Goodreads has a structural problem

by Sunita

The latest meltdowns at Goodreads are surprising even by the standards of that site. It seems like only yesterday when readers were remarking that 2012 was getting off to a nasty start, kerfuffle-wise. I don’t think anyone could have predicted July.

The more I think about it, the more I believe that these recurring and escalating problems are not going to stop, because Goodreads has a fundamental contradiction built into it. The name itself suggests the site is about reading and sharing the reading experience. But Goodreads also wants to attract authors. While authors and readers have a great deal in common, and while authors are also readers, the two groups have several contradictory interests. Authors want to sell books. Readers want to read good books and avoid bad books.

On a social media site that facilitates and encourages communication about the reading experience, readers are going to rave about the good ones and warn their friends away from the bad ones. The former makes all authors happy, but the latter makes some of them angry, upset, and resentful. Thinner-skinned and less professional authors often decide to argue with readers, and then we’re off and running.

Some of this is bound to happen in any environment. But Goodreads doesn’t do much, in a formal, institutional sense, to reduce potential reader-author tensions. Oh, they tell authors not to comment on reviews. But they’re fine with authors “liking” reviews of their work, which affects review rankings. Other aspects of the site also seem particularly geared to author promotion. For example, authors can have blogs but non-author readers cannot. While at first this doesn’t seem like a big deal (no one needs to have VacuousMinx mirrored at GR), it turns out to have consequences. Authors blog about reviews they don’t like and their fans can then harass the reviewer in the comment thread to the review, without ever leaving the site. This changes a reader-to-reader interaction to an author-to-reader or fan-to-reader one, with different stakes.

Second, it’s difficult to tell author groups from reader groups sometimes. At one end, you have a group like the one Josh Lanyon and Nicole Kimberling moderate, where the conversation is civilized and friendly, topics range well beyond Lanyon’s books, and people behave themselves. At the other you have author fan groups which seem to be designed to stroke the author’s ego and no criticism of any kind is allowed. And in the middle you have groups that are basically author-promotion or author-ego-stroking venues even though they at first appear to be reader-focused. The m/m group is an example of this type: the vast majority of threads are designed to serve the interests of authors or the group itself, and the reader discussions are shaped by these priorities.

Goodreads also does almost nothing to proactively stop authors from having multiple accounts. I don’t spend a lot of time on the site, yet I can think of at least two authors who have reader and author accounts under different names. One of them writes different comments and reviews under the two names (you will be shocked, shocked I tell you, to learn that the reader account gives lots of 1-star reviews and the writer account rarely dips as low as 3 stars). I discovered that the two were the same by accident, but if I can do it without privileged information, surely GR has the ability to do so more systematically? Why is this kind of fraud (and violation of the TOS) permitted?

The author dramas, which revolve primarily around certain genres (YA and to a lesser extent m/m) and involve primarily self-published authors, are making life miserable and perhaps dangerous for any number of readers, and they are adversely affecting the reputations of many blameless self-published authors. I can’t imagine GR is happy about this, but as long as they can’t even manage to have administrators available on the weekends, I don’t see the situation changing.

Finally, Goodreads allows minors to contribute and be active on the site, which I think is terrific in principle. But the administrators seem to have very few policies in place to ensure that these minors operate in a safe space. Who monitors private and secret groups in which minors and unrelated adults interact? (And why do unmonitored secret groups even exist?) Who pays attention to the types of interactions that are occurring? Over the course of this past year, one minor-turned-barely-legal-adult was harassed and pursued via emails, messages, and GR blog posts. The young person in question wound up taking almost every aspect of her GR identity private (although quirks in the GR system allow some so-called “private” information to be publicly accessed). Nothing happened to the middle-aged adult author who drove her to it until he attacked other not-young adults who fought back. I find that unconscionable.

The people who run Goodreads need to make up their minds. Is the site supposed to be about the shared reading experience, or it is just another way for authors to promote themselves regardless of how they do it? Until the people who run the site decide and then act on that decision, readers and authors will continue to be hurt by the minority who abuse the system, and GR’s success and reputation will be overshadowed and harmed by the actions of the few.

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