Giving Offense: Full on Revolt on Goodreads

I’m reposting this review from Ruby Tombstone with her permission:

Would GoodReads Censor A Review On A Book About Censorship? Let’s find out, shall we…

I’ve been an active GoodReads contributor for a couple of years now. I review every book I read, I run a discussion group, I’m a GR Librarian. I spend countless hours every week, (well, they are probably countable but I can’t be arsed), on this site creating content for GoodReads Amazon. I won’t pretend I’m happy about that last bit.

When I first joined GoodReads, I spent a lot more countable-but-not-presently-counted hours up to my eyeballs in administrative tasks associated with the book data we all use. I stopped doing that when the mountains of data and content that I had created was sold to Amazon without my seeing a cent of the profits. Since Amazon have been here they’ve done some pretty shitty things, and they really don’t seem to value the hard work I’ve done for them. They seem to be quite content making out that they are doing us all a favour, providing us with a free (albeit dripping-with-advertising) service – rather than acknowledging that they’re making a fortune from our content and data.

Now it seems GoodReads has decided to go hard with a policy of deleting reviews and bookshelves* they don’t like. I really can’t be much more specific than that, because that’s about as specific as GoodReads has been. From what little they have communicated to us, it seems to be “anything anyone working for GR thinks could offend anyone else or could potentially be perceived by anyone else as an insult to a writer”. There is no way of knowing what that might be. We’ve been told that any posts or shelves focussing on the author’s behaviour will be deleted. This includes authors who harass GoodReads users, and presumably precludes us from even discussing something like Mein Kampf. This is censorship, as if you need me to point that out, and that is a very slippery slope.

The author of this book, J.M. Coetzee is a famously reclusive, reportedly humourless bloke. Am I allowed to mention that anymore?

GoodReads made these policy changes sneakily: no emails to us, no warning or notification of any kind for the people having their reviews deleted, no response to our reasonable concerns. Reviews and shelves are quietly being deleted, and there have been plenty of screenshots around to prove it. So now I am not only outraged by the knowledge that our posts are actively being policed and censored, but I’m quite frankly creeped out by the whole thing. Who is making the decisions? What are their criteria? Why do they refuse to talk to us about it? Why are they doing it so stealthily? Why can’t they notify someone who’s about to have their content deleted?

Most importantly of all….. where will it end? That last question I CAN actually answer: A site where the bulk of the reviews are positive and critique-free – whether or not that book deserves it. Where any negative reviews are limited to “it’s my fault for not picking a book which is more suited to my peculiar tastes”. A site where people can’t talk about the elephant of author behaviour in the room.
A site where all reviews are suspect.

The whole value of GR has been that we can see honest reviews from people we trust. If people can’t write an honest review about their experience with the book (and its author), then that review has no value.

GOODREADS: Please just do the right thing. People have invested a lot of time and effort in this site. They will cooperate with you IF you treat them respectfully. Censorship, though….. obviously that’s going to go down like a tonne of bricks on a literature site.

*For the benefit of people who don’t use GoodReads – “bookshelves” on GoodReads aren’t just used to sort our lists of books, they are a tagging function. They are what we use to comment succinctly on a range of issues relating to that book. They are also what we use to warn each other about spammers, abusive authors, sock-puppet (fake) accounts, and anything else that a potential reader/reviewer may need to know before they engage with that book. I say “engage” because even shelving a book as “want to read”, alerts the author that you have shown interest and can open the door to that author targeting you.

[edit] Postscript:What annoys me no end, is that the media and some other commentators are portraying GR users as if we’re simply refusing to accept the corporate reality of a “free-service” that Amazon are providing us with. What they don’t seem to be aware of is that, unlike many other sites, it’s the users that created this database, including the book data, as well as all the content, as well as taking care of a lot of their administration, as well as a big chunk of their “help” functions etc etc. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to have certain expectations of the site we built & maintain.

[edit] Please also see Carol’s excellent summary of ways you can help spread the word about this issue: http://www.goodreads.com/story/show/3…

[edit] Must ReadCeridwen’s Brilliant Analysis of the Deleted Review Data:http://soapboxing.net/2013/10/by-the-…
This shows the authors associated with the deleted reviews & bookshelves as well as showing the real target of GR’s censorship – The comments threads.




The reason I’m reposting this review is  that last night and through today, Goodreads has gone on a binge deleting “potentially off-topic” reviews – their words – which also happen to be kinda sorta absolutely critical of the new censorship policy they enacted two weeks ago. They’ve been playing whack-a-mole with dozens of hydra-like reviews that keep popping up as fast as they can delete them, slapping the wrists of some of their most copious users and threatening that their accounts will “come under review”.

Dear God, you guys, what is going on here?

Heretofore, so much of the media about the Goodreads policy change has focused on the alleged bullying of a self-published author, and how “both sides were wrong” and a bunch of other mealy-mouthed garbage. I’m not even going to get into the definition of bullying, and how it’s being used without any real rigor in this whole mess. (I’ll just say the self-published author attributed her misunderstandings of Goodreads to PMS and leave it at that.) The shift to deleting content about “author behavior” was one thing, but now that Goodreads is going after the “off-topic” review, now, that’s something else.

Goodreads has always had a light hand when it comes to the content of reviews. To quote Kara, Goodreads Director of Customer Care:

What we try to do is provide room for our members’ own personal approach within our overall principles rather than set rigid guidelines. We’ve found it has worked well for the community overall so far and is something that readers value.

Or CEO Otis Chandler, talking about five-starred “pre-reviews” by fans well before the book had been read:

I agree that it’s a shame some books have to suffer ratings that clearly are invalid. However I can’t think of a way to prevent it, and I didn’t see any ideas in the thread either (I did skim though). I hope you’ll appreciate that if we just start deleting ratings whenever we feel like it, that we’ve gone down a censorship road that doesn’t take us to a good place.

As for manuscripts or yet-to-be-published books, I have no problem with them being in the database. It’s kind of cool to have a record of in-progress books, and I don’t think it hurts anything. I do think we’d need to remove any that weren’t serious in their intent to be a finished book one day.

I’m not even trying to cherry-pick quotes from Goodreads management, I’m just trying to show how its been for a long time: Goodreads hasn’t cared about off-topic reviews until now, because off-topic reviews are what have made this social network. Reviewers have been given wide latitude to rattle and chatter, tell stories and goof, make friends and enemies, the whole gamut. Sure, a lot of it has been tempestuous teapot stuff, but who really gives? To quote the author of one of the books used as a protest:

I don’t understand exactly what’s going on, but Goodreads shouldn’t be deleting reviews, period. People are smart enough to look at them on their own and make up their mind, and deleting reviews undermines the integrity of the site.

We are not academics or professionals, but citizen readers on a social networking site. We haven’t so far been required to be “on-topic”because this was our party, a gathering place for discussion and socializing and just plain messing around. Now that the community has been bought and sold, we have to prove our utility though, and all of our social shenanigans must come to a halt. I resent this immensely.

Our anger at high-handed and vague policy decisions is not off-topic at all. It is the heart of a dispute about a database and a social network that is largely user-built, from the millions of hours Goodreads Librarians have put in correcting the database, to millions of reviews people have added to this site. It absolutely burns me that Goodreads can turn around and wave this changed terms of service at me like I’m some unruly child who needs to be checked. I’m not your product, or an idiot. I can see what you’re doing with these deletions, and I can tell you, Goodreads, it’s not going to work. I’m still fighting for a community I believe in.

7 thoughts on “Giving Offense: Full on Revolt on Goodreads

  1. Nice work, Ceridwen, as usual. It would appear that GR has lost its mind, not to mention its sense of humor. When they start deleting Manny’s review, in what was clearly, a rather brilliant piece of sarcasm, I begin to wonder. Manny is one of the most thoughtful and intelligent reviewers around (you clearly being another – give yourself a pat on the back) and I would think GR can ill afford to lose such talent.

    Someone suggested the only long-term solution may be the development of an open source alternative. (Kickstarter, anyone?) Booklikes is a bit bloggy for me and while I like TheLibraryThing, it doesn’t foster the same kind of reviewer interaction that GR does quite well. Both permit importing GR content, a very good thing, although Booklikes was a bit easier than LT.

    Anyway, I look forward to more of your incisive comments. For the time being I’m juggling all three sites, thinking about posting my reviews to LT and then just adding a link on GR. Haven’t decided yet, especially since the API from Booklikes has been closed.

    1. Thanks Eric. I agree about BL, but I’m slowly growing to see how it works. I could be happy there, I think. Library Thing is just way too damn ugly, and I’ve never had much interest in the cataloging aspect of GR, which is how come it isn’t a good fit for me. I wish there were a Goodreads not run by the idiots running Goodreads right now.

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