Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Amazon and Smart Mobs

"Way back" in 2002, the techno-social-futurist Howard Rheingold penned a book called Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. The book's main focus was on the then-nascent technologies of text messaging and wireless Internet connectivity, how it had been leveraged in places where mobile phone proliferation was significantly greater than in the US (Japan and Finland), and the potential for social mobility and change rising from this instant and mobile measure of interactive connectivity. I tore through the book in about 3 days back then, and my copy is littered with post-it bookmarks, highlighted passages, and margin notes.

Now that Wi-Fi Internet service has proliferated into homes and businesses across the country and the world, and organization through text messaging and social networking services are creating unique and powerful ways of mobilizing people, opinion, and resources, Mr. Rheingold's predictions about the power of this technology are coming to fruition in ways that are exciting to some and scary to others.

The flash mob phenomenon, while impressive in its ability to assemble seemingly random and disparate groups for things like pillow fights and performance art, has started to do some serious growing up in the last week or so.

Last week, removed from it's sales-ranking based search system numerous book titles that could be termed adult-themed. These included several gay and lesbian romance novels, erotica, and other books in similar genres. One author and blogger who complained to Amazon about this received an email reply that the removal of his gay-themed novel from sales rankings was "in consideration of our entire customer base".


Since Amazon's search system selects items in its inventory based on this sales ranking as well as the customer's search query string, these types of books may not have been displayed as available for sale, or have been so far down in the results as to have been likely ignored by shoppers. One blog secured several screenshots illustrating the problem, while calling for a boycott of Amazon until the practice was ended.

In conjunction with consternation in the blogosphere, someone subscribing to the social networking site Twitter began notifying others and encouraging collective action through the twitter "hashtag" #amazonfail. Over the Easter weekend, this tag was present in more "tweets" than any other tag, including #Jesus. While that is unfortunate, it illustrates in no uncertain terms the ability of these types of services to notify and mobilize thousands with little effort.

Amazon took notice, and with their PR department on its heels during Easter weekend issued what appeared to me a hastily-assembled media release lamenting the problem as the result of a "glitch" that would be fixed as soon as possible. Many Twitter-ers are sensing that Amazon's response is a bit disingenuous, which has resulted in a new hashtag, #glitchmyass.

It doesn't matter what happened. What matters here is that the use of social networking and related activism sent a corporate giant reeling and into serious 'spin and protect' mode. This is even more ironic when you consider that Twitter is owned in part by several venture capital firms, including one operated by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

As we've seen in other applications in the commercial, political, and activist arenas, the social revolution that Howard Rheingold predicted earlier this decade is upon us. My personal take is that these types of new and innovative technologies benefit those with innovative, open and creative approaches to life and living.

That's why regardless of how much social networking is used to garner support for causes such as today's Tea Parties, those with a mind inclined toward eliciting collective support for the common good will have the edge in using these technologies. Those with closed minds just won't see it.

Have a good night.

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