Recently Goodreads, the popular social cataloging website, has found itself in the middle of a dust-up between some of the site’s users and some authors. An anonymous group recently started a website to highlight what they call “author bullying” on Goodreads, which basically amounts to readers leaving unkind reviews that sometimes also comment on authors themselves.
The openness and free-wheeling spirit of user reviews on Goodreads is one of the things that makes it so useful, so to this point Goodreads has been rather hands-off, and as far as I know there has been almost no mention of hiding, deleting, or down-ranking user reviews by the site based on the content of the reviews.
Apparently, though, the attention this anonymous group brought to the site has resulted in some policy changes, or at least the enforcement of pre-existing policy.
Recently, Goodreads users started getting a message if one of their reviews had been hidden by Goodreads staff, and a comment thread sprang up in reaction to this change (the thread now has more than 1000 comments).
A Goodreads community manager commented on the thread and explained the change and the policy going forward:
“We want to make sure that we’re showing the most relevant and most useful reviews on that page.
Ridley,[the user who started the comment thread] in this particular example, your review was hidden because it is not a review of the book, but rather of the author. One of the points in our guidelines will be “review the book and not the author.” If you want to post something about the author’s conduct or behavior, that’s fine, and we certainly aren’t going to delete those reviews, but they will not be shown on the book page. Your friends and followers will be able to read them, just like they always have, but the book page is and always has been for reviews of the book. Again, this isn’t new. This is just a more transparent approach to something we’ve always done. I’m sorry you saw the message before we got our guidelines up. Hopefully when we post those, it will clarify what to expect.”
I think the two key phrases here are “most relevant and useful reviews” and “review the book and not the author.” Taken together, the phrases show what Goodreads considers a fair review–one that does not comment on the author. For many readers, this might be a completely reasonable definition. However, Goodreads is a home for millions of readers who are not reviewers, and their relationship to books and reading exceeds the traditional purview of a “book review.”
To be clear, Goodreads is not deleting user reviews here, but they are segregating reviews that fit their definition of what a review is from those that don’t fit it. If the great majority of readers agree with this definition, then they won’t have a problem. But I do wonder that this tamping down of discussion will frustrate some users. Balancing vibrant reader participation with author and publisher expectations is a tremendously difficult task, especially when your business depends on readers wanting to say what they think about books—and their authors.