Goodreads, a social networking site for book lovers, has grown a lot since its acquisition by Amazon (s AMZN) earlier this year. And as it adds members, it’s facing some of the same challenges that big online communities like Twitter and Reddit have experienced before it. Goodreads probably isn’t going to be able to please all of the audiences it serves — authors and readers, power users and casual visitors.
Late last week, Goodreads announced that it will delete book reviews and shelves that focus on an author’s behavior rather than on a book’s content. The policy aims to combat author bullying, but it’s infuriated many active Goodreads users who think the site is coddling authors at the expense of passionate users. Users also fear that their content — both positive and negative reviews — could disappear from the site without warning.
The episode forecasts the challenges that Goodreads is likely to face as it transitions from a niche site to something bigger. The site had over 20 million users as of July, and it will add many more users when Goodreads is integrated into the Kindle Paperwhite’s software this holiday season.
Deletion without warning seems like a recipe for disaster
Goodreads’ announcement that it would delete reviews and “shelves” (user-curated collections of books) focused on author behavior rather than a book’s content was posted on a Friday. As of Tuesday, that post had received over 3,000 comments from mostly unhappy users.
In general, these users have three big problems with the policy changes: First, they’re calling this censorship; second, they’re mad that Goodreads is deleting content without warning and they fear that their reviews and shelves will be wrongfully deleted on a whim; and third, they think that the new policy favors authors, allowing them to spam and harass readers who leave negative reviews of their books. In addition, some users are upset that Goodreads hasn’t made an official announcement via email or on its homepage about the new policy.
Goodreads has responded to these concerns in two updates to its original post. The company stressed that it’s trying to set “an appropriate tone for a community site.” It told readers it takes bad author behavior seriously and that spamming and harassment violate Goodreads’ author guidelines. And it said that anyone “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.”
The company also suggested that only a small number of users were actually affected: “To the 21 members who were impacted: we’d like to sincerely apologize for jumping the gun on this.”
However, users aren’t reassured. They still fear that their content will be deleted without warning, and that Goodreads will accidentally delete content that doesn’t focus on author behavior at all. One user, for instance, claimed that Goodreads had deleted her five-star Harry Potter book reviews without warning. But a Goodreads customer care rep followed up to say, “I just triple-checked with the team and we haven’t deleted any Harry Potter reviews…I can have someone check the site logs to see if we can get more data to go on, but I can tell you those items were definitely not deleted by staff.”
At any rate, it’s clear that some users are going to be extra vigilant about monitoring their content, and they are likely to blame Goodreads if some of it goes missing, even if that somehow happens accidentally or due to user error. It seems that one way that Goodreads could avoid this is by warning all users — not just users of content created before September 21 — before their content is deleted.
Jane Litte, who runs the popular romance blog Dear Author, also suggested that Goodreads add the ability to create private reviews and shelves.
“People could have their freedom of expression and authors wouldn’t see it, only their friends would,” she told me. “That was a suggestion made on the GR forum and they just didn’t want to do it.”
Striking a balance between authors and readers
Goodreads’ business model requires it to be a community for both authors and readers. The site sells promotional packages and advertising to authors and publishers, but it needs readers to see those ads.
Goodreads says, however, that it’s first and foremost a site for readers. “Most of our features are designed to help readers to find, share and discuss books they read,” Goodreads VP of communications Suzanne Skyvara told me. “We have also had authors on the site since the beginning, and we believe both readers and authors can benefit by being on Goodreads together…an important part of discussing books for many people is having the opportunity to connect with authors.”
“We’re learning and adapting as our community is growing, but we believe in staying focused on our mission to help readers find good books to read. In building a community and setting guidelines for the site, we use two simple principles: reviews should be about the book, and it is never OK to threaten or harass anyone — whether they’re an author or a reader. This focus is what guides us in making Goodreads as great a place as we can.”
In fact, it’s difficult to see how Goodreads can serve one side while ignoring the other: Skyvara is correct that a lot of readers are attracted to Goodreads because authors run giveaways and participate in discussions there. It’s clear that any policy that seems to favor one group over the other is going to invite a backlash from the group that feels jilted, but issues like this are likely to continue to arise.
Learning from Amazon — and a data scientist is on the way
Some users suspect that Goodreads’ new owner, Amazon, is somehow responsible for the changes on the site.
Goodreads didn’t respond to my questions on whether Amazon is guiding or affecting its policies. It’s worth noting, however, that Amazon’s commenting features are quite different from the system used by Goodreads.
On Amazon, for instance, users can mark customer reviews as “helpful” or “not helpful.” Reviews with the most “helpful” votes rise to the top, and those that receive enough “not helpful” votes are simply hidden from the site. In addition, Amazon specifically prohibits authors from promoting their books on discussion boards. (Some users have complained about that policy, too.)
So Goodreads might want to take some cues from Amazon here. Goodreads’ Skyvara told me the company is working on its commenting infrastructure and will be hiring a data scientist to put better review filtering in place:
“Over time we plan to better use all of the data we have around reviews so that we are putting the best reviews – the ones that will be most interesting and useful – at the top. This is a big data problem, and we are hiring a data scientist to work on it. At the same time, we already personalize how you see reviews – you see your friends’ reviews first and then you see reviews by people you follow, all people that you know and trust.”
A community, with all the benefits and problems that entails
Goodreads is bound to face the same growing pains that bigger sites like Reddit, Twitter and Facebook (s FB) have experienced. The incident over the weekend probably won’t change many people’s minds about the site, even though it may drive some influencers away — in the same way that some disgruntled folks have left Facebook but most have stayed because, well, everyone’s using Facebook.
The question is whether Goodreads is established enough that most users will think it’s too valuable to leave. As Alexandra Petri wrote at the Washington Post:
“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’ power users make up only a sliver of its user base of 20 million (and that base should increase drastically when Goodreads is integrated into the new Kindle Paperwhite this holiday season.) Those users care a lot about Goodreads’ new policy, and anecdotal evidence, in the form of tweets and Goodreads posts, suggests that some of them are leaving the site and migrating to competitors like BookLikes,
If enough power users leave, Goodreads may suffer. “The malcontents that Goodreads doesn’t like or that authors don’t like actually provide some of the most robust positive reviews [as well],” Litte told me. “They are passionate about the books that they love and passionate about the books that they hate.”
But the vast majority of users on Goodreads are likely people who don’t have time to leave many reviews or get involved in discussions. They may spend a few minutes on the site a week, and they’re not tracking the site’s new policies closely (if they’re even aware of them in the first place). And while Goodreads will try to appease both sides, it is likely betting that its real growth will come from the users who spend a few minutes a week on the site and are primarily just looking for something to read.