Social media case study: The Amazon comics glitch

If you’re a comic book fan, you’re probably following Bleeding Cool (you’re not? what the hell is wrong with you?). If so, you might be aware of The Great Amazon $14.99 Graphic Novel Sell-Off of 2010. You’re also probably aware that it was a glitch, and that very few (if any – accounts vary) graphic novels actually made it out the door before the Big A put the kibosh on the free-for-all. For the social media student, it’s an interesting picture of how the rules (or at least the how these rules get made up on the fly) look today.

Here’s a snapshot of my experience with the glitch. Because I have an infant daughter, I was awake fairly early on Sunday, March 7. Logging on to Twitter, I saw the following tweet from Bleeding Cool:

In a nutshell, the story was that a shocking array of Marvel, IDW, and Image hardcover anthologies were going for $8-15. The range itself was impressive: Major Lee and Kirby books; new classics like the Ultimates Omnibus; Kirkman gold like Invincible and Walking Dead; to-be-released joints like The Complete Bloom County vol. 2; even rarities like Tomb of Dracula and Howard the Duck! For reference, these are in most cases lavishly produced hardcovers that typically go for $60-100+, and they were up for a microfraction of that.

After checking out the link, I retweeted the information in my own calm, measured fashion:

I also proceeded to buy something like 20 books, spending an amount you’re better off not knowing (suffice to say I didn’t hit the $500+ some others reported). As the day went on, BC’s reports moved from “Is it a glitch?” to “It’s probably a glitch” to “Yup, it’s a glitch – and it’s being fixed.”

By day’s end, the cancellation letters were rolling out. Initially, the word was that Amazon was only hitting the orders of bulk speculators, knocking orders of multiple copies of a book down to one (thus thwarting would-be speculators who hoped to profit from the 500+ percent markdown on some titles). Later, though, the word came that entire orders were being erased without a word of explanation. I read nervously as others reported their vanishing orders.

And then they came for me.

Amazon toyed with me, letting me hold onto some slim hope. On Tuesday, I received this email:

Logging in, my order now appeared thus:

Two books left! That’s still two fantastic grabs! Success!(?) Was Amazon attempting to make nice by leaving me with some slice of my order?

Well, no. The next day, my order had been fully purged – and with no further email – as though it never was. Soon after, though, I received this email:

What’s interesting about the story is what came of it, both at the micro and macro levels. For me individually, I wound up with $25 essentially for being an early-rising opportunist. If you need a demonstration of the power of social media to link like-minded individuals and bring them to action, this is it. This comics-related example might seem frivolous, but consider: We’re motivated by what we care about, but we can only act on the information we know about. What would have been an easily contained matter several years back (“But what about email?” you ask? Please.) became a phenomenon in just a few short hours. Seeing this many geeks get this motivated on a Sunday morning should be proof alone.

More widely, we’re now seeing an interesting ripple among smaller retailers. Bleeding Cool reported the rise of a new Twitter hashtag, #notaglitch, which is being used by retailers with a physical store to promote their own sales. Further, that movement has led BC (and others?) to promo a “Comics Local” sidebar showing these kinds of sales. Is it realistic for a website to feature such seemingly hyperlocal content? I couldn’t tell you at this point, but it’s an interesting and unexpected development.

Another interesting development was how the glitch caused Amazon’s top sellers list to mutate. Thanks to a screenshot from BC, we know that on Sunday, March 7, the top ten sellers at Amazon were 1) Ultimates Omnibus, 2) Wolverine Omnibus, 3) X-Men Omnibus, 4) Fantastic Four Omnibus, 5) Daredevil Omnibus, vol. 2, 6) Daredevil Omnibus, vol. 1, 7) The Death of Captain America Omnibus, 8 ) Invincible Iron Man Omnibus, 9) Secret Wars Omnibus, 10) Iron Man Omnibus. That’s out of ALL books. Compare that to the top 5 sellers among graphic novels alone on Tuesday, March 9:

It’s sad, really.

I know there are some who are griping that Amazon cancelled their orders. I’m not. I wouldn’t have minded hanging on to one or two of those books, but I recognize the nature of computer error, and living up to all those glitchy orders would have been a huge sum for any company to eat. I didn’t write to complain because it felt a little bit like exploiting – let’s call it was it was – something that was nobody’s fault. It’s one thing to jump on a deal that seems too good to be true; it’s another to essentially scream “no takebacks!” when you find out that it is. Further, Amazon’s always done well by me, so I don’t have the “let ’em take it” attitude I might with a less savory company.

The complaint I’ve heard is that $25 is a pale shadow of the amounts many people would have saved with the glitch. And that’s fair. I’d counter, however, that $25 is more Amazon credit than I had before Sunday, March 7. Maybe that makes me a naive Internet user, but I still feel like I came out ahead.

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