What happens when you get online giants with too few people working for them?


Twitterspam, Facebookhate and how Amazon retailing horrific t-shirts…how’s about some responsibility?

…i.e. stuff that goes beyond the platitudes of ‘we regret that some people were inadvertently offended by the unforeseen incident and we will be reviewing procedures.’

Late on Friday 1 March Puffles’ Twitterfeed went into overdrive after a couple of people spotted Amazon retailing a t-shirt that condoned and encouraged rape. Understandably people were outraged and went after the social media and customer services pages of both Amazon and the third party retailer that sold them. Now, it’s likely that the t-shirts breached Amazon’s contractual clause with sellers regarding prohibited items – see A) 4.1 here.

Given the number of small retailers, there will inevitably be those that will cross the line – or leap right over it in this case. That doesn’t make it OK for either to use that as an excuse. To do so risks laughing off the seriousness of the case. “Oh, it was an isolated incident” etc. A number of Twitter users that phoned Amazon said the firm said it would take down the listing. Some will be fine with that, others have called for Amazon to make a donation to charities that help the victims of sexual violence – eg Rape Crisis Centres.

Two immediate questions that stem from this case are:

  • Why did the third party retailer think it was acceptable to produce such an item – and then list it in possible breach of its contract with Amazon? (As a major online retailer, Amazon could choose to delist all stock from the firm which could seriously impact the bottom line – and send the firm under)
  • Why didn’t Amazon pick up on this in the first place? (Thus bringing into question its system of monitoring)

Now, one of the things I often say to people at workshops I run is that many of the ‘conventions’ for all things online are still up in the air – whether it’s etiquette for social media, to how digital video should be regulated as far as OfCom and the BBFC are concerned, to how online retailers pay their ‘fair share’ of taxes. We know they are up in the air because the law has not caught up. Whether in terms of what footage and images are illegal to how to deal with corporate structures that are clearly designed to avoid (but not evade) taxes, it may even be the case that our political systems are not fit for purpose to draft, pass and enforce the necessary laws to deal with such abuses.

But back to small firms that have grown rapidly over an incredibly short space of time, this is what we see in the likes of the social media platforms and the online marketplaces such as eBay and Amazon. In terms of the very basics of running the service, for something online you don’t need the huge amount of people and infrastructure associated with having lots of shop fronts. Amazon has taken this to its logical conclusion with massive warehouses holding all sorts of things, where workers pick out and package the items on a huge scale. As a result, it benefits from huge economies of scale – the sort that made out of town shopping centres attractive in the 1980s. Just as they were built for the car, Amazon was built for the online shopper.

The online marketplace

You can think of this setup as being like a huge Lakeside/Westfield/Bluewater shopping complex but for the online world. This is the model eBay sort of uses, though you could say that eBay is a bit more auction house crossed with car boot sale if you were to compare it to life pre-internet. The market place for third parties allows small firms to retail online without having to go through the process or hassle of setting up their own website with online retailing facilities. Amazon provides the technical infrastructure & the template terms and conditions, presumably takes a cut of each sale and thus in principle, everyone’s happy. The small firm has access to a much wider marketplace and Amazon makes money from very little additional marginal input.

But there’s a problem: When things go wrong, who’s to blame?

In this case, Amazon could reasonably make the case that an isolated case had slipped through its controls in breach of their terms and conditions: not their fault guv’nor. The problem with that though is that in the mindset of consumers, that simply does not wash. People see the amazon.co.uk url at the start of the web address, see the offending items on a webpage full of Amazon’s branding and quite understandably link the two.

Now, this goes beyond the likes of Facebook and Twitter when people complain about offensive posts. This is about online retailing rather than just posting content up on the internet. In that online retailing, the firm that hosts the marketplace – the Amazons and eBays of this world – take a cut. On Facebook and Twitter, neither make any money from me when I post a status update or a tweet. (They may get something from advertisers, but not from the individual posting the content…unless they know something about our bank accounts that we don’t!)

So, given the financial relationship between the marketplace host and the third party seller, along with the significant revenues being made by (and the dominance of) the marketplace host – in this case Amazon, people understandably expect a certain degree of responsibility. Now, in the case of offline marketplaces, whether traditional street markets or out of town covered shopping centres, there are people whose job it is to regulate what goes on. As far as the law is concerned this is the job of trading standards officers, who are on the front line. Beyond that, those that own and/or manage shopping centres may have their own staff that enforce contractual requirements on who sells what. But who does the equivalent for online marketplaces?

To a great extent, online marketplaces are reliant on the vigilance of their customers on offensive and/or illegal items. But given the 24/7 nature of the internet, there’s a pressure on online marketplaces to have staff monitoring and acting upon complaints 24/7. This is one of the pressures that face large public-facing corporations too. People using social media don’t have the same expectations that they would have with a small independent retailer in their local community. I wouldn’t expect my local coffeehouse to be open 24/7 to respond to my questions, queries or complaints but I do expect that of large supermarkets that are open 24/7. And I expect their social media platforms to reflect this too. If your shops can be open at 3am, then you can staff your social media platforms at the same time too.

Growing big very quickly

As I mentioned, this is what the companies I’ve mentioned have done – they’ve expanded rapidly in an extremely short space of time, turning over huge amounts of revenue at the same time. Growing that quickly is not easy by any means. The infrastructure you may have had in place at startup phase won’t be fit for purpose when you are retailing worldwide and have revenues measured in telephone number figures. For a start, once you start crossing national boundaries, different laws apply. This is where Facebook and Google got stung. They assumed that because they were incorporated in the USA, only US law would apply. The EU ruled differently, causing huge problems for both firms not used to the data protection laws and privacy cultures a number of European countries have. One of the earliest online auction sites – Yahoo – got stung by French laws on wartime memorabilia.

“So…is the answer for these big firms to employ more people to do the monitoring?”

It’s one of them. The growing scale and complexity of what these organisations do though means throwing money and people at the problem is no more likely to solve those problems as they were with the past Labour government doing the same at some of the UK’s social problems.

You don’t change an organisational or a societal culture through money and people alone

This ultimately comes back to the subject of the complaints about the t-shirts on sale. In a testosterone-fuelled masculine-dominated environment where women are treated as objects for men’s pleasure, such t-shirts might be seen as humorous. But society and the workplace are changing. In particular, women are speaking out much more frequently (and rightly so) against what feels like a culture of violence towards women.

At the same time, it feels that there is a polarisation of attitudes too – which is worrying. Rosianna Halse Rojas explains succinctly what she has to put up with. Why is it that when people speak out like this they receive a stream of hatred in response? This was a problem that some of the great and the good of social media at Westminster Skeptics struggled to find an answer for. I touched on the issues in Safe Spaces. The issue with the items on sale is that they contribute to a wider culture that normalises a certain view not just of women, but of violence against the person. It’s also all too easy to forget that men are the victims of violence too. Just ask any person that has been mugged. It was that fear of being attacked that poisoned pretty much every night out I had during my mid-late teens. Even now, seeing, let alone receiving abuse online is something that still unsettles me.

It’s bad enough when we have a political culture in Westminster that perpetuates negative attitudes towards women. Its even worse when the world of commerce re-enforces it.

[Updated 2 March 2013 to add:]

Pete Ashton posted an interesting blogpost explaining the algorithms and the technological set up behind the third party’s model. What’s interesting here is the scale of the automation in the manufacturing process regarding the production of slogans. Basically the command along the lines of “Keep calm and [insert verb + insert pronoun]” allowed the production of thousands upon thousands of different slogans, which through digital media allowed them to be superimposed onto the t-shirts to give the buyer the impression that the product had already been produced. You could say it’s similar in principle to those houses that are sold ‘off plan’ – where you only see the computer generated images because the house hasn’t yet been built.

Pete raises an interesting point about digital literacy: How many people are aware of the technology that allows firms to produce real life visualisations of products that do not exist?

That said, tech-literate followers of Puffles have said that they don’t by the ‘it woz teh algorithm gone wrong’ explanation – saying that it allows firms to wash their hands of responsibility when things go wrong. This chimes nicely with the title of this blogpost: Where was the human intervention? Where was the quality control? If you have your own ‘offline shop’ you’d expect that someone would have quality-controlled and checked every single line of products that hits the shelves before they go out. Shouldn’t the same apply offline too?

The problem with the algorithm-creating-slogans-from-a-dictionary model is that it creates a number of variations so great as to be almost infinite. (You could probably get to a massively huge number if your computer was big enough to calculate it, but for the rest of us we’d probably say: “Meh – infinity will do”). In which case this makes it impossible for a small group of humans to quality control every single variation. Does that excuse Amazon and the third party firm? No. The problem there is with the business model. If your business model is such that you can’t quality control every line of products that goes on sale, there’s something wrong with your business model. Wouldn’t it have been better for the firm to have had a product or system that allowed people to insert their own slogan and then do the quality control when the order came through? That way, you wouldn’t find your firm ‘unexpectedly’ on the receiving end of a Twitter firestorm. As it is? The third party firm has shut down some of their social media feeds and have released a statement trying to explain their set up…which has poured petrol onto the flames. People are simply not buying the explanation. Their expectations are the same as with offline shops: That you have sound quality control systems to prevent products like these from hitting the [virtual] shelves.


3 thoughts on “What happens when you get online giants with too few people working for them?

  1. The problem with the explanation of the “Keep calm and [insert verb + insert pronoun]” system is that it doesn’t explain why ‘rape’ was in the verb list at all – it’s difficult to see a use of ‘rape’ in the example, or in any other potential phrase, that wasn’t going to trigger a twitterstorm. The problem isn’t in the random combinations of the algorithm, it’s in the policing of the verb list prior to use (and the same will go for the noun list, we can only pray the N- or R-words aren’t in there). As Puffles says, it’s a quality control failure.

    I’ve actually done formal testing, and safety critical formal testing at that, but even there we don’t test all possible combinations – it’s bad enough with just this example (100 verbs and 100 nouns would give 10,000 combinations), but multiply that combinatorial testing out over several hundred thousand lines of code and we’re talking not within the life of the universe. So testing has evolved to analyse systems instead of trying to brute-force it’s way through every combination, and one of the things we do is focus on things like boundary conditions – and ‘rape’ would be an example of a boundary condition, with the boundary being common decency!

    Everything Puffles says is valid, but I think it goes a little further than just needing to police the files for unfortunate possibilities. What we’re seeing is programming almost invisibly slipping into everyday life, and that creates two problems, the first that people aren’t aware that they’re becoming programmers, and the second that they don’t know how to manage that, even if they become aware of it. As a professional software engineer I’ve always said that I wasn’t convinced we needed to teach programming outside of software specific courses, but this is actually making me think twice about that.

  2. ‘/;What is interesting I looked up @solidgold twitter and facebook pages (which have now come down) and the pictures that they posted it seem t90/o be an ‘old fashioned’ artisan type set up. The t- shirts are individually hand printed.

    I have more sympathy for Amazon than for WH Smiths those buyers bought ‘Playboy’ pencil cases and other major chains who have sold (until pressurised to stop) totally unsuitable t-shirt for children.

    I am pleased that Amazon reacted quickly when they became aware.

    The technology let ‘this through’ but it also helped everyone complain immediately. I rang Amazon to complain and they rang back within one minute.

  3. I read the apology from Solid Gold today. I am surprised that they blamed a ‘computer’ because I saw pictures of people hand printing on their facebook page.

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