When I first discovered the book nerd social networking site Goodreads a couple of years ago, I was thrilled.
Despite that I use social media as an important part of my work, and teach classes on the subject, the only one of these platforms I’d personally enjoyed was Twitter (which is still my absolute favorite)—until Goodreads. On Goodreads, like on Twitter, I found my people.
Once I joined, Goodreads quickly became part of my daily routine. I loved reading other readers’ recommendations and perspectives—and I adored finding books that I would never have considered. Goodreads has broadened my horizons as a reader and opened my mind to new genres and writers in way that’s been extremely rewarding.
For a couple of years, I puttered along on Goodreads without any hiccups. But things changed.
I’ve never amassed loads of friends on the platform, mostly because, as with Facebook, the terminology of “friend” is one I’m not wholly comfortable with. “Friend,” to my old school mind, implies a specific sort of relationship, so I tend to “follow” Goodreaders whose reviews I’m interested in, rather than friending them. However, I generally do accept any friend requests I get on the platform (more on that in a bit), unlike on Facebook where I try to keep things limited to people I at least have an email sort of relationship with. But really, my friend numbers are teeny, tiny compared to most folks (as of today, I have 135 Goodreads friends).
But, a few months ago I started getting a lot of friend requests from people with author status on Goodreads. The pattern went like this:
- Receive friend request from person with author status.
- Blindly accept friend request.
- Receive message from new “friend” recommending a book they wrote. (Always self-published.)
- Delete message & remove my new “friend” from my friends list.
- Rinse and repeat.
Initially, I complained to Goodreads about this pattern. It felt “spammy” and not in the spirit of the Goodreads community. Furthermore, it felt like it was an attempt at circumventing the paid promotional opportunities for authors on the platform and against the general guidelines of the Goodreads Author Program.
Goodreads’ response was disappointing, to say the least. Their oh-so-helpful recommendation was to unfriend people if I didn’t want to receive messages and recommendations of this nature.
So, because Goodreads clearly wasn’t going to do anything about this problem, I added a challenge question to my profile and started reviewing the profiles of anyone who requested a connection on Goodreads (which I really should have done from the beginning—I know better). If they’re an author I’ve never talked to or had any interaction with, I don’t accept their friendship. (This is not to say I don’t have any author friends on Goodreads. For example, I’m Goodreads friends with both Mindi and Molly, whose books I’ve enjoyed and whose book recommendations I value—they are both FNL fans, too, which is very important information in my world.) This has helped with the book “recommendation” spam quite a bit.
Apparently I wasn’t the only person who started more carefully screening friend requesters. Enter the Goodreads event invite spam.
This has been a tremendous problem lately. In this scenario, someone who’s rarely—if ever—left a comment or said “hi” following a friend request sends invites to “events.” Usually these events take the form of a “Twitter party” (pro tip: unless your party has cake, I’m not interested), a weekend discount on an ebook or a giveaway. Again, every single one of the spammy event invites I’ve received as been in support of a certain sort of book.
[An aside: Google tells me that this technique of book promotion is very popular among self-published authors, so they can circumvent the physical book requirement for Goodreads giveaways. Check out the results of a quick search.]
There’s no way on Goodreads to opt out of this sort of message from someone (or everyone) you’re friends with on the platform, and no way to report an event as spam, which is perplexing to me. Again, I did what a reasonable, proactive person would, I asked Goodreads about their policies related to this sort of promotion. (Both in an email and via Twitter.) Their response was disappointing.
Their response to my query regarding a specific incident (I had received many, many event invites to buy a self-published ebook at a discounted rate) also indicated that they do not see this activity as a problem, as long as it’s not “aggressive.”
Creating an event like this doesn’t break our rules in itself, but aggressive promotion of an event can.
Unfortunately, I trolled through the Goodreads Terms of Service (yes, I am one of those weirdos who reads the ToS), and there’s no definition of what “aggressive” means. (I actually could not find any reference to this policy in general, but I assume it is connected to this policy: “Goodreads reserves the right to remove a review at any time for any reason. It is at our sole discretion and no one else’s, that we decide when a review is against our guidelines.”)
To minimize this intrusion into my Goodreads experience, I took their advice, have removed any of the spammy event inviters from my friend list, and removed folks who just have a few books or no profile photo, just in case. This has (thus far) eliminated the spam I receive on Goodreads, but has resulted in some hurt feelings—and for that, I feel like a jerk—and I hate being a jerk. (Wouldn’t it be nicer if we could just opt-out of event invites from people, rather than unfriending them? Seems like a simple solution, right? Goodreads seems to disagree.)
Goodreads is a private company, and they can do what they want at their “sole discretion” and I don’t blame people for pushing the limits to get their books into the hands of readers.
However, Goodreads has created (I assume intentionally) a sense of ownership of the community in the hands of its users—the readers.
I’m a Goodreads librarian, for example. I enjoying helping keep book data current, adding covers and adjusting release dates. It’s a relationship unlike that on other social networks. I feel like I’m part of the Goodreads ecosystem. Goodreads did a wonderful job of establishing itself as a virtual hangout, as a place to chat and socialize. Basically, they’ve done a great job of being successful and making their members feel like they’re a part of that success. And I think a lot of people—especially those on Goodreads far longer than I—probably feel the same as they’ve been part of its growth from a tiny, niche site to a network with over ten million users.
However, with that growth has been a shift in the way it feels like Goodreads views its members, and where we sit in terms of the company’s priorities. The most obvious example is their caving to the jerks behind that website, prioritizing certain people’s hurt feelings and burying reviews addressing author behavior.*
I know of many frequent requests for simple features remain ignored.
For example, to return to my frustration over spammy event invites, my repeated suggestion that we be able to opt-out of such invites (not just turn off email notices) has fallen on deaf ears. Goodreads has expressed over and over again that they really don’t understand why this creates such an unpleasant user experience. I also know of a number of folks who have requested a mute feature similar to the “hide this story” function on Facebook so that reviews by popular Goodreaders won’t continue to appear in our feeds as every single one of our friends “likes” their reviews. (For days on end, the same reviews will sit at the top of my feed—I have nothing against these reviewers, I just would prefer to only see their reviews three times as opposed to fifty, so I don’t miss other, less popular reviewers’ posts.) I’ve seen loads of suggestions on various user threads related to being able to hide one’s own reviews and various ideas related to books being rated before review copies are even available. And I know there was a quite a bit of frustration related to the updating of the reviewer rankings (which I personally hate, but I know are important to a lot of folks).
And, yet, after building itself into an important force in the book world, leveraging the passion and enthusiasm of dedicated members, it seems that Goodreads couldn’t care less about suggestions and concerns from readers.
I would give them more of a pass if they hadn’t been so swift to react to the aforementioned negative review drama this summer, and reacted in favor the the folks who were very, very wrong. That action demonstrates that the company clearly has the ability to respond to user suggestions.
Tackling little issue such as spam (yes, Goodreads, it is spam, even if you don’t define it as such) would make the reader/reviewers’ experience on the platform so much more positive, and would, in my way of thinking, lead to more long-term loyalty to the site in which many of us feel a level of investment (a feeling I am certain was intentionally cultivated by Goodreads as part of their very smart growth strategy). Addressing big issues like those related to “that site” would go even further toward demonstrating that the company is committed to integrity and the positive experience of all users.
As I said, Goodreads is a private company, and they can do what they want. And, we choose to use their service.
However, I think we—the readers who use Goodreads to discover books and make recommendations—give the company a lot in terms of highly valuable data about reading behavior. This is a critically-important information to a book industry that’s still trying to find its way in the world of the internet and in a retail climate in which fewer and fewer communities have access to bookstores as a traditional means of book discovery. What readers give to Goodreads (data) in exchange for our membership is very, very valuable.
Goodreads once positioned itself as a company that valued its users—and that’s a very good thing. If Goodreads’ didn’t have its origins in this collaborative, user-centric business model, if it were more like Facebook—which has been very clear that the user experience is unimportant—I’d feel quite a bit differently about Goodreads’ transformation over the last year. It saddens me that when Goodreads hit the big-time (largely thanks to the perfect storm of the Facebook timeline rollout and the boom in digital self-publishing), it seems like there was no plan for managing the community’s growth in a way that respected all users: readers, authors and advertisers.
Goodreads says that readers form their foundation.
Ultimately, it’s all based on our foundation of true-blue readers.
I would love to see Goodreads remember that, and re-embrace the people without whom they could not have become the force they are today. Because without readers, where would Goodreads be?
*For the record, reviewers should be held accountable for their behavior as well—we’re not special snowflakes either. But we’re not the ones starting websites aimed at tracking down people and threatening them, now are we?