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Why hasn't Amazon fixed things overnight?

Well, if you have read Amazon CTO Werner Vogel's blog or seen any of his recent presentations, you'll definitely be (like me) inclined to "cock-up over conspiracy" as the explanation for the current shambles.

So why have things gone this desperately wrong this quickly?

The simple answer is Amazon's architecture. It's highly distributed, and there's no operations team. Each component (and over 200 go into a single page) is run by its development team, of four to five people. They are responsible for its features, its development - and for making sure it runs effectively. The result should be a company that can move quickly in response to outside events.

At least that's the theory.

I'm afraid the real world doesn't work like that. I've been a developer and I've managed developers and I can tell you that what really happens is something like this:

Someone comes up with a neat idea that they evangelise among the other developers, and it gets added to the platform. The developers become wedded to their idea, and they keep adding features. Something from the outside occurs that affects the data managed by the service, and they don't notice. After all, it's their design and it's perfect. The problem gets worse, and a few external symptoms are noted and passed on to the developers. They're too busy to pay much attention to them, and so they ignore them. Then suddenly, BANG, and everything breaks.

Oh, and it's a holiday weekend and there's no one there to actually handle the problem as the whole team's gone off on a skiing trip.

Now I can't guarantee that's what has happened with the deletion of GLBT content from the Amazon ratings system, but I suspect it's more likely than not.

So here's where my conjecture comes in:

Someone probably had the idea of reducing Amazon's exposure to bad publicity without increasing the site's legal liability. Manual censorship of the rankings would certainly make the service more liable, so the idea was probably a tool that would let the site's users do the work for it. After all, if the community doesn't like it, then, well, US community standards laws apply and you're safe. A group of developers coded it up, and it worked well - for a while.

Either a parameter wasn't quite right, or someone released a new version of a keyword file without testing - and, well, suddenly the GLBT books were off the list. Maybe someone gamed the system, too - it's impossible to tell from outside.

A separate test and operations team would have been likely to spot the underlying flaw before it got released - or at least spotted the first wave of complaints and started to triage them effectively, with a more productive response than "It's a glitch".

So now Amazon has to unwind data that's spread across its distributed application platform, which may be stored in any or all of three different kinds of database, and in at least three different geographies and many more data centres.


That's going to take a while to deal with.

Meanwhile their Seattle-based PR team is just about to start a very long day - and a group of developers are going to be desperately trying to explain just went wrong.

[ETA 23/4/2012. After three years of this post being targeted heavily by spammers, I have locked commenting.]


Apr. 13th, 2009 02:48 pm (UTC)
What you're saying makes sense, though I find it pretty troubling that so little of the hetero-adult/erotic content has been targeted, and that makes it a bit harder for me to accept that this is a well-intentioned glitch. Bestiality is okay, John Barrowman is not?

At best, a few individuals in the system of developer checks really screwed up.

I'm waiting with interest to see Amazon's official response -- with names attached, and on their website, as opposed to reported by WaPo or Publishers Weekly.
Apr. 13th, 2009 04:13 pm (UTC)
So, you think it is okay for books with erotic content (including great works of English literature like _Lady Chatterley's Lover_ and _Little Birds_) to be "hidden" from view just because they are about (eek!) sex? Please!
Apr. 13th, 2009 04:29 pm (UTC)
Oh, frak, no. You misunderstand me. I don't think that's okay at all; I've written Amazon and told them so; and I'm not buying anything from them or their subsidiaries until this is rectified.

I'm saying that I would believe it were a glitch if it weren't just LGBTQ stuff being targeted. I see now how my response could have been interpreted as being in support of the deranking, but to reassure you, I'm 100% against it.