Censorship: #Goodreads Goes Bad?

CensorshipIf you’re not active on Good Reads then you missed last week’s fallout over changes to their review/book shelf policy. The issue was big enough to make its way into an article in the Washington Post. And like most regulations, it was met with passionate arguments, outrage, and support.

At the core of the disagreement between Goodreads users and Goodreads management is censorship versus brand image. A difficult discussion since on the one hand it is the users that provide the brand’s value and on the other the Goodreads brand needs to protect its credibility as a positive platform for an author/reader community.

In a nutshell here’s what happened. Goodreads is a site dedicated to the interaction of readers and authors. People create groups, have discussions, review books and create various bookshelves where they house virtual books under different category titles. How these bookshelves are “titled” and the content of the reviews has gone pretty much uncensored. In other words, you could place books on a shelf you titled, “The Best Books Ever” or equally on a shelf titled, “Authors who are Jerks.”

The revised policy, which Goodreads claims has always been their policy,  disallows any negative tags or reviews that comment on the character or behavior of an author. In other words, you can say bad things about a book, but not about an author. And yes, as one can imagine, there exists a lot of grey area in making determinations on what is “negative.”

The Goodreads user community is not happy. The complaints have some merit. For example, the policy revisions were communicated on a Friday and many users felt this was  purposeful to have the weekend to avoid massive complaints. The greatest complaints, however, were that Goodreads gave no prior notification of this change and began systematically deleting bookshelves and reviews they deemed in violation.

Users felt strongly that Goodreads had no right to delete such things without giving the user the opportunity to save or revise their works. Obviously Goodreads has the “right” to do as they wish with their site, however, the move was definitely a poor execution in terms of customer relations.

For authors there is little in this change that they feel is a negative. Except of course that most writers agree that censorship is never a good thing. Authors were the primary driver behind the enforcement of the policy. No one wants a negative, public label, placed on their career. As a business professional, I have little doubt that behind the Goodreads decision lies both brand protection and revenue considerations. Goodreads is no longer a stand alone free service offering a community for readers. It is now part of the Amazon family and Amazon has always had stricter policies regarding interactions.

As we speak, there are already rumors that Amazon is combing the reviews on its site and removing overly positive reviews whereas it appears the reviewer did not purchase the book. Interesting that in one case they are removing the negative and the other they are removing the positive. At least now both Authors and Readers have found common ground to cry “foul” on censorship.

Regardless of my agreement with either policy, clearly Amazon’s goal is to be a credible source for information about its product offerings. On the one hand fake positive reviews (sock puppeting) can reduce the sites credibility and create bad relations with customers who purchase “highly rated” books that are terrible. On the other, negative reviews that attack the character or behavior of authors can lead to claims of defamation, of which, Amazon and Goodreads could be potentially libel. Readers may be the consumer, but authors are the supplier and customer, so Amazon/Goodreads must find the middle ground to appease the needs of both.

It was probably a bad idea to systematically remove reviews and bookshelves through an algorithm – no doubt some of the complaints are centered on the removal of titles that didn’t violate the policy and over reviews that were legitimate. Unfortunately when faced with such the massive endeavor of culling through tens of thousands of records some mistakes will be made.

What is not really occurring in these discussions are completely honest communication on intentions and practices. Goodreads and Amazon are staying out of the fold, responding where they see fit, and ignoring most of the hate mail. The majority of discussions are between those who are primarily readers and those who are primarily writers. The readers complaining about the unfairness of censorship and the writers complaining about the removal of “great” reviews. Both feel they are being punished for different reasons. Both are talking around the practices that brought about these changes.

Authors want positive reviews. A part of an author’s marketing strategy is to employ methods to get those reviews. Those strategies include asking for reviews, trading books for reviews, and participating in give-a-ways. The strategies also include paying for services that find reviewers. While the readers argue that the practice creates “fake” reviews and that Amazon disallows such, materially that is not true. Amazon’s Create Space brand offers paid review services through Kirkus and Clarion. Amazon’s policy simply states that paid services must go in the editorial review section not in the user section. The only method they have to determine any violation is to see if the reviewer actually purchased the book through Amazon.

Unfortunately that practice means that an ARC, a free book, or a book purchased anywhere beside Amazon could be disallowed for review. Payment is hardly the issue in reviews. There are authors who sock puppet their work. They create a number of different user log ons and then write reviews about their stories. They trade good reviews with other authors – I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. And of course they refuse paid services the right to post negative reviews. So while authors can argue against removal, there have been enough gray area violations to warrant a quality control inspection.

Readers want complete freedom to write what they want to write. That freedom is an important component of the book experience, as four out of ten readers make their buying decision on “what others have to say.” But, just as the writers aren’t discussing some of their “game the system” tactics, the readers are not being completely honest about some of their intentions to ‘punish” authors either.

Readers understand the impact of their reviews. They understand that as a group they can make or break an author’s career. And although many of the bookshelf naming complaints seemed legitimate, there exists no policy that states you can’t have a bookshelf titled “one star reviews,” “books I didn’t like,” or “authors who work I don’t enjoy.”

The policy states you can’t make statements about the author’s character. So you cannot create a folder that reads, “Authors who are jerks.” I am using a mild title compared to some of the bookshelves titles that existed. What readers don’t want to say is “well yes, if an author is a jerk, or mean, or argues about the review I gave, then I and sometimes my friends punish that author by placing them in a derogatory category.” In other words, “I use this venue to punish authors I don’t like.”

While perhaps some disagreeable and combative authors deserve to be called out, in general, such practices ultimately open the door for bullying and really have no bearing on the quality of a story. If you don’t like the story you can say so, if you have issue with an author that’s an opinion that Goodreads/Amazon don’t want to provide you a public billboard for.

At the heart of the issue is the question of censorship and who gets to make the user community rules. The answer to the second question is, of course, Amazon and Goodreads make the rules. Readers and authors can vote on such policies with their feet. Start another community, post on a different website, don’t buy products from Amazon. The issue of censorship has always been founded in the practice that your right to use your fist ends at the tip of my nose. Truth shouldn’t be censored, but hurtful or deceitful opinions and practices are often regulated.

I made a point on censorship in a Goodreads group. It went unanswered and I probably made it at peril to my own fan base, but I believe in truth and I believe in fairness, and of course I believe in the point I made.

Goodreads and Amazon’s management and users have a long history of censoring authors. There has been no outcry to end such policies and, in fact, many readers have assisted in helping enforce these censorship policies. The policies appear in many places. They are rules that state “where, when and how” authors can post, reference, or discuss their own works. Readers will remind, call out, and report authors who violate these rules.

Many of the Goodreads’ groups where censorship policy complaints were posted, these same groups regularly censor and remove author posts that violate the group’s censorship policy. Readers support these rules because they do not want to be inundated with self-promotions. Does it make sense? Certainly one could argue it does, no one wants a salesperson constantly at his or her door step. Is it censorship? Yes it is and it is definitely segregation. Does the group have the right to do it? Depends on whether you believe Goodreads/Amazon have the right to censor.

In the end, the readers and authors will get over this issue. It will fade to the background as people get used to the new rules and there are newer things to discuss. Those determined to have their say will find work arounds and we’ll all go on with our lives.

It’s a good thing however that there is such outrage. It is a healthy reminder that we should take our liberties and our rights seriously. It also serves to remind us that social media is still a new venue and one where many of the social manners we employ in face to face interactions have been dismissed, forgotten or sidelined.

Global communication can be a positive mechanism to better understand one another, to see the strength of differences, and to support the dreams of others or it can be a hateful place used to attack, criticize, and use anonymity to be hurtful. The final decision as to which path we choose will be defined though our own behaviors.

Censoring truth is a terrible thing that we should always fight against – to avoid censorship our first step is to be responsible for our words, with our words, and to be honest with the intentions of those words.

Keep it sane

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