Amazons have had a rough trot throughout history. They have been considered aberrant women, regarded as lesbians and frequently written out of history. When feminists began setting up bookstores in the US in the 1970s, the very first was in Minnesota in 1970 and was called Amazon. It is a fine bookshop and continues to operate.
Over Easter, Amazon.com de-ranked any book which included lesbian or gay content on the basis that it was “adult” material. According to Mary Hodder, an expert in computer algorithms: “The ethical issue with algorithms and information systems generally is that they make choices about what information to use, or display or hide, and this makes them very powerful. These choices are never made in a vacuum and reflect both the conscious and subconscious assumptions and ideas of their creators.”
Amazon.com in early statements made to authors, indicated that they had targeted “positive references” to the words gay and lesbian. Amazon.com has now stepped back from these original statements and are calling it a technological “glitch”.
Although as Jane at Dear Author writes: “Thus, as a ‘glitch’ it was a remarkably targeted one that seems to support the emails that Mark Probst and Craig Seymour received from Amazon which was gay and lesbian works were deemed ‘adult’ content regardless of actual content. This evidence appears to indicate that it isn’t so much a glitch but a specific policy.”
Mary Hodder, too, thinks it unlikely that it was a mere technological glitch. Among the books affected is Heather Has Two Mommies, a picture book about the reality of many children’s lives these days. Strangely, Playboy with its pictorial centrefold remains at the same rank. One could play a game of spot the difference between these books. The first is a story with pictures and no naked bodies or adult material of any kind. There are no exploitative moves in the text or the images. But it’s about lesbian mothers. The second is decontextualised images of women placed there for readers’ titillation. But it’s heterosexually oriented and therefore all okay.
In defence of its policy, Amazon.com has written that it “excludes ‘adult’ material from appearing in some searches and bestseller lists”. One has to wonder what definition of “adult” would exclude Heather Has Two Mommies while including Playboy. Apparently the keyword “erotica” is applied to Playboy, while “lesbian” is a keyword in the metadata for Heather Has Two Mommies. As Mary Hodder so rightly says, assumptions can affect the way algorithms work. The obvious explanation is that the technology has been programmed to de-rank words like lesbian, gay and other sexual minority words while not noticing anything to do with heterosexuality (oddly, erotica by lesbians is not erotica). This is quite easy to do because in a society where heterosexuality is unmarked, the technology too is unmarked. Whereas in a book in which the writer is trying to say something about lesbian or gay reality, even heavily coded work is still likely to include traceable words. Who can name a heterosexual love story that includes the word heterosexual in the subtitle or the blurb? Heterosexuality is assumed as the norm and therefore remains unnamed. The word “heterosexual” appears not to spark a technological glitch even when it is “adult” in content.
On some Amazon.com pages there is a button (not on all books) called concordance. Press this and you can find the 100 most used words in the book. Of all my books the only one to have this feature is the one which has the word lesbian in the subtitle (a co-edited collection, Car Maintenances, Explosives and Love and other lesbian writings). What is Amazon.com’s protocol for including a concordance (an ironically biblical tradition) for some books and not others?
In case anyone might think this really was just an accidental glitch, on chat rooms about this issue, it is reported that the #1 ranked book for “homosexuality” on Amazon.com is a book with the unfriendly title, A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality.
This is not the first time Amazon has been embroiled in anti-lesbian behaviour. Amazon.com set up its website in 1995. In April 1999, Amazon Bookstore sued Amazon.com for trademark infringement of the name, Amazon. In October 1999, Salon.com reported that during pre-trial depositions, Amazon.com attempted to run a smear campaign against Amazon Bookstore asking irrelevant questions about the sexual orientation of its owners and workers. A further consequence of the suit and a condition of settlement was that if the brick and mortar shop were sold, rights to the name would revert to Amazon.com. As a result, the bookstore which changed hands in 2008, is now called True Colours. Its history as the original Amazon store has been annihilated. In memory of this store’s 40-year long history as Amazon Bookstore, I refer to the bricks and mortar feminist store as Amazon Bookstore while Amazon.com refers to the digital store. This latest move by Amazon.com is a continuation of its annihilation of feminist and lesbian entrepreneurship (and, I might add, intellectual property).
An interesting result of words such a “lesbian” and “gay” jolting the technological system has two other outcomes. One is that heterosexual writers whose work mentions “lesbian” or “gay” could begin to protest to Amazon.com that their works are being unfairly targeted. Another outcome, and sadly the more likely one, is that writers cease to use words like “lesbian” and “gay” positively in their writings. Self-censorship has particularly pernicious results.
I decided to look at my books on Amazon.com. My immediate reaction is where are my poetry and fiction works? They have always appeared on the first or second pages of my books. This time I had to go to page 5. My books do all still have a ranking, unlike the biography of Harvey Milk given as an example by Mary Hodder.
My own experience aside, there are important consequences for readers, booksellers, teachers and academics designing courses. Well-known books such as James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room and Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain have also been de-ranked. And what has happened to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past? Or to Christos Tsiolkas’ or Finola Moorhead’s novels, or Dorothy Porter’s verse novels. How many works of literature will be sacrificed to the homophobic gods of technology? Will Sappho and Catullus be dropped from courses on literature?