Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Amazon, Goodreads, and Me

In the past couple months, I've only responded to a handful of the comments that daily fill my Goodreads updates. Sometimes, I just take a vacation from Goodreads for a bit--perhaps I'm not in the mood, or I'm busy with other things--such as my first novel, the last chapter of which I finished about a week ago (expect a post on that when I finish my first editing pass). But this time, I didn't come back to GR after a few days and catch up, like I normally do. Instead, I stayed away, and though part of the reason for that was my book, another reason was the censorship debacle that's been plaguing the site recently.

If you haven't read Ceridwen's take on the whole matter, you should, because it's much more thorough than mine, and well-considered. She is the chronicler of our struggle, the bard who went through the battlefield and made note of whose heads had been lopped off. I also love the fact that she's now moving past that. It's certainly not her responsibility, and so I thank her for the good work she's done. There will be links to her articles at the end of this post.


However, even though she's covered it very well, a lot of you folks on GR seem to be interested in what I think, so this is me putting in my two cents. I'm a cautious person, I like to wait things out and see how they develop. When I heard Amazon had bought Goodreads, I knew that would mean a change--that the site would get bigger, the ads would change, and so would the interface--but I didn't know exactly how it would affect the important parts of GR: the reviews and the community that has been built up around them.

I've been a member there since 2007. When I joined, it was so I could keep track of my thoughts, what I had read, what I wanted to read, all of that. I was so used to writing critical analyses since my college days, and I saw this as an opportunity to keep up the habit, and regularly empty my brain of the thoughts that cluttered it. The idea that anyone might actually read my reviews never really entered my mind. I remember the day when the 'Top Reviewers' list was first rolled out by the staff. Lo and behold, there I was (number twenty-three, if I recall properly).

I eventually dropped off the list entirely, then somehow surged back into it, but that whole time, I've still never felt it was worthwhile to market myself, or my reviews. I didn't join groups, I've never followed anyone, I rarely commented or voted on other people's reviews, I didn't review the latest bestsellers, or whatever book was about to be made into a movie or TV series, I didn't start writing shorter, simpler reviews full of image macros and jokes--I didn't do any of the things a smart networker would do. In fact, I only ever sent one friend request in all the years I used the site, and that was to my old college roommate.

But then, I think that must have been attractive to some people, anyways, because here I am. I've always been partial to the advice of being wholly yourself and attracting a small audience who appreciates you for what you are, rather than marketing yourself to a larger audience that requires you to change yourself. That's how Mickey Mouse, the mean-spirited trickster, became Mickey Mouse the ever-smiling, personality-free symbol (though it was done to Jesus first).

But of course, not falling neatly into line, not giving in to bullies and assholes also gives one a certain reputation--not always a desirable one--and in my years on the site, I've often run into people who were quick to attack me, trying to cow me, to overwhelm me, to do anything they could to shut off my voice. They never did. They were idiots and assholes, incompetents and ill-informed, but only once, in all the hundreds of pages of comments, did I ever delete another person's post. It was a pointless attack against another person in the thread.

I have never felt that it was my position to remove vitriol aimed at me--certainly, I often responded, mocking and deconstructing the half-formed arguments leveled against my reviews--but I didn't censor the idiocy of others. Indeed, one of the reasons I became a top reviewer (or so I am often told) is precisely because I dealt with comments instead of censoring them. A person's words should be allowed stand as a testament to their character, so that anyone who came along could read what what has been written and make their own judgment.

That is the responsibility of any honest person, and there is no group of people in the world more conscious of the dangers of censorship than avid readers. That is why it is incomprehensible to me that Amazon allowed this to happen at all. The strength of a website is its community. The whole worth of the thing is in the traffic it provides. As my friend GN pointed out, there are only two possibilities here:

  1. Top Goodreads reviewers (like me) are tastemakers, and help to drive the market for books, making up the center of a community to which books can be marketed, in which case, the website was worth the millions Amazon paid for it.
  2. Top reviewers aren't actually important, didn't create a thriving community, and do not provide direction to others on what books they will purchase, and the site is not worth millions of dollars.

If number two is true, then it was just a bad purchase on Amazon's part. If number one is true, then the worst thing Amazon can do is alienate its top users, because that means they are destroying the value of the product they just bought. As the 1% Rule states, 1% of users on a website are creators (in this case, people who write reviews and start groups), 9% are contributors (people who vote and comment), while 90% are lurkers who just passively browse the site. This means that destabilizing the entire site only requires upsetting that 1%--hell, even .5% of all users quitting means a 50% reduction in content produced on the site, which means half as much to attract new readers, or keep old ones coming back.

So then, what's the fastest way to make enemies of a bunch of avid readers and writers? Well, how about randomly deleting their work with no warning and no explanation? Well, Amazon did kind of give an explanation, but it didn't actually fit what had happened. They said they were removing 'off topic reviews', especially those that talked about authors. However, that isn't actually what they did. Not only were reviews deleted, but comment threads, and star ratings with no review attached. Beyond that, the majority of reviews which did match the banned criteria were not removed.

It was such a vague, undefined policy, and even that was not followed by the staff. I could easily have had reviews of mine deleted, and as I sat, watching the whole thing unfold, the words ascribed to Niemöller rung in my ears:

First they came for the Communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

It felt like only a matter of time before the hammer that had fallen on my friends and colleagues would strike with equal force at me.

Yet, I've been on the site for a while, I've made a lot of connections with a lot of people: reviewers, writers, readers, thinkers, and so in my heart, I wanted to hope that things would get better, that the voices of the wronged would be heeded. Here I am, just finishing my first novel, and the whole reading community to which I have belonged is coming to bits. So I decided to wait. I hoped there would be an apology, a retraction, a definition of the removal policy that made sense and would pass scrutiny, an explanation of what this was and why it was done.

Was it a pure case of corporate ignorance, of a few careless interns making a mess of things, misunderstanding what they were hired to do? I've worked in the corporate world before, I've seen such things swept under the rug. Their boss doesn't want to admit an error, so he starts trying to defend the indefensible, and as it gets bigger, his boss has to stand behind it, too, and so on and so on, and thus is stupidity enshrined as universal policy.

Or perhaps it was something more menacing, an attempt to root out certain individuals, to quiet voices prone to speaking up about the profitable YA ebook market, the pages of which are so full of raw sewage and badly-behaved authors that any discussion on them is bound to resemble the lowest dregs of a Youtube comment thread.

Or perhaps something worse--perhaps they bought the site because it was becoming competition, and now that it's no longer a threat, they have little more care for it.

Whatever it was, it looks like we, the reviewers and readers, will never really know. There is no open channel of communication there, no honesty, no transparency. We are to be tossed about like ragdolls and never given any proper reason for it. What the next sign of this bad turn will be, I don't know, but Amazon's unwillingness to communicate shows that it isn't interested in taking its users' thoughts and desires into consideration. It does not respect us enough to treat us like adults. If it does not think us worthy of being treated seriously, then we can look forward to more careless treatment in the future. We might accept such treatment at a job, but Amazon isn't paying any of us to be here, so it's not surprising that many of us are weighing whether its worth it to us, any more.

But then, such is always the nature of websites and their communities: eventually, they go from bottom-up to top-down, and then they begin to die, as the content creators are alienated. Only a few sites, like Craigslist, 4Chan, and Wikipedia have escaped that fate, all because they are run by that peculiar sort of man who does not care to ally himself with a larger corporation, whatever they might pay. I'm not disparaging Otis in any way--it was his site, to do with as he thought best--I'm only observing the natural course of life and death for a website, and this one isn't looking all too good.

I have not posted a review to Goodreads since this whole thing started. I'm still writing them, but so far I've stuffed them away in a folder marked 'things to be figured out later'. A lot of top reviewers have left for Booklikes, and I made a profile there in order to keep in touch with them, though I haven't posted any reviews there yet. In the end, I'm not sure what I'll do, whether I'll post only one place, or several places, or just blog, or what. Once I've finished the edits on my book, then it will be time for me to think about the next step going forward.

However things turn out, I want to thank all of you for the experience I've had, the discussions, the support, the book suggestions, the reviews, the comments, the votes, the laughs, and all the rest. If things keep getting worse, and I'm forced to start over again, with nothing but my reviews for company--well, that's no more than I wanted in the first place. No big loss.

Of course, I am still responding to personal messages on Goodreads, and to comments on this blog, or you can always write me at hapaxgr@gmail.com. Until next.

Ceridwen's articles on the subject
By the Numbers
Full Revolt on Goodreads
Is Being a Racist 'Author Behavior'?
Is Editorial Interference 'Author Behavior'?
Off-Topic: The Story of an Internet Revolt
An Open Letter

30 comments:

  1. What you say about website communities eventually going down is true, I think, but also depressing. It feels like it's inevitable that the amazing community Goodreads has built up over the years will come crashing down. I, unlike you, invested quite a bit of heart and hope in the site when I first joined, and now all I can do is regret it.

    But despite that, and in response to your 2nd-last paragraph: I wanted to thank you too. You were honestly a huge part of the short one-year experience I've had so far on Goodreads and your insights completely changed my view of literature. I admit I've also been off on a bit of a GR hiatus, due mainly to a lot of doubts as to whether I'd changed so much that reading just wasn't for me anymore, but it was always your reviews and comments I went to first when I needed inspiration. Even now as I'm starting to wonder how much I was really worth to the Goodreads community (as a lot of other people are, seeing as Amazon apparently doesn't give enough of a shit to even talk to us), the great memories I've had since late 2012 are at least a bit of a comfort to me. Maybe the experience was worth it, in the end?

    (Jacqueline is my sister by the way, in case my profile name causes any confusion.)



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    1. "Maybe the experience was worth it, in the end?"

      I think it was, I'm glad to have had a chance to become acquainted and talk with people like you, and going forward, whatever happens, I don't think the community we have needs to die, it'll just change form, moving to other sites, to blogs, email exchanges.

      Anyways, I'm glad you've found my reviews and comments worthwhile. Please don't hesitate to keep in touch, if you ever want to discuss anything.

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    2. Ah, that's true. I doubt though that I'll ever find a site so conducive to discussion as Goodreads...but we do what we can.

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  2. So that's the reason for your inactivity in a long time recently. I don't have anything to add for this subject since I joined GR just one year ago. But I agree that when community sites bought by big corporate, expect things to go down sour and shit happens. Corporatism censorship is one hell of a dangerous weapon, and I think it'll keep going in the future.

    I want to read your reviews on newly read book though.

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    1. Well, I'm still writing them, so they will be posted up eventually, somewhere.

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    2. Just lets us now when your reviews are up. I would be very different by now if my friend never gave me the link to your GoT review. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell wouldn't be my favorite fantasy books. I want to thank you for all of that.

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    3. Well, I'm glad to have been of service.

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  3. You might know this already, but lately Goodreads has been reposting some of your reviews-- old ones, from months ago-- in my update feed, placing it above more recent activities.

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    1. Yeah, I just noticed that--I assume it's part of the process of Amazon trying to back up reviews, as Ceridwen was concerned about. Thanks for the heads up.

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  4. The best thing for you seem to be just to post your reviews EVERYWHERE. Why not? Spread the gospel.

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    1. Well, I wouldn't want to associate myself and my name with organizations that don't represent my interests. That would mean I was driving traffic (and money) to support something I don't agree with. If they're censoring me, that means they're trying to spread their own message, not my message--I can't preach my 'gospel' if I lack the freedom to express myself.

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  5. Thanks for speaking up about this issue; I wasn't even aware of it.

    So we'll pack up and find a new Good Reads, one with bright-eyed innovation and without corporate entanglement, and maybe that one will last us half a decade or more, and then when it gets screwed we'll pack up again and move on some more.

    And then when the Internet is [completely] ruined by the government, we'll make a new way to communicate. Because we have to.

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    1. Well, the Old West was a great place for cowboys, but not for family homesteads and businesses, so the West had to be tamed, made safe and civilized. Sure, there were still a few corners left for free spirits, but for the most part, that freedom was sacrificed to comfort. I'm afraid it will probably go the same way for us console cowboys: the internet will be sanitized and made profitable, a safe place for children and middle-aged consumers. When that happens, folks like me will just be old cranky men complaining about how things 'ain't the way they used to be'.

      It doesn't mean we have to give in, but I do count myself lucky to have lived in one of those brief ages of man, like the Old West, or the Golden age of Piracy, which last only thirty of forty years, where a group of free, outcast, like-minded individuals finds enough space to form a community.

      Sadly, the next step for free-thinkers, once internet content becomes controlled by providers and advertisers, is creating our own private virtual realms, shared perhaps with a few friends, not the grand social experiments that have made the internet remarkable so far.

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  6. Good grief.

    I never expected having to read all this as well as that post by Ceridwen as soon as I came back!

    Even during my long absence from GR, your thoughts and opinions have really influenced me and the way I think.

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    1. Yeah, a lot can happen in a short time, can't it?

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  7. I've never taken the effort to involve myself with the community or participate in GR discussions. (probably the 90% you're referring to.) What kept me visiting your profile was in search of the announcement that you'll be publishing a book. You've introduced me to Susanna Clarke, Mervyn Peake and you've changed the way I look at books. Thanks for that!

    Do keep writing.

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    1. Well, it's touching to think that I've had that effect on someone. I am close to putting out a rough draft of my book for feedback from readers. I'll put a post up here when that is all set in motion.

      If you need something to tide you over, I have a few short pieces posted up here on Goodreads. The one titled 'Ada's Story' is an excerpt from my upcoming novel.

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  8. Keely, I wanted to asked a question that really make me curious. This one particular question, could probably ended up as a material for new blog post. What I want to asked is, what makes a fantasy "fantasy"?

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    1. I've talked about it a bit before, in other articles, like Writing Magic Well but basically, it comes down to this: magic is the physical realization of a metaphor. The author takes an idea, and explores it in his story by turning that idea into a physical object.

      so, you can have a sword that represents justice, a spell that represents the moral idea of torture, an animal that represents nobility. Really, it's quite similar to what poets and philosophers do: taking ideas and then exploring them through words. Poets often treat ideas as if they were real, imbuing a rose with the emotional power of love, for example.

      This was also how our ancestors thought of the world: they saw signs and meanings in objects, in storms and plagues and shooting stars. They ascribed purposes to these things, and structured their lives around the messages they thought they saw.

      So, a fantasy world is merely a world that works by these rules, where human ideas can be personified in objects, creatures, and spells. The best fantasy authors use this framework to explore these ideas, to deconstruct and subvert them. The worst fantasy authors just use the ideas as a shortcut (the hero's sword represents justice, therefore anything the hero does must be just).

      Sci Fi a is a bit different, because while it also explores ideas through objects, it uses real objects, or objects which might someday be real. It is exploring how our ideas change as our technology changes, how things like cellphones, computers, and rockets change what it is to be a human being.

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    2. So what you wrote in the Writing Magic Wells post is enough to describe what should make a fantasy, fantasy then? I thought there'll be more than that. Thanks for the answer!

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    3. Well, mine certainly isn't the last word on fantasy, and I'm sure I'll try to tackle the issue again, but that article is a pretty good place to start, if you want to understand how I think of it.

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  9. It's been a while since I read your last writing. I miss them already, hope you post them soon Keely.

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    1. I'm sorry, I've had a number of ideas, but after a marathon editing session to finish the first draft of my book I decided to take a little break from writing. But don't be surprised if you see some new posts sooner rather than later.

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    2. I'm glad that you've made progress with your first novel. Really looking forward to that and your other writing.

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  10. Keely, since I don't know how to contact you, maybe I should asked you here if you don't mind. Do you have any recommended reading on the subject of Industrial Revolution and Victorian Era? I want to do some research, but don't know where to start and who to ask/

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    1. Well, that's a very large period--it really depends on what it is you're interested in learning about. There's art, culture, colonialism, history, technological innovation, politics, philosophy, and every other subfield of human study. It also depends whether you're looking to read fiction or not.

      I always find it interesting to read primary sources, meaning things that were written during the time period, by people who were actually there. Back in my college days, I used to spend a lot of time at VictorianLondon.org, which is all primary sources, such as newspapers, comedy magazines, and sociological studies. You can also find many of these books at Project Gutenberg or archive.org.

      One work that I find particularly fascinating is Henry Mayhew's 'London Labour and the London Poor'. Most world history has been written by and about the ruling classes. Mayhew's work was one of the first to look at how poor people lived, and it's full of unusual details about everyday life in Victorian London.

      The book is available in its entirety at archive.org. Also, don't forget that Wikipedia can be an excellent resource, especially if you need a place to start. If you want to contact me personally in the future, you can e-mail me at hapaxGR@Gmail.com. My e-mail address can also be found on my profile page.

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    2. Thanks for the response! I'll contact you further via e-mail.

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  11. I'm not surprised Amazon is screwing things up, I figured when they bought the sight that the goal would be to utilize Goodreads in herding readers to this or that book, product etc. I went from reading Sword of Truth to Gormenghast after reading your reviews, so thank you very much for that.

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    1. I'm glad I was able to help--and yeah, it's not really surprising what Amazon has done, but it is a bit disappointing.

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