Goodreads’ growing pains: Attempt to curtail author bullying angers many users

What makes for a proper book review? Reading-based social network Goodreads says reviews that focus on an author’s behavior, rather than a book’s content, don’t have a place on the site — and announced Friday that it is going to start automatically deleting those reviews.

The new guidelines are infuriating some users who say that some authors’ bad behavior online should be a factor in book purchases. And the entire episode highlights the challenges that Goodreads, which was acquired by Amazon (s AMZN) earlier this year, faces as it adds users (CEO Otis Chandler recently announced the site has over 20 million members) and becomes more influential.

A ban on “the author is an a**hole” reviews

Goodreads wants book reviews to be focused on a book’s content, not on an author’s behavior online. Until now, it had moderated reviews that seemed too personal, but those reviews remained on members’ profiles. The site announced in a blog post Friday, however, that it “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. If you have questions about why a review was removed, send an email to [email protected]

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Goodreads added more info in an update:

“To clarify, we haven’t deleted any book reviews in regard to this issue. The key word here is ‘book’. 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’. In other words, they are reviews of the author’s behavior and not relevant to the book. We believe books should stand on their own merit, and it seems to us that’s the best thing for readers.”

A step back: Who’s bullying whom?

Wondering how “author behavior” has become such a divisive issue on Goodreads? Basically, the site is trying to respond to online bullying — in this case, readers bullying authors. And here, there are a number of parallels to the concerns about online bullying, threatening and intimidation that we’ve seen on forums like Twitter.

One story that got a lot of attention this summer, for instance, was that of 22-year-old Lauren Howard, a self-published author who saw that her book was being rated on Goodreads before she even released it. When she asked about this on a Goodreads message board, Goodreads users apparently got mad and started leaving vitriolic reviews of the book in retaliation. Salon cites Howard’s Tumblr, which Howard has since deleted:

“People started to rate 1-star to prove ‘we can rate whatever the hell we want.’ My book was added to shelves named ‘author should be sodomized’ and ‘should be raped in prison’ and other violent offensive things, all for asking a simple question as a newcomer to the website.”

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It’s hard to corroborate Howard’s story when she’s deleted her Tumblr (it’s not available in Google’s cache) and many of the Goodreads reviews and shelves allegedly devoted to bullying her have also been deleted. In addition, Howard backtracked on some of her statements.

“Author bullying” has been seen as a problem on the site for awhile. There’s a blog, “Stop the GR Bullies,” devoted to the issue, as well as two petitions that have garnered over 2,000 signatures combined. Yet “Stop the GR Bullies” has attracted plenty of criticism as well, with many arguing that the blog uses the same bullying tactics it claims to condemn, singles out individual reviewers and posts users’ personal information.

Porter Anderson has a good wrapup of the Howard saga here, and concludes, “The kind of hand-wringing intensity that has accompanied the Howard allegations and debates in recent days are a form of tacitly condoned bullying, in themselves. We are all bullied by hyperbole, rants, unstated bias, and ill-informed accusation.”

Users cry “censorship” and say Goodreads is condoning bad author behavior

Users have left over 2,000 comments on the blog post announcing Goodreads’ new policy. Many argue that an author’s online behavior is a valid reason for leaving a negative review of a book, and fear the reverse of the author-bullying scenario: That authors will now be able to harass readers (by spamming their Goodreads inboxes or by criticizing their negative reviews) with no recourse from Goodreads. Goodreads, meanwhile, stresses, “We do not tolerate authors attacking or harassing reviewers on the site…We are simply asking that you flag the content to staff’s attention rather than responding to inappropriate behavior in the review space. We will take it from there.”

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Users also don’t like that Goodreads is simply deleting reviews without warning users first. (Goodreads partially addressed this in a second update Monday morning, noting that users “with reviews or shelves created prior to September 21, 2013 that will be deleted under the revised policy will be sent a notification first and given time to decide what to do,” but reviews and shelves created after September 21 can be deleted without warning.)

Among the comments:

“Goodreads is essentially rewarding poor author behavior by chilling regular member discussion about it. Is this not a social network? Is it not valid for people to look into an author when determining whether their books? Why would I want to support someone who thinks it OK to name and shame readers?” (link)

“I’m sure all of the authors who have harassed and bullied and badmouthed and stalked reviewers who’ve given them less than stellar reviews are very pleased with these changes.” (link)

“Shelves and reviews about author behavior may not be reviews of the work itself, but they are valid concerns for readers to want to take into account. Hiding them from the main book page makes a certain amount of sense, but deleting them entirely is a step, or leap, too far.” (link)

And some users think the new policy is evidence that Goodreads now values authors, publishers and advertising dollars over members. “This site used to be for the readers,” one wrote. “Now it seems like it’s moving closer to appease authors and your sponsors.”

Goodreads: Trying to set “an appropriate tone for a community site”

In the update to its original post, Goodreads writes:

“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…let’s judge books based on what’s inside them.”

Overall, it’s not surprising that Goodreads is experiencing growing pains. The site’s membership doubled in less than a year, and since Goodreads will be integrated into the new Kindle Paperwhite, we’re likely to see another surge in members soon.

A social network for readers may still count as a niche site, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have to grapple with the harassment, bullying and free speech issues that we’ve already seen on more general sites like Twitter and Reddit. And that means more tough decisions like the ban on author-centric reviews.

This story was updated on Monday afternoon with further information on the blog “Stop the GR Bullies.”