September 25, 2013

Goodreads will delete content “focused on author behavior”


Sexual roleplay isn’t the only thing banned on Goodreads these days. The company (eaten by Amazon earlier this year) is drawing a firm line on the content of the site’s reviews.

The most controversial point of the new Terms of Service, rolled out yesterday by Kara Erickson, Director of Customer Care:

**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.

It raises a question about the role of authorship: how much does author behavior change a reader’s experience? If the author comes off as an idiot online, do we dismiss the work? What about behavior offline — how important is an author’s behavior in relationship to his work?

Likely intended to be a step to protect authors from online bullying, the new policy didn’t go over well with the Goodreads community. In over 2,000 comments, users argued that an author’s behavior is a valid reason for leaving a negative review of a book, and articulated some variation on the point that authors might harass readers themselves with no recourse from Goodreads.

Erickson swiftly updated three more times, asking readers to calm down. “The reviews that have been deleted — and that we don’t think have a place on Goodreads — are reviews like ‘the author is an a**hole and you shouldn’t read this book because of that.'”

She elaborates, “Someone used the word censorship to describe this. This is not censorship — this is setting an appropriate tone for a community site. We encourage members to review and shelve books in a way that makes sense for them, but reviews and shelves that focus primarily on author behavior do not belong on Goodreads.”

And then Goodreads apologized for deleting twenty-one comments before updating its terms of service:

In retrospect, we absolutely should have given users notice that our policies were changing before taking action on the items that were flagged. To the 21 members who were impacted: we’d like to sincerely apologize for jumping the gun on this. It was a mistake on our part, and it should not have happened.

Alexandra Petri discussed whether this qualifies as censorship in an article for The Washington Post, a news organization that was ever-so-recently acquired by Jeff Bezos. It’s not censorship, she says. In sum:

The Internet is full of sites where we put our things for free and build wonderful communities. But unfortunately, if you’re getting a service you love without paying for it, you aren’t the consumer. You’re the product. Goodreads reviewers seem to be learning that the hard way.

But making changes like this one can break the users’ trust in a company. Wendy Darling, who has reviewed thousands of books through the site, fought back against the new policy in the Goodreads forum:

Like most people, I am absolutely appalled that user content has been removed without warning. What was the purpose of that? Why was it so dangerous to allow people the opportunity to edit their shelves and reviews? What would you think if you heard that Twitter was removing user content without notice, or policing your lists? Why aren’t private shelves an option? And most importantly, who was this gesture meant to impress or appease?

…Both positive and negative reviews are an important part of a site like this (it’s the reason why so many of us have trusted its reviews until now) and I wish authors would understand that this site as a goldmine of market research.

Author Carolyn Crane chimed in:

Goodreads, as an author, I feel SO unhappy about this decision. Free discussion and the free exchange of opinions (whether I like them or not!) is precious to me as a writer, a reader, and a human.

As a site for books, this stuff should be important to you, too!

And, of course, some distinguished authors were never well behaved. They drank too much. They smoked too much weed. They posed in their underpants. Must readers discuss their work without mentioning their transgressions? Where do we draw the line between protecting authors from their readers and fostering a critical discussion of their lives and work?


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.