Dictionary + algorithm + PoD t-shirt printer + lucrative meme = rape t-shirts on Amazon

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:

Amazon Rape T-Shirts

Which, naturally, lead to a calm critique by some people on Twitter:

Photo_02-03-2013_00_27_40

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:

Add_To_Basket-2

“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.

36 thoughts on “Dictionary + algorithm + PoD t-shirt printer + lucrative meme = rape t-shirts on Amazon

  1. Agree with the above up to the algorithm bit.

    Although possible, where are all the Keep Calm and Thresh t-shirts?

  2. Ok you’ve explained the process and I’m happy none of these are out there but how long will it now take some smart ass to actually print one??? Amazon are to blame as much as the t shirt company. We all have ownership of the work we produce, the words we speak and what we advertise. I personally hope that every rape victim sues both companies.
    Eve Thomas
    Worldwide Peaceful Meeting Day

  3. Thanks for the great explanation, Pete.

    We should be upset at Solid Gold Bomb’s testing process — they should have reviewed their dictionary/wordlist better before handing it over to their computer program to automatically generate shirts. And we can be upset at the company (or Amazon’s) responses.

    But no human said, “Ah, ‘keep calm and rape a lot’, there’s a great shirt to sell!” I’m sure they’re equally horrified at that.

  4. If there are only 738 (and its even fewer as each word goes with multiple ending words – them us etc) words/verbs to go with ‘them’ ‘on’ ‘off’ etc then its not beyond the wit to initially check to see if the words are appropriate. Of all the words out there 738 doesn’t seem like a randomly generated list. It seems as if the initial list of words must have had some selection that wasn’t random & unfiltered.

  5. The number of verbs they use is 721 (not 738 – it’s late and I can’t maths). That rises to about 8400 once you add in all the variations (ON, OFF, US , THEM, etc).

    It doesn’t seem like a lot, no, but they’re only using present-tense verbs less than six letters long (there’s no ABSQUATULATE ON or REINVIGORATE ON). Assuming a smallish dictionary, could that maybe give you 721 words? How many commonly-used short verbs are there?

    Some of them don’t even make grammatical sense, like OCCUR ON, MEAN ON, or LED ON, which seems to indicate a complete lack of oversight. Some of the others are pretty violent as well, like GOUGE ON, MAIM ON and FLAY ON.

  6. I’m REALLY tired of the “it’s the computer program” excuse for inexcusable behaviour. Behind every computer algorithm, a human being is sitting there programming. Use your “real” brains, you idiots, and join the real world. There are no excuses for this. None. Period.

  7. Well Solid Gold Bomb certainly will have to up there Quality Assurance procedures after this, there really has to be a check point in the chain before things like this end up online and for sale.

  8. Actually I disagree with your heading for this blog piece. Surely it should be Dictionary + algorithm + PoD t-shirt printer + lucrative meme + cultural sense of entitlement = Rape T-shirts on Amazon? There was, after all, a reason they didn’t think it necessary to go through their list of verbs.

    It’s unfortunate that they chose such a lazy business model. If only they cared enough to check the files before uploading, and only uploaded those that positively promoted their company – the Keep Calm and Rape Not t-shirt could have genuinely been solid gold or them.

  9. That’s all very well and good, but the response of Solid Gold Bomb was inadequate at best. A more appropriate response would have been:
    1) Sincere, public apology on all media including webpage, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon etc
    2) Immediate removal of products for sale
    3) Immediate review of algorithms to include a ‘not’ list (that would preferably prevent any violence-depicting words from being used)
    4) Mandatory training for all staff on domestic violence, workplace harrassment, and general decentcy
    5) Donation/corporate volunteering commitment to a suitable charity

    They can use my list – no credit required.

  10. @Sharyn: Can you elaborate how not checking their wordlist more thoroughly is cultural entitlement instead of simple, naive carelessness? (I’m not saying you’re wrong! I’d just like to understand better.)

    @Monica: They’ve done #2 from what I can tell, and I bet you they are doing something like #3 at this very moment. ;) The apology they’ve put on their Contact Us page at http://www.solidgoldbomb.com/pages/contact-us does leave something to be desired; it needs a lot more sense of “wow we really messed this up” rather than the “oops!” it sounds like now.

  11. No excuse to not check over the designs before letting them go live. No excuse at all.

  12. I’m curious why the auto generator is selective enough to avoid combinations of phrases such as

    “Keep Calm and be castrated”

    or

    “Keep calm and be flaccid”

    or

    “Keep calm and be impotent” etc.

  13. @Cath: As Alex pointed out above, it looks like they only used words of 6 letters or shorter. That would explain why a lot of other word combinations are “missing.”

  14. 1 thanks for the info… kind of cool
    2 would you email me if you reply to my question :)
    3 its cool that you have a possible explanation of the process and what may have happened, but now im curious. im on SGB right now, and am going through the options of their ‘Stay Calm’ line…. i haven’t found a t-shirt yet that says anything other than Stay Calm and —– On. On being the important unvarying piece of this. i have seen other t-shirts not on SGB with the bastardized slogan, form this mishap Rape A Lot to a pretty cool Its Just an Extra Chromosome or something similar. so my question is, if it does not cost to make the image to advertise, and so much variety is available, why does SGB not have more than just On (im at 42 of 80 pgs so i might still find one)? the above slogan is all that i see. why would they not advertise variety on their own page? i think it more likely this is knock off than legit… thats where i’m coming from :)

  15. @Adam: Bleh, THAT company (CharGrilled) bills themselves as purveyors of “offensive” shirts. THEY are doing it on purpose. :( :( :(

  16. Some of us do fully understand how PoD works but there are still massive holes in this whole messy business. Firstly, it doesn’t take long to manually check down a list of what ‘funny’ slogans have been output from the algorithm (which was programmed by a human one assumes) and delete all the ones which could be offensive. It doesn’t take a lot of resources to scroll through your own Amazon listings to see what’s being sold in your name. Assuming Amazon stand to make money out of these ‘humourous’ T-shirts too, I would expect they have someone who can police the listings (or at least respond swiftly where complaints are received). The sad thing is that the printer of the T-shirts (the guy who operates the press who’s probably on a much smaller pay packet than Amazon) will find he’s the one who gets sued if it turns out the shirts break laws (decency, public disorder, whatever). I can’t see what they’ve got to gain by creating these listings, but they’ve got a lot to lose. Although, the cynic in me would say that a desire for publicity may be behind it.

  17. I can see how this has come about but firstly Amazon by taking a cut are party to the contract and surely the surely complex and powerful algorithms could be programmed to exclude some words which are likely to be deemed offensive within a given context.

  18. Not good enough, I’m afraid. The same company are still selling a t-shirt that says ‘Keep calm and hit her’.
    No computer generated that. Why, for example, doesn’t it say ‘hit him’?
    Because someone ran an eye over it to ensure it was sufficiently ‘funny’ I would say.
    If they were genuinely horrified by what their algorithm produced that t-shirt would be gone too. Seems to me they’re just a bunch of sad gits.

  19. Nope.

    Not buying it. Developer & Sysadmin here. A person has to ake responsibility . “The computer did it” is not an excuse. These things do what we program them to do, from the options we set in their database.

    They put “Hit” and “Rape” in their word list. They made choices, even if it was to lazily take a data set from somewhere else.

    . People did that, not a computer

  20. Try this. Go to Amazon and search for –

    KEEP CALM AND LOVE HER
    KEEP CALM AND ADORE HER
    KEEP CALM AND WORSHIP HER

    You won’t find them. Computer says no.

  21. There is no “keep calm and rape him” or “keep calm and hit him” which you would expect if their algorithm was left unattended. Either someone weeded those out, or “him” was never put in as an option, or the “rape her” and “hit her” is deliberate. So their story is bullshit.

  22. @Jessica: Here’s the LOVE HER shirt: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Keep-Black-Jersey-T-Shirt-Gold/dp/B007DWK5SU/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1362222142&sr=8-6 . ADORE is missing from the list even though it fits the criteria, which is weird. WORSHIP is two letters too long.

    @Ita: The variations available on Amazon are OFF, IN, THEM, ME, A LOT, HER, IT, US, THEM, ON, NOT and OUT; that list will have been made by a human. Unfortunately the presence of HER with no corresponding HIM does kinda lend credence to the theory that these guys are shits.

  23. @ Arthaey Angosil; like it or not, we have a rape culture, it is deeply ingrained, and those that try to change it are routinely called wowsers or feminazis and much worse. It takes a special sort of privilege to not even think, well you know, there are some things we don’t want on our t-shirts maybe we should check that those words aren’t on there. That privilege comes from our sense of cultural entitlement and this blog piece (and the research it links to) delineates the point as to how deeply ingrained rape culture is http://yesmeansyesblog.wordpress.com/2009/11/12/meet-the-predators/

    It also shows why I said the Keep Calm and Rape Not t-shirt could have been so very powerful – had it been the only one. :)

  24. Thanks for the clear explanation of how this happened but as others have said, it lacked controls both at choice of words used and quality control of output. It is hardly a defence to use this speculative method and gain from any profit, if not prepared to be responsible for negative outcome, and begs question of motive.

  25. It’s absolutely disgusting.

    I can’t believe people are still milking this ‘Keep Calm’ rubbish.

  26. I worked out the specifics outlined in this article on my own, within two seconds of seeing that stupid tshirt in my twitter stream. I knew exactly what had happened, how it happened, and how red faced this company would be when they realised. I spent the rest of the night chuckling at the overwrought twitter rage at everything from amazon itself to the government.

    The digital literacy point was a very, very important one to make. In todays world, its the different between well targeted and somewhat misplaced social justice outrage.

    This SJ rage is a precious resource that needs to be conserved, especially these days under a tory government, for the real instances of deliberate and systematic injustices, not wasted on distractions such as this. I hope my fellow lefties will be more discerning with their rage next time, because we need all that we can get for the real fights.

  27. Sorry, not buying that at all – an algorithm invented the slogan? Someone checks these things before they get posted to a site, and I don’t believe for one minute that anyone has yet automated to the point that a slogan is generated, a graphic created, a price generated and automatically posted to a shop on Amazon.

    I’d point the finger at a bit of scandal creation for publicity – oh and links. I suspect the only algo involved is the one that pushed people to the top of search! If Google wants to make a stand on bad behaviour, here’s it’s chance. Rape is not funny. Or clever. Ever.

  28. Dear Peter,

    If I am correct in thinking you are responsible for the Tshirts on Amazon, then I would like you to know that I find them cliched, dull and deeply stupid and offensive. They lack wit, sensitivity and and don’t contribute anything, except presumably to your pocket. I would respectfully ask you to refrain from selling them. There is no dialogue to be had. Wit, irony – any recourse you may use to defend yourself – is redundant.
    Wendy Jones

  29. None of this is the point. They saw fit to offer it and Amazon saw fit to host it. Does the same apply to slogans like “Keep Calm and gas Jews” or “Keep Calm and lynch niggers?” Would they have been allowed if they had been randomly generated?

  30. Another design says Keep Calm and Slap Not. Any explanation for this from those outraged?

    Wendy – I think you’re so far off target it’s embarrassing.

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