I never thought I’d be defending Walmart or any other oligopsony in a blog post, but here I go…
Pictured: Widely distributed screenshot used as evidence of Walmart’s “Fat Girl Costumes”.
The Orlando Sentinel ran the following story.
Despite growing complaints on Twitter, Walmart has yet to remove a section for “fat girl costumes” on its website.
The plus-size Halloween costume section was first pointed out by Kristyn Washburn who tweeted the corporation with her complaint on Tuesday.
Gawker owned Jeezebel.com added fuel the fire with its own speculation.
As of this morning, the Fat Girl section is still up; it features a lot of the same outfits as the Women’s Plus Size Adult section, which makes us think some web developer created the section as a “hilarious” joke and then neglected to change it.
CNN reports Walmart even apologized.
Walmart found itself sending apology tweet after apology tweet Monday after the Twitterverse raked it over the coals for a major goof on its website.
For whatever inexplicable reason, the retail giant’s site featured a Halloween category, titled “Fat Girl Costumes.”
You won’t find it there now, thank goodness, but it stayed there for a large part of the morning – and long enough for multiple screen grabs.
The real story
As much as I object Walmart for any number of ethical, moral, economic and staggering number of other reasons, this story is too good to be true. This is one crime that Walmart isn’t guilty of. Allow me to illustrate.
Note the URL being presented in the article:
“Fat-girl-costumes” is simply a search string. Many websites place queries as human readable strings into URLs for search engine optimization (SEO) and for human legibility. This is further evidenced (in the screenshot above) that this is a search query as there isn’t a gender selected on the left hand side. When I tested this myself, I was presented with a mish-mash of adult costumes, plus and regular sized.
Due to my decent level of technical proficiency, I knew intrinsically that I could manipulate the values used. With this bit of knowledge, I easily created my own Walmart listing. In the sake of faux-moral outrage, I decided to make my own morally reprehensible URL.
Clicking it will take you to a search page, simply clear out the address bar, click a department, take a screenshot and you now have evidence of Walmart’s support of Dead Children!
Pictured: An undoctored/unphotoshopped screenshot.
Social media as evidence…
The fun doesn’t stop there. You can even take this to Facebook as further proof. Using my faux controversy URL, http://www.walmart.com/c/kp/dead-children, watch what happens when I post a link to it on FaceBook:
Pictured: Edited out last names, but otherwise undoctored.
It’s complete with an auto-generated thumbnail of a pixie-goth girl(?), and a note “shop for dead children”, and as a bonus, my mom approves! Clearly Walmart supports selling dead children (and my family has no moral compass), right?
What’s happening with Facebook?
Web pages contain various bits of data, known as OpenGraph tags, that are used to assist popular social media sites with previews and to prune for other data.
On massive websites like Walmart, Amazon, BestBuy (just to name a few) logically/algorithmic determined data automatically populate these tags within a webpage for social networks as it’d be unsustainable to create each of these by hand. The data used on my FaceBook Post simply was Walmart’s best guess for “Dead Children”. Computer algorithms have no morality.
We can explicitly disallow combinations of words in a search field, like the famous, nearly decade old, 1,121 banned NFL Jersey names (warning adult language), but even then the algorithm and logic is not making moral call. It is simply checking the jersey name against a list of predefined words and rules that a human concocted list. (Funfact: my last name is on the list of banned from Nike+ ID thanks to yuppie-clothing-line Gant). It’s up to humans to make filters in the computer logic that defines our sense of morality (or sense of intellectual property law in the case of my last name).
Walmart appears to have no such filter, and thus (much like Amazon) can be searched for any string of words you can conjure. You’ll be surprised, as you’ll continue get search results even with vulgar words. You’re probably thinking “Why on earth would they allow this?” In Walmart’s (and especially Amazon’s) case, they carry massive amounts of books, music and movies, some of which have raunchy titles or cover explicit subject matter. Art often ventures into dark subject matters, be it sexism, racism, slavery, prostitution and so forth. The movie “12 years a slave” may come off as crass without any context, and I can’t even begin to list how many great works of music have crass album titles. Censoring search terms would potentially unintentionally obfuscate access to many movies and books, which in Walmart and Amazon’s case, would equate to lost profits. Walmart isn’t a great patron of the arts (even if Walton’s own a gallery) but it loves money.
While guilty of many things, Walmart isn’t guilty of creating “Fat girl costumes” as a bad joke as Jezebel suggested above. Rather, its logic matched easily “girl” and “costume” and generated a webpage, complete with title, much akin to my “dead children” example. Walmart isn’t the first to be hit with controversial product listings. Amazon last year was swamped with outrage over a seller who auto-generated thousands of unclever variations of “Keep Calm” shirts. At least in the case of Amazon, the products were real. This isn’t. There are plenty of reasons to dislike Walmart but this isn’t one of them.