a difference.

The moral of the story is that the power has shifted from a one-to-many to many-to-many model, as Clay Shirky discusses in Here Comes Everybody. This means that not just as customers, but as citizens, we can and do get involved and make our voices heard in response to perceived abuses of power. The conversation can go global at any time and it just doesn’t matter anymore who starts it. Because of the way we, are tied together as nodes in a system, something as innocuous as a Tweet can trigger a cascade of information across the network. That one Twitterer now has the potential to create social change.

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