Tuesday, September 24, 2013

GR's New Terms of Service

I'm a bit late to the table with this, but as many who frequent this blog know, Goodreads recently changed its Terms of Service regarding how criticism directed towards authors--as opposed to books--would be dealt with. As Kara, the Director of Customer Care at GR, states in the linked post:
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.
Although the implementation of the change in TOS was handled badly, in my opinion (with deletion of reviews and shelves without prior notice to members), I think that the change was long overdue and will ultimately make GR a better and more welcoming place to discuss books. I have a few random thoughts:

Why Mommy and Daddy Can't Have Nice Things

I'm a U.S. citizen, and one of the founding principles of our country--as enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S .Constitution--is the concept of free speech. Although, the First Amendment only limits how the government can restrict speech, the ability to express our opinions freely is also more widely held and vital cultural value. A privately-owned web site, such as Good reads, has the right to restrict speech and dictate the tone of discussion on their site. I think that most people who are passionate about a subject--in this case books, reading, authors, etc.--see the value in having a place where discussion about that subject can be wide-ranging, i.e. with minimal restrictions. None of us particularly likes to be told we can't talk about certain issues or aspects of that subject. And to date, Goodreads has mostly allowed wide-ranging discussion to occur.

Wide-ranging discussions are all well and good, however, until some participants use--and I would argue abuse--the privilege by repeatedly getting nasty with other members. Not every discussion is going to be civil; there are always going to be disagreements--even heated ones--and yes, some insults are occasionally going to be flung around. That's normal. But what inhibits wide-ranging discussion is repeated nasty behavior and personal attacks either by individuals or *groups* of individuals who target other members, particularly for minor offenses that are treated as if the offender is the most EBILEST PERSON EVAH!!!. In such an atmosphere, the loudest voices shout down all the others. The others are disenfranchised from the discussion.

The nastiness and poo-flinging in some areas of Goodreads has steadily gotten worse over the last year. Sadly, even though the poo-flinging was confined to a couple of genres and/or publishing methods, it became incredibly intense and drew national attention via several news articles and blog posts. So what's a business to do when it reaches this point?

GR's answer, clearly, was to place additional restrictions on discussion in attempt to refocus on its mission (or what I understand to be its mission) of being a site where members could discuss books. Not attack authors. Not attack each other. Perhaps if more members had taken a step back and said, "Hey, am I really adding to the discussion by making rude and nasty comments and by piling onto other reviewers and authors along with 1294 of my bestest friends?", then wide-ranging relatively-restriction-free discussion could have continued.

Lest there be any confusion: I am NOT talking about critical reviews or discussions that focus on the book or even about reviews/discussions that discuss the author's viewpoints as relevant to the book. I am talking about the shelving and all the other drama.

I Don't Care Who Started It

The poo-flingers on the reviewers' side claim that some authors started the poo-flinging by criticizing reviews or reviewers. They claim that criticizing, not just a reviewer personally (which is wrong), but merely a reviewer's opinion constitutes an "attack" on a reviewer. That is, they claim that criticizing a piece of writing constitutes an attack on the writer. However, they then turn around and claim their own criticism of a book--an author's piece of writing--is not an "attack" on an author. This is logically inconsistent and one of the reasons that their self-righteousness fails on so many levels. For the record, criticizing a piece of writing or an opinion is not the same as criticizing the writer.

The poo-flingers on the reviewers' side also make mountains out of tiny little specks of dirt. Take for example, the whole Kiera Cass drama. An agent made an unkind and inappropriate comment on Twitter--which the author simply deflected and did not participate in--and that resulted in a months-long, thousands-of-comments-long hand-wringing woe-is-the-poor-reviewer thread in response to the review that sparked the agent's comment. A thread in which the author was repeatedly viciously "attacked" (personal criticism, not criticism directed at her writing) and then had her book placed on shelves with names that also personally "attacked" her by a large number of people.

The poo-flingers on the authors' side respond to critical reviews with both thoughtful responses (sometimes) and personal insults (sometimes) directed at the reviewer. They claim that critical, even snarky reviews, are bullying or that they are "fake". Thoughtful responses are fine with me, but the rest? Nope. Critical, snarky reviews--so long as they discuss the book--are not "fake" or bullying, and calling a reviewer names or suggesting that they didn't read the book correctly or are overly critical, is all out of line.

Both "sides" in this need to stop acting like five-year-olds. It doesn't matter who "started it"; both groups need to put on their big-girl panties and stop. Be adults. Stop with the nastiness, the insults, the personal attacks, the poo-flinging, and the group piling-onto people they don't like.

Reading Comprehension Problems on a Reading Site

Many poster on the comment thread conflate GR saying, "You can't say that on GR" to "You shouldn't say that anywhere." Logic fail.

Hypocrisy, They Name is ...

Reviewers in the feedback thread are going on and on about how GR is for reviewers not authors and how authors need to never ever comment on reviews or invade a a reviewer's "review space"...unless, of course, it's an author the reviewers like--Ilona Andrews or Stacia Kane, for example (who are all fine authors and we are not knocking them for talking to fans!). Or indie authors like Angie Horn, who led a lot of the poo-flinging against other indie authors and who has subsequently been banned from Goodreads. So it's not all authors that these reviewers want to "stay out of their review space", just the ones that don't agree with their reviews.

Thou Dost Protest Too Much

Of course, many of the comments on the thread come from some of the worst poo-flingers, who are upset at the new guidelines. There are also the random over-the-top ridiculous responses (you knew I couldn't end this post without a little bit of snark, right?):

User JLC claims that the new guidelines amount to harassment of members; this is laughable. At least he/she admits that he/she is not a lawyer.

User Leah makes a long post that (deliberately?) misconstrues or ignores part of Kara's posts. She says, in part:
Your new policy is also really vague and hypocritical. Does it apply to living authors only? What about deceased authors? You do realize the literary canon is pretty much full of racist, sexist, privileged Dead White Dudes, right? So can we no longer discuss Joseph Conrad's racism in context of Heart of Darkness? Or John Updike's sexism? How about T.S. Eliot and Roald Dahl's anti-Semitism? What about the fact that Walt Whitman faked his own reviews? And geez, you may as well delete Mein Kampf from the site right now, considering it's nigh-impossible to discuss it without referring to its author, aka The Worst Human Being Ever.
This comment was eventually reposted on her author blog, and it currently has 591 likes. The problem is that this a complete strawman argument as Kara's original post already dealt with this issue:
Some people are perhaps interpreting this as you can't discuss the author at all. This couldn't be further from the case. The author is a part of the book and can certainly be discussed in relation to the book. But it has to be in a way that's relevant to the book. Again, let's judge books based on what’s inside them.
User Nicole the Reading Ninja thinks that the U.S. Copyright Act can be used to force a web site to post writing. She also says:

but when an author is free to write anything they want in a book, why aren't we free to express ourselves when reviewing said content, even if it means mentioning the author.
But an author is not "free to write anything in a book". They have to abide by the rules of the company that printed or published the book. Likewise a reviewer posting on web site has to abide by the rules of that web site.

There are also posters claiming that if they can't have shelf names slamming authors, then instead of doing the adult thing like creating a shelf called, for example, "not-for-me" or "not-interested", they are going to one-star all the books they haven't read by authors they don't like, thereby giving disgruntled authors yet more (legitimate) ammunition in this fight. Yes, behaving like pouty children is really going to improve the atmosphere at Goodreads. *sigh*

Final Thoughts

I will probably update this as I consider the issue more or in response to comments on this blog. I am open to discussing this, and I don't delete comments unless they are blatant threats or solely name-calling.


  1. I agree all the way with what you say here. I would like to just point out that none of this would be happening had GR staff nipped this in th ebud in the beginning and enforced the rules of their ToS fairly to begin with.

    Those who are complaining about this new approach by GR are claiming that their freedom of speech is being stepped on but as you so eloquently state, GR is a private company, FoS does not apply. Only their policy applies.

    Regardless, they still have to apply their policy fairly.

    The solution to this is simple: GR wants people to report their issues by flagging, not engaging with each other at the level they have allowed it to this point. If an author responds to a reviewer, GR wants that reviewer to flag it and report rather than taking matters into their own hands, or running off to their friends to "gang" up on that author. Likewise, if an author gets attacked in a review or with a nasty shelf by the reviewer, GR wants them to flag it so they can deal with it as apposed to the author taking matters into their own hands.

    In short: It appears GR finally wants everyone to simply report problems and issues to them and to let them deal with it instead of everyone taking matters into their own hands and slinging the poo.

    Sounds fair enough to me, provided of course, that GR handles these matters fairly between both sides.

    That has always been my primary beef with GR, that they were not addressing and enforcing their ToS fairly between the two sides. Hopefully now, they will begin doing so.

    But I still contend, that if you are a person who needs to make a book shelf of all the authors you hate, when you don't even know them on a personal basis, then you have to take a good hard look at yourself and ask, "Why do I hate so much?"

    To this point, it's been hypocrisy from both sides, myself perhaps included at times, but when people say the other side needs to grow tough skin, those who say that might want to grow some tough skin themselves. If you feel you have the right to attack and libel authors in book reviews, then by all means, those authors have every right to defend those attacks and libelous remarks. Yet, those who make those remarks seem to get angry that an author will dare defend themselves.

    Both sides need to grow tough skin. Better yet, both sides need to grow "up"?

    Myself included - I'm sure.

    It's never too late for all of us to try and become better people in general. Hate gets nobody anywhere. It divides and starts wars. Love, on the other hand, or at least, civility, is something we all could learn to live with.

    Good post Follies.

  2. Great post.
    Sadly the trolls still don't get it. they still insist this is all because of author behavior, it is not. It is about the endless, vicious personal attacks that have completely undermined the website's integrity.
    Closely related to the problem of attacks is the completely fraudulent API goodreads sell. The trolls are currently leaving as many 1-start ratings as possible further eroding the API's validity.
    Author's Behaving Badly is a lie. The actual number of instances of authors attacking reviewers is a few dozen and the number of attacks on authors must be in the tens of thousands.
    The situation on goodreads has deteriorated so badly that the most active members don't even know what a book review is.
    They believe a review is a weapon to be used to cause as much damage as possible to a writer's reputation, career, livelihood and dreams and not the critique of a book.

  3. "In short: It appears GR finally wants everyone to simply report problems and issues to them and to let them deal with it instead of everyone taking matters into their own hands and slinging the poo."

    This. The ganging up and public vitriol surrounding every slight--whether imagined or real, whether serious or trivial, whether directed towards authors or reviewers--has gotten out of hand.

    Like you, I do hope that GR takes fair and balanced approach to attacks by and towards all parties and can make GR a better place for everyone, readers and authors alike.

  4. "The actual number of instances of authors attacking reviewers is a few dozen and the number of attacks on authors must be in the tens of thousands."

    I don't want to speculate on who did what how many times to who, but I am glad to see that GR has decided that this type of behavior should be dealt with privately rather allowing members--reviewers and authors alike--to publicly run rampant over each other.