Friday, September 27, 2013

Goodreads Review Policy Changes

As part of a recent policy update, Goodreads implemented the following 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.

Apparently, lots of Goodreads members are very angry about this and many are going so far as to cancel their Goodreads accounts.

Pick A Side, Any Side

On the one side are the authors, who feel reviews focused primarily on the author rather than the book, or which include allegations of plagiarism, are inherently unfair. Admittedly, some authors try to retaliate against those who post negative reviews even when the review is solely focused on the book's content, and because of this many Goodreads members are afraid to post negative reviews at all.

On the other side are the reviewers, who feel they have a right to know when authors behave badly, when authors retaliate against reviewers, or when there are allegations of plagiarism in connection with a given book.

Some authors say they are under personal attack from reader-reviewers who misuse the Goodreads platform, and that false claims being posted about them are causing real damage to their sales and careers. Some reader-reviewers say they are just as much, if not more, under attack from authors. There have been reports of reader-reviewers being harassed on sites outside of Goodreads, having their personal contact information exposed online, or even being hacked as "punishment" for a negative review.

Before I get into my lengthy analysis---sorry, but it's a quagmire and there's a lot to look at---, let me state first of all that since I am an author myself some people will undoubtedly think I have an agenda here and I'm automatically going to take the authors' side, but that's not true. I think the majority of reviewers, just like the majority of authors, aren't guilty of any wrongdoing here. Rather, it seems to me the bad behavior of a vocal minority on both sides is spoiling things for everyone.

I don't doubt the reports of extremely inappropriate, even literally criminal in some cases, behavior on the part of some authors. However, I also know there are a few bad-egg reader-reviewers out there who are more interested in power-tripping than in providing fair and informative reviews, and some who even take pride in destroying a new book's, or an author's, prospects.

Peeling Back The Layers

When it comes to complex issues like this, where there is no obvious "right" answer, nor a solution that will satisfy all sides, I try to go back to basics by removing the specifics that people seem to think makes a given situation fraught with uniqueness when really, it's not. Once all of the emotionally-charged "specialness" is gone, it's easier to simply apply logic. Here are my considerations, and conclusions.

First, what if we were talking about professional, mainstream reviewers instead of Goodreads reader-reviewers? Professional, mainstream book reviewers never (to my knowledge) base their reviews of books on author behavior, and if author behavior is ever mentioned in a mainstream book review at all, I think it's a pretty rare occurrence. This would seem to support Goodreads' choice to eliminate all review and shelf content that hinges on author behavior, merely on the grounds that such statements aren't a proper use of a book review platform in the first place.

Second, if we already draw a clear, legal delineation between opinion/free speech and libel why can't we just apply that same, pre-existing paradigm here?  We already have a legal definition of what constitutes libel, and since libel is illegal, site owners should always have the right (maybe even the responsibility) to remove libelous content, regardless of who posted it.

As the administrator of numerous websites myself, I know all too well the necessity of erring on the side of caution when it comes to deleting potentially libelous member posts. If the target of such posts makes a libel claim, that claim can name site owners and administrators as liable parties in a lawsuit. So here again, I'd be in agreement with Goodreads' decision to unilaterally delete all such questionable content.

Third, I've been witness to plenty of false allegations that quickly gathered steam and spread like wildfire all over the 'net, so it doesn't seem right to just let reader-reviewers post their various claims as facts with zero oversight. Not everyone can be trusted to verify whatever allegations they've heard, it seems most people will just pass the allegations on; this is how internet urban myths are born. Another point in favor of disallowing the 'author behavior' reviews and shelves.

Again, I'm not saying attacks against reader-reviewers are ever justified, but I think it's important to acknowledge that placing limits and controls on abusive or irresponsible reader-reviewer behavior is just as important as placing limits and controls on abusive or criminal author behavior.

Fourth, what if we were talking about consumer reviews of a product other than a book? Here again, I don't recall seeing many mentions of inventor, CEO, company or spokesman behavior in product reviews as any kind of justification for a bad review. The closest I can think of is negative app reviews where the reviewer accuses the developer of posting sock puppet reviews or collecting excessive personal information through the app.

Personally, I've always found those reviews to be abusive of the review system since they usually make little or no comment on the app itself. Why shouldn't the same standard apply to book reviews? The reader is supposed to be reviewing the book, not the author. Once more, I think Goodreads has a leg to stand on in choosing to bar 'author behavior' reviews, statements and labels based on its 'proper use' policy.

Finally, while I agree it's fair for reader-reviewers to share their personal opinions about matters other than a book's specific content, due to the libel and false allegation issues, I think all such sharing should be handled more privately or entirely off-site from sites like Goodreads and Amazon. Some reader-reviewers have said they really want to know if there's a suspicion of plagiarism or criminal author behavior, because such information truly can guide purchase decisions. However, given the enormous and somewhat anonymous nature of the internet, it's unreasonable to expect site owners and administrators to fact-check every allegation made in any of the tens of thousands, or even millions, of posts on their sites. Yet if they do no fact-checking and let potentially libelous allegations remain in place on their sites, they can be held liable in a legal proceeding.

My final conclusion is that the Goodreads policy change is both fair and appropriate, given the risks Goodreads faces if it allows the 'author behavior' content to remain.

Reader-reviewers who feel unreasonably constrained by the changes at Goodreads do have another option: they can always start their own blogs for posting 'author behavior' information, and shoulder the potential for legal liability themselves. I suspect that after a couple of cease-and-desist orders from attorneys, they might feel quite differently about this matter.