Photo: TheGiantVermin (Creative Commons license)

Photo: TheGiantVermin (Creative Commons license)

Confession: I’m not a fan of crowds. I’ll do just about anything to avoid them. Mostly I don’t like the physical aspect of crowds – the ever-present threat of having my toes stepped on, catching an elbow in the kidney, or of simply being wedged together with people I don’t know.

Another reason for avoiding crowds is the crowd mentality — the tendency for emotion and action to become magnified and transmuted. If you’ve ever seen a bar fight or been to a rock concert, you know what I’m talking about.

This same tendency exists on the Internet, where “buzz” often trumps believability and we lose the combination of reasoning skills and intuition that would make us say “bullpucky” if we heard or read the same thing from a single source. We ought to take anything buzzworthy with a grain of salt (just one example: the thousands of “Obama is a Muslim” rumors that made the rounds before the election).

I like a lot of things about social media, but Twitter and Facebook can amplify our human tendencies to behave like lemmings headed toward the proverbial cliff. What’s new with social media is that you can actually watch it happening.

Over the weekend, the Twitterverse was abuzz with news (marked with the #amazonfail hashtag) that Amazon.com reclassified as “adult” some of its books and other materials, especially those dealing with LGBT concerns and feminism or even having gay fictional characters. Not only that, but Amazon removed their sales rankings. Media outlets including the Wall Street Journal picked up the story, and so did bloggers (see here,and here). From what I understand, Amazon’s actions meant that reclassified materials (including Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Running With Scissors and an autobiography of Ellen Degeneres) would not show up in Amazon’s search results.  This is a big deal – with the number of items Amazon carries, not showing up on the first or second page of search results can mean a significant drop in sales. Your product is rendered all but invisible unless someone knows exactly how to find it.

Now, no one at Amazon is denying what happened. What’s troubling is how quickly an explanation for this turn of events spread – an explanation that’s maybe a little too convenient. More or less, the explanation is that Amazon secretly caved to pressure from the Religious Right and reclassified/deranked  these materials to stave off a boycott, and keep the fundamentalists at bay.

It’s hard to believe Amazon would cave to this type of pressure, while completely underestimating the backlash not only from the LGBT community, but from the hundreds of thousands of grown ups who deplore censorship and value freedom of expression. Amazon is a business — a publicly-traded company. They’re not immune to making mistakes, but I doubt they’d make such a stunningly bad business decision. Much as I’d like to know what the heck happened, I just can’t buy this explanation. It’s way too simple.

Amazon called it a “glitch” but the Twitterverse and blogosphere have mostly dismissed this explanation (and it IS lame — Amazon should give people a little more credit and a more detailed explanation, even if it’s incomplete).

Prediction: as the long arc of this story develops, look for alternative explanations that are complex but make more sense, like this one from tehdely at Livejournal, who worked for SixApart when something like this happened to them.

To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, for every problem there’s a solution that’s neat, plausible, and wrong. And in this case, I can’t believe the solution is to blame and flame Amazon. Let’s resist the buzz and put the outrage on ice, at least for a few days. The truth will eventually come out. Until then, pass the salt.

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Rebecca Woods is news and website editor for DisciplesWorld magazine.