If you’re coming into this mess cold, a little back story:
On September 20, Goodreads “announced” by posting a thread in their Goodreads Feedback group that they would be deleting reviews focused on the ill-defined concept of “author behavior”. I’ll note here that the Feedback group has a little over 13,000 members, a fraction of a percentage point of the 20 million users Goodreads claims. Posts in Feedback do not go out as a general announcement even to the group’s membership. This was also done on a Friday, and Goodreads is notoriously absent on weekends. Customer Care Manager Kara eventually noted that Goodreads had only deleted the reviews of 21 people. She refused to comment on the content of their reviews, only giving a hypothetical review – “the author is an a**hole and you shouldn’t read this book because of that” – that would be forbidden under the new policy. The thread was quickly abandoned by Goodreads; it’s currently at over 5,500 comments, and climbing.
Kara’s characterization of the reviews they deleted turned out to be a miscaracterization, at least according to my research. A group of Goodreaders including myself started tracking down the original 21 people who had reviews deleted, and we eventually found 13 of them. Many of the reviews Goodreads deleted had no content – neither a rating nor anything in the review field – and Goodreads had taken action solely on the content of the threads below. (A quick note on nomenclature: it’s called a “review” on Goodreads whenever you shelve a book at all, even if the book isn’t rated, or there isn’t any written essay that you would normally call a review.) From the book list given to me by the people affected, the reviews about “author behavior” Goodreads deemed actionable ranged from plagiarism to faking or paying for reviews (which I’ll note is illegal in some places), to pedophilia to racist or homophobic statements to pulled-to-publish fan-fiction to just the usual gamut of social media meltdowns.
At this point the protest reviews started. I reviewed The Secret of Castle Cant by convicted pedophile K.P. Bath, because at least two people had their reviews of this book deleted in the new policy about “author behavior” in the initial 21. So far, none of the protest reviews have been taken down. Mike reviewed Mein Kampf using almost the exact wording of Kara’s hypothetical review – “This author is such a dick. I’m not even going to read it!” Many reviews of this book followed suit, and as far as I’m aware, none of them have been taken down. Reviews of books by plagiarizers and sexists followed, again, with none of the reviews coming down. Some of the protest reviews found books or titles that the reviewers used as a springboard for criticism about the new policy, books like Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship or Civil Disobedience or, most importantly, The Hydra.
Here’s where things start to get interesting, because Goodreads started deleting these reviews as “off-topic”. Apparently you’re cool going after the books Goodreads initially targeted in their purge, but use the review platform for dissent, and you better watch yourself. The email to users who had their reviews deleted says at the end, “Please note that if you continue to post content like this, your account may come under review.” Goodreads has taken its gloves off; they may delete your account for your naughty behavior. A good round up of the initial deletions can be found here, but the upshot is, Goodreads began deleting the often-playful, arguably off-topic, and absolutely critical of Goodreads reviews of some of their most prolific users.
At this point, it’s far too difficult to detail the number of protest reviews out there, cheerfully thumbing their noses at Goodreads management and their ill-defined and self-serving review rules. I’ll just note one case for example. Manny’s review of The Hydra served as a template for the protest reviews, the image of the hydra being a call for other Goodreaders to copy & paste the original content of the review if they were worried about their review being deleted by Goodreads. Some of these Hydra review have been deleted by Goodreads as plagiarism, despite the explicit call for re-posting. Some users have added disingenuous (but hilarious) “reviews” of the book to to keep the review under guidelines. Hydra reviews are proliferating all over the site, a full on revolt. I’m honestly interested to see if Goodreads is willing to play whack-a-mole with their most active users, slapping their wrists and threatening their accounts with deletion as the days wear on. I’m interested to see whether they will start deleting accounts. In the past, the Goodreads MO has been to simply freeze us out – witness the complete abandonment of their own Feedback thread – so I’m guessing this will be their course of action now.
But the actions of Goodreads, and their generally closed-mouth and inscrutable actions don’t really worry me at the moment. What worries me is the gutting of the Goodreads community as Goodreads’s top users jump ship for less censorious locales. Elizabeth, one of the top 20 reviewers worldwide, (who is fellow Soapboxer, in full disclosure) wrote a piece today about how she’s no longer posting reviews on Goodreads, making her just the most recent casualty of the new “policies”. I myself (also on that list) have begun taking down my 500+ reviews. From anecdotal evidence, dozens of very prolific users have taken down their content or deleted their accounts, people like Abigail A, BunWat, and Archer, often people who had been users since the very beginning, with thousands of reviews.
Maybe this is no thing. Maybe, as people keep telling me, there at 20 million Goodreads users out there willing and able to review two books a week on a wide variety of subjects, with a broad following and the trust that they’re not just corporate shills, only these hypothetical new users are willing to play ball. That’s why Amazon bought Goodreads, after all, isn’t it? To find a stable of reviewers to aid in the discovery process, a process much hampered by Amazon’s own review strictures: no profanity, no ties to the author, no personality, and downvoting outlying opinions into oblivion. Relying on the 1% rule, likely the active membership of Goodreads is significantly less than their bandied 20 million, a community of lurkers watching the output of the very few. Goodreads has it in their best interests not to lose these people, unless they are relying on the most narrow and inflexible ideas about what constitutes a good readership. Which, certainly, they may be.
In a Forbes article about the top 25 reviewers on Goodreads, the writer notes:
For me, there are no “professional” critics that matter anymore. In our new social world, the crowd must decide. That means authors and readers everywhere now have greater access to each other and the best books won’t be held back by traditional road blocks. Obviously, for authors, this makes it more essential than ever to have a solid social media plan, to be accessible and to build a following – because relying on the old publishing guard won’t cut it anymore.
That age is over.
Goodreads is trying to sand the edges off the crowd, silencing the voices most trusted, most invested in their reading, because sometimes the crowd decides certain books aren’t worthy of either reading or review, and that apparently can’t be allowed under the new mercantile system. With the proliferation of self-published works, the avid readers on the frontlines are acting as slush-pile readers for million of books, and if they (we) decide a book shouldn’t be undertaken because it’s likely that a negative review will result in the author flaming or doxing you, that’s not on Goodreads to get in the middle. It’s not on Goodreads to police reviews as “off-topic” when it’s clear that they’re just silencing dissent. There is no “off-topic” in a robust social media, which is ultimately the problem here, right?
So far, I’ve been writing as bloodlessly as possibly, doing my citizen journalist shtick to the best of my ability. But this change on Goodreads’s part is killing me. I haven’t cried so much about social media in a long time, each review I take down feeling like a lost thumb, each time I see posts by [deleted member] another lost companion. Due to my call to find the initial 21 users, and then later to hear from anyone who had deletions, I’ve had an inbox full of messages from users detailing their deletions. So many of these messages were confessional, long stories about being hounded over multiple media platforms by people who are technically “authors” for something the reviewer said or did, often not even about the “author” in question. I can take 50,000 words, not even in any particular order, and upload them to SmashWords or Kindle, and poof, I am an author. So many of these reviews about “author behavior” were the personal reactions of people being harassed on social media by other people hawking unedited ebooks that would never, ever make it off a slush-pile. That this is out of bounds on a social media platform, that I can’t decide what’s on-topic, that’s a shift in policy quiescent content-generation and away from a social media. We Goodreaders are either a product, or a community, and right now the fight is on.