September 23, 2013

Just don’t critique the author! (Vintage Books/Associated Press)

Internet, this is why we can’t have nice things.

On Friday afternoon, the popular book review sharing site Goodreads updated its terms of service to more explicitly bar criticism that focused on a book’s author rather than its content. Here is the post from the Director of Customer Care.

The most controversial change?

“**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.

This would not have been so bad if the new Delete All Ad-Hominem Reviews policy had not been implemented almost immediately, without warning, offering reviewers no chance to alter or back up the reviews that turned out to violate the guidelines.

Suffice to say that this did not go over well, in the sense that a lead balloon full of censorship does not go over well.

Goodreads has since apologized for deleting the reviews and book-organizing shelves of 21 users without notifying them first (“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.”) but the comment firestorm continues to rage. Hell hath no correctly punctuated fury like a book nerd scorned.

And from the comments, blog posts and mad dash to BookLikes and other alternative sites, readers feel pretty scorned.

Reviewers who had given some books bad marks based on bad author experiences, and subsequently seen their hard work erased, took to their profiles, Twitters,and personal websites to complain about the peremptory deletions. Some took a more satirical tack in criticizing the new no-more-ad-hominem policy.

User Mike jokingly posted a review of Mein Kampf in which he quipped, “This author is such a [jerk]. I’m not even going to read it!”

“i believe this review is against the goodreads terms of service, sir,” commented another user.

(In fairness, this one might fall under autobiographical exemptions, but still.)

User Steph Sinclair noted in a status update, “I am unsure if I’m going to leave GR completely or drastically cut back on my usage. I dislike change and hate censorship even more. Deleting my ‘due to author’ shelf, but keeping my ‘cool author’ shelf speaks volumes.”

“I am a little sad they deleted my ‘Opium Fiend Sister Banging Authors’ Shelves. But it only had Lord Byron on it so that’s okay,” quipped author Tiffany Reisz on Twitter.

I was initially somewhat sympathetic to the Goodreads perspective — judge the sandwich by the sandwich. As a reader myself, I get away from the problem of ad-hominem reviewing by only reading books by dead people who will not mind if I complain that “Victor Hugo is an old blowhard who seems to have an architecture fetish” or “Virginia Woolf needs to get a room — of her own. Heyo! Please, stab me, someone.” But this is not an adequate approach.

Judge the read by the read, not the writer. And in a site geared at engagement with other readers about books you loved, liked, and loathed, where it is not just possible but encouraged that some of those authors might be wandering around reading their own reviews, it makes sense to have certain basic rules of civility. But even if the changes come to be embraced and wind up creating a more welcoming community, the initial peremptory imposition sits badly.

Goodreads noted in an email that “It’s clear that some of the problems have come up because authors who are new to Goodreads don’t always know what’s appropriate on Goodreads. Some of them have been too aggressive in their self-promotion. We’ve taken steps to help educate them better and we are moderating more aggressively. Lots of members really value the chance to interact with authors of books they’ve loved reading. We see this all the time and it’s an important part of Goodreads.”

Running a Big Site Where People Keep Their Things is always a balancing act between Trying To Appease The Community Of Engaged Users Who Are Your Source Of Value, Trying To Expand Your Appeal, Trying To Monetize Your Current Users, and Trying To Maintain Certain Basic Standards of Decency And Lawfulness. To what degree this move smacks of which motive is a question people in the comments seem to be answering differently.

But the underlying problem here is what I like to call the Dave’s Garage problem of the Internet. As someone pointed out during the “What? Instagram Can Share Your Photos?” scandal, if you store all your belongings in your friend Dave’s Awesome Free Garage, and one day Dave comes along and says, “Hey, friend, I no longer want to store all your things. I only want to store SOME of your things, according to NEW RULES,” that’s not really censorship. That’s Dave’s right. It’s his garage.

But this goes both ways. If Dave doesn’t run the only garage in town, you might take your things that you are storing in his garage for free somewhere else. And that will show HIM! (But actually, it will, because your things are what gives his garage its value.)

The Internet is full of people who write things. Some write for free. Some write for pay. Some write for pay but would do it for free. Most of the people who make the Internet and Goodreads the wonderful, engaging places that they are by giving freely of themselves, their time, and their opinions — freely being the key word here — ask nothing more than our +1′s and our Likes and our follows and our upvotes in return. Take them for granted, though, or tick them off, and you risk losing all the wonderful things they are giving you for free — unless you have already attained Facebook-like levels of You Can Never Leave This Place For All Your Friends Are Here saturation. Is Goodreads there? We’ll have to see.

Goodreads noted via email that “Readers are the biggest audience on Goodreads. Our site is designed to help them find and discuss books they love. We’re in awe of the passion and thought that goes into the book reviews on our site. We think we have something special here with the Goodreads community and we want to support and protect that.”

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.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.