Then in a recent admittedly ham-handed policy change, Goodreads began deleting "inappropriate" reviews that were based on author behavior or deemed "off-topic."
Queue outrage heard across the Internet.
Salon's coverage: How Amazon and Goodreads could lose their best readers .
For those who may not be familiar with this latest tantrum in a teacup, the nutshell version is this: for a long time, a certain percentage of Goodreads reviewers, often the most highly-ranked ones, have specialized in snarky, wall-of-macro reviews, often of books they haven't even read, targeting authors for various forms of bad behavior (having Twitter meltdowns over bad reviews, attacking reviewers, revealing themselves as bigots, plagiarists, etc.). Besides posting mocking reviews, reviewers have put the books on "shelves" (Goodreads' version of tagging) like "badly-behaving-author", "written-by-a-plagiarist", "will-never-read", etc.
Until recently, Goodreads basically did no policing beyond the bare minimum (removing pornographic images, threats, libel, etc.). Then came the policy change that, as originally written, implied that reviews that focused on the author rather than the book were no longer permitted.
Besides filling many threads with ranting and raging, people responded by posting reviews of Mein Kampf criticizing Hitler and shelving it as "author-invaded-Poland", "author-is-a-genocidal-maniac", etc., filling reviews of random books about network algorithms or 14th century Japanese history with off-topic rants about Goodreads, then flagging these reviews and daring Goodreads to delete them. This has been going on for some time, while Goodreads has basically gone quiet (and largely not deleting most of these troll reviews).
One of the elephants in the room is the notorious site Stop the Goodreads Bullies, which was started by a self-published author named Melissa Douthit who was herself kicked off of Goodreads for violating its TOS. STGRB targets reviewers who write scathing reviews of authors they like, and has in the past gone so far as to "dox" some of the more popular (and critical) reviewers.
(Be warned: following those links will take you down an endless rabbit-hole of blog drama going back a few years.)
Since STGRB's alleged grievances have to do with "bullying" reviewers picking on authors, many people felt that the new rules came about as a result of agitation by the likes of Douthit, basically giving in to authors complaining about bad reviews.
It's worth noting that the vast majority of the drama has revolved around self-published and YA authors. People write flaming reviews of everyone from Anne Rice to Charles Dickens all the time, but no one cares.
Goodreads has made several attempts to clarify its position, and my interpretation is that what they are trying to convey is that the new rule is basically: "Don't be a jerk, and post reviews that actually have some content."
My own opinion is that Goodreads stepped in it, badly, by summarily deleting a handful of reviews as their first move, without warning or any recourse for the reviewers to back up the offending reviews. Since then they've now changed their policy to warning reviewers if a review is deemed "unacceptable" and giving them time to edit or change it.
I do not think the charges of "censorship" really hold up. Goodreads is a private site and can establish whatever TOS they like. It is problematic in that it still remains unclear whether a review will be in danger of being deleted because you talk too much about the author. However, I confess that even for authors who understandably piss a lot of people off, whether it's Vox Day or Cassandra Clare, I see little value in adding "reviews" of their books that you haven't even read, on the premise that you want to warn anyone else against reading them because the author is a bad person.
On the other hand, Goodreads has from the beginning established itself as a social networking site, not just a collection of book reviews. So discussion, of books and authors, is a natural extension of its function and there will understandably be a lot of crossover between these meta-discussions and what gets posted in reviews. Like any online community, Goodreads users are prone to mounting campaigns, throwing monkey wrenches, and trying to subvert the environment in ways its owners did not intend. Trying to control users and steer their contributions into more "market"-friendly channels is a precarious business.
And on the other other hand, as the Salon article about put it:
As for disaffected Goodreads members, they’re learning a hard lesson often overlooked by the boosters of digital utopianism: Sooner or later people need to get paid, and sooner or later you get what you pay for. Goodreads’ staff may be small, but they can’t run the site for nothing, and attempts to monetize it could not be postponed indefinitely.
An entire generation has now grown up with no memory of not having everything available for "free" online. They frequently forget that servers cost money, bandwidth costs money, system administrators cost money. You cannot run a site like Goodreads for free, and a lot of its users would be shocked to learn just how expensive it is to maintain a site with millions of daily users. So yes, if they have to choose between "free expression" and "make this site attractive and profitable," the "author-is-a-douche" shelves may have to go.
Are you a Goodreads member?
Do you think Goodreads' new TOS are reasonable or censorship?
What book communities are you a member of?
Previous Saturday Book Discussions.