Addendum added 24 hours later:
Since I posted this at 2am on Friday night / Saturday morning 50,000 people have come to this page and it looks like more are on their way. A few of them have even read it. Most of those understood what I was trying to say, I think, and I’m grateful for their time. A small percentage didn’t, and since a small percentage of 50,000 is still quite a few, I feel I should make some things clear up front. (Monday: It seems to have topped out at 75,000.)
I am not the company that makes the shirts. Yes, you’d be amazed how often that crops up.
Explaining something is NOT the same as excusing something. The t-shirts are inexcusable. That should go without saying. I want to understand how they came to be (or not be, which is the question, as you’ll see).
Part of my income comes from explaining how the Internet, and digital technology, works and this comes under that remit. (More info on hiring me is here.)
Most of my writing gets a readership of 100 to 200 people, most of whom I know personally on some level, and I had that audience in mind when I wrote this.
I wrote a post about what the fuck just happened.
Now, with that in mind, read on!
For better or worse I’m not driven to write explanatory blog posts about the social media landscape these days. I think I burned out a couple of years ago and felt I was repeating the same stuff with more heat and less light. There were, I felt, more interesting things out there to explore, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do.
But every so often something happens on the internetosphere that is actually interesting to me in a fundamental, underlying way. This evening it came from the unlikely source of a Twitterstorm. These crop up all the time and are generally stupid excuses for outrage catharsis, but this one seemed different. For a start the source of the outrage was out of the ballpark. Check out these t-shirts for sale on Amazon:
Which, naturally, lead to a calm critique by some people on Twitter:
Which is all entirely predictable and not at all worthy of note. I repeat, I am not interested in the Twitterstorm. What I’m interested in is how those t-shirts got on Amazon and why hardly anyone understands how those t-shirts got on Amazon.
First, let’s consider the traditional way a shop might acquire some t-shirts to sell. A supplier might contact them with a catalogue, maybe accompanied with some sales statistics and a pitch. The shop will place an order based on their purchasing budget and a few months later the shirts will arrive. They will be priced up and physically placed on sale by the shop staff who will try to exchange these physical goods for money. After 90 days or so the shop will pay the supplier for the shirts and, if they’ve sold well, order some more.
This is not how these t-shirts are sold on Amazon. And to understand how t-shirts are sold on Amazon we need to go through a few basics.
Amazon is not selling the shirts. Yes, they’re on the Amazon website and Amazon certainly take a cut, but the relationship is more like that of an eBay seller to eBay. Solid Gold Bomb is an independent company selling their stuff through the Marketplace, just as they probably do through eBay et al. Amazon is merely providing the sales mechanics.
The t-shirts don’t actually exist. If you go to order one of these shirts you see this message in the order box:
“Usually dispatched within 6 to 10 days” which is roughly the time it would take, say, CafePress to print you a shirt. If someone were to order one of these shirts then Solid Gold Bomb would print one for them and post it out. Until that point there are no Keep Calm And Rape On t-shirts in existence.
Nobody made, or approved, the design. This is the headfuck moment that most people can’t comprehend. There’s a completely understandable assumption that someone decided it would be a great idea to sell Keep Calm t-shirts with the word Rape on them and, because they exist (which they don’t, but let’s assume they do) that there’s a reasonable demand for them. This is because we’re used to there being a cost in producing a product like a t-shirt and an economic requirement to mass-produce them in huge numbers. If there’s a significant cost then a decision has to be made whether to spend it or not. We’re looking to blame whoever made that decision, or lament that it was even an option.
But, as we see above, there’s no cost involved. The shirts don’t exist. All that exists is a graphics file on a computer ready to be printed onto a shirt if an order comes through. Still, you might say, someone had to make that file, to type those words and click save. Not necessarily.
The t-shirts are created by an algorithm. The word “algorithm” is a little scary to some people because they don’t know what it means. It’s basically a process automated by a computer programme, sometimes simple, sometimes complex as hell. Amazon’s recommendations are powered by an algorithm. They look at what you’ve been browsing and buying, find patterns in that behaviour and show you things the algorithm thinks you might like to buy. Amazon’s algorithms are very complex and powerful, which is why they work. The algorithm that creates these t-shirts is not complex or powerful. This is how I expect it works.
1) Start a sentence with the words KEEP CALM AND.
2) Pick a word from this long list of verbs. Any word will do. Don’t worry, I’m sure they’re all fine.
3) Finish the sentence with one of the following: OFF, THEM, IT, A LOT or US.
4) Lay these words out in the classic Keep Calm style.
5) Create a mockup jpeg of a t-shirt.
6) Submit the design to Amazon using our boilerplate t-shirt description.
7) Go back to 1 and start again.
There are currently 529,493 Solid Gold Bomb clothing items on Amazon. Assuming they survive this and don’t get shitcanned by Amazon I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they top a million in a few months.
It costs nothing to create the design, nothing to submit it to Amazon and nothing for Amazon to host the product. If no-one buys it then the total cost of the experiment is effectively zero. But if the algorithm stumbles upon something special, something that is both unique and funny and actually sells, then everyone makes money.
Yes, Amazon shouldn’t be advertising these shirts. Yes, Solid Gold Bomb should have checked through their verb list before starting the algorithm. But as mistakes go it’s a fairly excusable one, assuming they now act on it.
This is a great example of what I think Digital Literacy should mean. The world around us is increasingly governed by these algorithms, some annoyingly dumb and some freakishly intelligent. Because these algorithms generally mimic decisions that used to be made directly by people we have a tendency to humanise the results and can easily be horrified by what we see. But some basic understanding of how these systems work can go a long way to alleviating this dissonance. You don’t need to be able to write the programmes, just understand their basic rules and how they can scale.
Douglass Rushkoff coined the term “Program or be Programmed” for a book the other year and while his thesis is a little on the paranoid side the basic essence is true. If you don’t understand how these machines work you have no power at all.
Sunday: Solid Gold Bomb’s explanation for what happened is fairly close to my guess and is worth reading in depth.
Advertisement: If you’d like me to help you understand how the digital world works, I will happily do so for a small fee.