When Is A Glitch Just A Glitch?

A few weeks back Amazon got blasted by gay rights groups when it was discovered that gay and lesbian book titles were delisted from its site. Amazon claimed an internal glitch caused the problem and declined to offer additional details.  A spokesperson was quoted saying

“This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection… and “It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay and Lesbian themed titles — in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind and Body, Reproductive and Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.”

Yesterday, Google’s system went offline – meaning search, email, and other Google-powered applications were unavailable for a period of time in the middle of the day.  Google gave a brief explanation of the problem on its main blog:

Imagine if you were trying to fly from New York to San Francisco, but your plane was routed through an airport in Asia. And a bunch of other planes were sent that way too, so your flight was backed up and your journey took much longer than expected. That’s basically what happened to some of our users today for about an hour, starting at 7:48 am Pacific time.

An error in one of our systems caused us to direct some of our web traffic through Asia, which created a traffic jam. As a result, about 14% of our users experienced slow services or even interruptions. We’ve been working hard to make our services ultrafast and “always on,” so it’s especially embarrassing when a glitch like this one happens. We’re very sorry that it happened, and you can be sure that we’ll be working even harder to make sure that a similar problem won’t happen again. All planes are back on schedule now.

Both Amazon and Google used the word ‘glitch’ to describe the disruption in their service — but the response to their situations has been very different.  Many believe that Amazon’s glitch was actually a calculated and politically motivated statement against gays and lesbians.  Google, meanwhile, seems to have been given the benefit of the doubt – despite the earth-shattering implications of their system not being available for a short period of time (There are unconfirmed rumors that the sun could not be seen in parts of the world during the outage).

So, when is a glitch just a glitch, and when it is something more?

Two quick thoughts:

  1. Amazon’s failure (or refusal) to disclose more information about their glitch only hurt them.  If Amazon had moved quickly, and proactively, to acknowledge that their database was not working properly and the system was being fixed, there would have been no story.  They could/should have showed their customers – and the media – exactly what had happened and we would have been satisfied (mostly because whatever happened was probably too complex for most people to understand or care about).  You see, in a connected society, the audience believes it is entitled to the full story – and all the data, or access to people, or demonstration of what made that story happen — so we can confirm, to our own satisfaction, exactly what happened.  All the assurances in the world from Amazon won’t make anyone feel comfortable.  We want to come to the conclusion on our own.
  2. Amazon, in many ways, is just another company.  Innovative, yes. Creative, no doubt. But Amazon sells books – and videos, and computer equipment, and garden tools, and groceries.  Most people see them as just another retailer, someone who we invest time and money in return for products and services.  Our expectation is that they will do everything in their power to provide us a great customer experience, and it doesn’t take much for us to abandon them or lose faith if that great customer experience is disrupted.  Google, by contrast, is viewed as more than just a company — its a part of our lives.  Google connects us to our friends and helps us run our businesses.  Google gives us access to the world.  We are smarter because of Google.  Heck, we have so much faith in Google that we are willing to give them all our data, all our contacts, everything for free.  This close, personal relationship that we have all developed with Google means that a ‘glitch’ has the potential to be more damaging to our lives — but we are also willing to be more forgiving, on the fear that if our relationship with Google falls apart, the ripple effect will be huge (when really, we can buy books anywhere).  We put so much faith in Google that we can’t even entertain the thought that they wouldn’t have our best interests in mind at all times.

I think Amazon had a ‘glitch’ in its system that removed a lot of books from its catalogue — their real problem was that they did not have a good explanation to what had happened.  Instead of being transparent about their problem they tried to spin the situation.  That doesn’t work anymore, not in a connected society.  Google, possibly with the benefit of having seen Amazon struggle just weeks before, jumped at the opportunity to explain what had happened (and promised more detail in the coming days).  They were quickly forgiven.  The comparison of the two situations, and our response to it, is telling – both about how the companies operate, and how our society is changing to reflect what is important and what is not.

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