So, you may or may not have noticed a small flurry of unhappy posts about Goodreads on twitter and book blogs this past weekend. Brief summary: On Friday, in the Goodreads feedback group, which is only visible to some of the site’s members (those who actually joined or followed the feedback page), the site administrators posted an announcement detailing a significant change to Goodreads’ policy on acceptable content for reviews and acceptable names for personal shelves. This was followed by immediate deletion of some reviews and shelves that were deemed to violate the new policies. No warning, no chance for people to edit their content to come into compliance, no chance to make a back-up copy, just deletion and an email after the deletion had already happened letting those users know that their content was now gone. Understandably, people were angered by this! The thread where the policy-change announcement was made has been actively growing all weekend and last time I checked had 59 pages and 2900 posts from outraged and confused users. I posted in it myself a few times, and I have been keeping up with it since it started. I had hoped that the Goodreads administrators would return to the thread to offer some clarification and to respond to people’s numerous concerns and questions, but staff response was noticeably absent throughout the weekend. Only late today (Monday), did a staff member make an appearance, but unfortunately she offered little more than platitudes, so most of the questions about the new policy are still unanswered. As of now, there has still been no site-wide announcement to notify all users of the new guidelines.
Here is the part of the announcement that has caused the most consternation: “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.”
So, what is this all about? From what I understand, the official reason for the changes is that there have been some problems with “bullying” on Goodreads and the staff are trying to respond to stop it. I use quotation marks because it seems that a lot of what has been called bullying really is more like heated conversation and freely spoken opinions. Apparently, this all started with some readers being contacted and harassed by authors after writing a negative or even neutral review of an author’s book. The readers responded by writing more negative reviews and especially reviews detailing the bad behavior of these authors, to warn other users. Goodreads also allows the creation of custom bookshelf names, so readers started to create shelves with names such as badly-behaved-author or BBA for short, plus many more creative and snarky (and in some cases a little cruel/nasty) bookshelf names. Authors, of course, were even more upset by having their books listed on these shelves and by having reviews written of their books saying that the author is crazy, etc. So upset, in fact that they started an uproar saying that they were being bullied and threatened by the readers and that Goodreads was doing nothing to stop it. I am sure there has been some actual harassment that needed to be stopped, but this is a very small percentage of the site’s users, and I think Goodreads has taken the response way way too far.
What could have solved the problem? Well, users have been asking for a long time that Goodreads let them make private shelves that only they and maybe their friends can see. If this had been implemented, then I could make a shelf saying something silly or insulting about an author or label them as a BBA, but that author wouldn’t be able to see it and be bothered by it. That shelf would be for my own personal categorization only. The general public wouldn’t see the insulting shelf name when they visited a book’s page, so the book’s sales wouldn’t be negatively affected (another complaint the authors have made). Instead of implementing this long-asked-for feature, Goodreads is now deleting all shelves that refer to the author in any way, even the neutral “due to author” that could mean any number of things, most of them not in any way negative. Goodreads users (myself included) take pleasure in coming up with odd and interesting names for bookshelves, but now a shelf could be removed with no warning just because someone thinks it refers to an author instead of a book.
I also think that a more sophisticated flagging system for offensive comments and reviews would have been a good move. On a lot of websites, content can be flagged as problematic and then be hidden behind a warning but still accessible by choice. So there could be a button saying “this review has been voted down by x number of users, click to read at your own risk” or something along those lines. Such a feature respects the intelligence of the website’s users. If I choose to read those reviews, I do so with the knowledge that they may be inflammatory, and I am making an informed decision whether I want to be exposed to the contents. Instead, Goodreads says they are now going to just delete any book review that is more about the author than it is about the book. They have ignored the many ways in which readers have pointed out that talking about the author’s behavior in a book review can be completely relevant and in some cases absolutely necessary, and that a review that talks more about the author than the book might in fact be an excellent review. They have also ignored the many requests for clarification of this rule. Where’s the line? How much could I talk about the author before having to worry about my review getting deleted?
The end effect of these changes, unfortunately, doesn’t really benefit the authors at all. I think it was only a very small noisy minority who asked for the new rules, but they are shooting themselves in the foot and hurting other authors too. This is because Goodreads, up til now, has been a source for honest feedback. But now that content is being removed, what is left is no longer a complete picture. If I go to a book’s page and see only positive reviews, I can no longer trust that what I am seeing is accurate. What if there were an equal number of negative reviews that happened to mention the author too much and have been deleted? How would I know? Goodreads has been neutered. And a lot of folks are leaving for other book-centric websites over this, bringing their intelligent and honest book reviews with them.
I have been going back and forth about whether to stay with Goodreads or not. None of my shelves or reviews were deleted and I doubt that they would be because of the way I tend to write, so that’s not an issue. I am, by chance, already in compliance with the new rules. But I am disappointed with the way the new rules were announced and implemented, and I don’t agree with the scope of the changes. Going forward, I would be self-censoring during the writing of every review I added to the site. That would be unpleasant but not impossible. And I do have a lot of friends on Goodreads. I will miss seeing what they’re reading and comparing opinions on shared books. Initially I had decided to stay but to cut back my involvement, but the more I think about it, the more I feel that I am ready to move on. This is just one incident, but if it’s indicative of the way the site handles feedback, then I don’t want to stick around for future similar events. Many people are attributing the changes at Goodreads to the site’s recent purchase by Amazon, which is totally plausible, and I am also not a big fan of Amazon. It seems that Goodreads lost its integrity with the Amazon takeover. What finally decided me was the fact that today (Monday) went by and there still wasn’t any site-wide announcement about the major changes to site rules that went into effect three days ago. That’s really poor customer service. It feels like it’s time for me to move on.
And by move on, I actually mean going back to this blog that’s been dormant for a few years! So maybe that’s moving backwards or sideways instead of moving on? If you look at the previous post here, you can see that it was dropped down in 2011 after a year-long gap from the post before. Yeah, I haven’t been here in a while. But it’s actually a really great place to refocus my book/writing energy because this is where I posted a lot of the book-analysis essays I wrote when I was in grad school studying creative writing. That’s the reason I started the blog, and I am happy with the idea of reviving it and posting about the books I read whenever I feel like writing a little review or a comment.
Anyway! When I sat down to write this post I didn’t think I was going to top 1500 words, but I guess I had a lot to say. Silly Goodreads. I’ll be tying up a few loose ends, and then I’ll be saying goodbye to you.
Finally, here are a few related links. The announcement and 60-page comment thread on Goodreads, plus a few other blogs and articles with some other perspectives. I may add to this list if find more worth sharing.
Edit to add a few more links:
Edit again to add another link, this one is quite interesting: