There’s a hot debate going on right now at Goodreads, inspired by a one-two punch by Goodreads staff. First, on a Friday afternoon (administrative staff are not active on weekends), Kara from Customer Service posted an “Announcement: Important Notice Regarding Reviews” in the Goodreads Feedback group. At the same time, they deleted a number of ‘bookshelves’ as well as ‘negative reviews’ without warning, sending an email to those users informing them that their reviews have been deleted. One poster noted that 90 of his reviews were deleted. Another noted that her “due-to-author” shelving was deleted. (For those who do not use Goodreads, there are there main shelves that are mandatory when you add a book to your personal lists: read/want-to-read/currently-reading, and then all other shelves are designated by the user. I am not one of the more creative ones, but I do now have an “Unicorns-and-rainbows” shelf).
This is obviously problematic for a number of reasons.
1. Not all members are part of the Goodreads Feedback group. Therefore, the only way to know about this policy is if you were a member of the group or if you were one that had reviews/shelves deleted. It’s rather unconscionable to update review policies and not let all users know they are changed (after all, your cable/credit card/ISP lets you know when terms of service are updated).
2. This policy was enforced immediately by deleting reviews/shelves without warning. Goodreads was built as a social community around reading books, and the book catalog and review database was largely because of the unpaid work of thousands of members who are passionate about books. To delete their work without warning is the ultimate face-slap of disrespect.
3. This occurred despite an already-in-place policy about harassment. The new policy focuses on reviews that mention the author behavior by stating: Delete content focused on author behavior. We have had a policy of removing reviews that were created primarily to talk about author behavior from the community book page. Once removed, these reviews would remain on the member’s profile. Starting today, we will now delete these entirely from the site. We will also delete shelves and lists of books on Goodreads that are focused on author behavior. If you have questions about why a review was removed, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. (And to answer the obvious question: of course, it’s appropriate to talk about an author within the context of a review as it relates to the book. If it’s an autobiography, then clearly you might end up talking about their lives. And often it’s relevant to understand an author’s background and how it influenced the story or the setting.).
Unbelievable. This is an age of informed decision making where people are trying to make the connection between how they spend their money and what they support. Sound familiar? Buy local, free-range, anti-sweatshop, fair wage, employment equality, etc. For many of us, we wish to know where our dollars are going to, and this is not necessarily different for books. There’s been a lively debate in one group, for instance, whether or not people want to view/read Orson Scott Card, as he vigorously publicly and financially supports anti-gay causes. I want to know if the author harasses women at genre conventions (another recent hot topic in the SF/F world). If that author makes a position statement about their personal politics, I’d like to take it into consideration. It may make the book more meaningful–or less.
Additionally, there is a heavy independent/self-published author presence on Goodreads that can intrude on site enjoyment, and personal shelving and reviews were one way reviewers had to hold those people accountable. Some indies/SPA see GR as a way to promote their work and possibly spread the love by word of mouth. As a group co-moderator, I am used to seeing daily posts from Indie/SPAs in our Self-promotion section (or moving them to the self-promotion section) until I made my group a ‘request-to-join.’ Frequently, you see, these are the internet equivalent of telephone-pole leaflets–posted once but not necessarily part of community engagement or ongoing dialogue. That’s the base level of self-promotion. Then there’s others that actively try to work their book into group discussions. As an example, in a thread titled “Strong Female Leads?” an author might say, “well, my heroine is….” Others create dummy accounts, or have cats-paws nominate their books for group monthly reads, a popular group activity. When I called one author out on it a few months ago, he acted very defensively and stated he was ‘unaware this was a problem.’ (So, that’s why you had your sister join my group and nominate the book, eh? Because you were unaware). Personal shelving is a way to remind myself that these are authors I want to avoid.
There’s also a phenomenon GR like to call “sock-puppet accounts,” aliases meant to help sway opinion. This is nothing new on the internet, but some GR are vigilant about calling it out. Often these accounts troll negative reviews and attack the writer. I myself have had a number of low-level trolls/sock-puppets on my negative Prince of Thorns review. Again, personal shelving is a way to monitor those authors that seem to attract a number of highly emotional followers, whether for good or for bad.
I also have concerns about Goodread’s growing connection to Amazon. Heavy users have long noted serious bugs in popular features such as ‘likes’ or ‘best/top reviewer lists.’ (Disclosure–I am one that is artificially inflated to #5 at the moment and enjoy the fact it hasn’t been updated in a few weeks). Yet GR managed to find the time to comb through shelving and reviews and delete in a single day. There’s strong suspicion that this is because negative reviews might impact sales, a suspicion that seems to be borne out by one author’s posting of the email message she gets from GR whenever one of her books is given a 1 or 2 star review. I worry that this is the tip of the iceberg, that it signals a strong focus on the author/bookselling component of Goodreads and less on the experience of the actual user that contributes content and reviews.
Although I haven’t had any of my reviews or shelves affected–yet–I do feel strongly that this was an unconscionable move on GR part. Had it been handled better, there’s a possibility there would have been very little outcry–no one likes bullies, whether they are authors or reviewers. But GR and Amazon are making it clear who’s the biggest now.