WRITING ON THE ETHER: When Bad Things (Seem To) Happen on Good Sites

22 August 2013 iStock_000018287542XSmall photog StephenHenry4 texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Goodreads: “We take all these comments very seriously”
  2. “I despise all of this drama”
  3. It’s Just Books

Goodreads: “We take all these comments very seriously”

You don’t necessarily think the world of bookworms would be full of bullies.

Goodreads August 2013Ether readers’ private notes to me about recent allegations of reader-on-author bullying at Goodreads have been intelligently restrained—concerned, not accusatory; baffled, not indignant. Communicating in direct message on Twitter and in email with me, readers have asked about this issue in terms of  searching, thoughtful worry.

So I’m especially glad to have new reassurance from Otis Chandler‘s managerial team at the Goodreads offices in San Francisco to offer you, and on a very tight deadline. I’m placing this statement first, hoping you’ll bear it in mind as we look at some details of recent remarks.

From Goodreads, then:

We take all these comments very seriously and would like to make it clear that threatening violence against other Goodreads members is not tolerated on the site, and any such content will be removed promptly when brought to our attention.

If any of your readers have any concerns, please encourage them to bring it to our attention at support@goodreads.com and we’ll investigate and take the appropriate action.

As a point of process, I might add that if you need to register a concern at that email address, put something direct in the subject line (along the lines of “Possible Abuse,” etc.), so the support staff can quickly identify your correspondence as sensitive.

SalonNow. A single ground rule as we look at what’s afoot: No one is objective (as journalists learn very quickly about themselves), but we can all try to be fair. And sometimes this means the best we can do is be very clear in acknowledging what we don’t actually know.

Hearsay can be intensely damaging. Confusion can be as big an enemy as mendacity. Having to say, “I just don’t know what happened, I wasn’t there,” can be less gratifying than adopting the claims of others as factual.

Mary Elizabeth Williams
Mary Elizabeth Williams

The line I started with—”You don’t necessarily think the world of bookworms would be full of bullies”—is the lead on Mary Elizabeth Williams’ writeup at Salon, Did a writer get bullied on Goodreads?

In her piece, Williams summarizes her understanding of the assertions of a writer named Lauren Howard.

On her Tumblr site, Howard identifies herself as being 22 and English. She says she had intended to launch a book titled Learning to Love, and now has decided not to publish because of bad experiences on Goodreads.

Lauren Howard
Lauren Howard

Briefly, Howard writes of asking (in a forum) a procedural question as a Goodreads newcomer. She wanted to know how she was attracting ratings of her book before it was published.

As it turns out, these are ratings of interest (not of review) that Goodreads members can make, based on a forthcoming book’s description.

Howard writes:

I was then attacked by people for asking that question. People started to rate 1-star to prove “we can rate whatever the hell we want.” My book was added to shelves named ‘author should be sodomized’ and ‘should be raped in prison’ and other violent offensive things, all for asking a simple question as a newcomer to the website.

Williams at Salon adds that “those earlier comments on Goodreads have now been deleted, so it’s impossible to gauge their severity, or how a young, debut author with a self-published book may have viewed them. ”

What we can see, though, is reaction to Howard’s descriptions of her experience. Here is one, for example, from an Ether reader to me in email:

This little incident was the first time I’ve seen these horrific threats first-hand, but I know it’s an iceberg tip. I hear heartbreaking tales of this kind of abuse on a regular basis, and it seems to be escalating.

And this from another Ether reader, this time on Twitter:

There are packs of people (authors/reviewers alike) that are out of control on the site.

Tina Klinesmith
Tina Klinesmith

And here’s a blogger’s response to the matter. In Bullies on Goodreads? What’s next?, author Tina Klinesmith writes:

A smear campaign began simply from [Lauren Howard’s] question as several people began giving her book 1-star ratings and adding it to “shelves” that threatened body harm and harassment to the new author. When she contacted Goodreads about the issue, she was informed that this was allowed and fell under the “freedom of speech” umbrella.

For all our praise of community—and despite Goodreads’ foundation on that very concept—what you’re seeing is community members, with all good intentions, handling things that are known only through partially observed and emotionally described assumptions as if they were fully visible to us. As you’ll see in our next section, Lauren Howard already is writing about the situation being “so blown out of proportion.” Back to Table of Contents


“I despise all of this drama”

The climb-down is a peculiarly familiar move in our culture today, and hardly just in publishing. One frequent feature of it is that it’s rarely announced as such by a person performing it. Embarrassment, lingering confusion, pride—these and more quite understandable components might be in play. In a new Tumblr post headlined Hopefully clearing stuff up…, Lauren Howard later has written:

Never did I expect (or plan!) for this to be so blown out of proportion…I cannot stress enough that though some people didn’t, I personally, originally perceived shelves as threats…When you are feeling targeted and victimized and a whole lot paranoid, it’s easy to feel like you’re being threatened.

As you may know, Goodreads members can name their virtual book “shelves.” Some members seem to enjoy naming them with colorful language that might be described as ribald genre designations. Howard:

As a friend of mine pointed out, no one could physically hurt me. I was not afraid of that at any point. I DO NOT condone these articles making it out like I was afraid people were going to turn up at my house and rape me for God’s sake. I was afraid because of the exposure I was getting and the negativity following.

If I had created a shelf at Goodreads called “Shirtless Men Kissing Beautiful Women”—my own overworked line for romance novels of a certain cover trend—might that line be interpreted by someone else as threatening or abusive? Perhaps. Eye of the beholder.

And can we doubt that something Howard experienced as really unpleasant occurred? Probably not, and I’m sure we all wish her well. I think it’s reasonable to accept her explanation of being very upset by what she had perceived as hostility. I’ve seen enough messages relative to the event to know that she did, at the very least, run into a snarky, impatient tone in some instances and I fear there’s a good likelihood that she was treated to worse. Embedded in some of Howard’s new comments, you’ll also find that while she originally wrote that Goodreads had turned a deaf ear to her distress, the company has, in fact, been in touch with her. The emphasis here is mine as I quote her: 

I was asking myself: “How can people get away with abusing authors this way? There is a line between free speech and hate!” Goodreads has now told me this is NOT the case. Abusive shelves and ratings based on the author are NOT permitted.


She now clarifies:

At no point have I ever said “People threatened to rape me”… simply expressed how disgusted I was…

Still, one reason this situation could gain the attention it did is that the idea of a culture of bullying somewhere in the massive membership of Goodreads is not new. About a year ago, the Huffington Post’s Books unit found itself in hot water with some readers for running Why It’s Time To Stop The Goodreads Bullies, an unsigned opinion piece representing an effort called “Stop the GR Bullies.” The goal there was said to be to deflect such harsh treatment of authors as Lauren Howard describes experiencing.

Andrew Losowsky
Andrew Losowsky

Before the Stop the GR Bullies piece had been out long, the Post’s books editor, Andrew Losowsky, found himself posting a piece of his own,  Stop The GR Bullies: An Explanation, about “what I think we got wrong.”  Losowsky had found that there were critics of the critics—commentators who had qualms about the anti-bullying group, itself. He wrote:

Many members of our community, including several whose opinions and thoughts we highly respect, were upset that we had given a platform to the creators of the [Stop the GR Bullies] site and, in so doing, appeared to endorse their behavior. To those who feel that we let them down, I can only apologize. We should have provided more context and presented the debate over the site — and the broader issue of online bullying in the books world — in a more balanced fashion.

That “more balanced fashion” is rarely fashionable, it seems. I like Lowsowsky, and I don’t think for a minute that he “got wrong” deliberately on this. It’s hard for a lot of us to remember that “more balanced fashion” when we get around large, corporate entities that have a presence in publishing. We demand a perfection of these complex, evolving entities that we’d never expect of ourselves. Back to Table of Contents

Hunley instapoem VQR tumblr_mrfcvmEIiy1rmbkfqo1_1280
From VQR – More on poet Tom C. Hunley


It’s Just Books

I’m in no better position than anyone else to tell you what actually was said to, or about, Lauren Howard or any other author or reader on Goodreads.

I seem to be a lot less interested than many people in “all of this drama.” And some of this is just personal preference: I don’t like gossip, I have never cared for hearsay, and I’ve always found speculation to be a waste of time. This is why I’m so tired of our industry’s pundits and their predictions. I don’t care what they predict: I care what happens.

Needless to say, and as has been demonstrated in the Howard instance of alleged mistreatment, others feel differently. What’s more, the potential for abuse in a system as large and as diverse as Goodreads is as acute, yes, as it is “IRL,” in real life.

My own interaction with the Goodreads leadership—and this has included face-to-face meetings and conversations—has led me to believe that the intentions there are wholly good, the motivations earnest. Goodreads’ membership last month surpassed 20 million users. That’s close to the size of the population of Australia.

Take just a moment to imagine trying to create a way to manage and facilitate the interactions of that many people who, of course, are not even bound by national or other constructs; they’re brought together only by an interest in engaging in reading.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writing on the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, JaneFriedman.com, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, PublishingPerspectives.com, The Bookseller.com, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt Buchmesse, Bowker, WriterUnboxed.com
Otis Chandler

As of a February report to the Tools of Change conference in New York  from Chandler, the Goodreads members were sharing 19 million books per month on Facebook alone. You can read more and see a video interview with Chandler from our colleague at O’Reilly Media Jenn Webb in Goodreads’ evolution from discovery platform to reader community. I’ll embed the slides from Chandler’s presentation for you here, too, in case you’d like to look at some of what was learned from a survey he had conducted of a sizable subset of the Goodreads population.

I’m told by members of the Goodreads staff recently that this Amazon-owned system produces tens of thousands of reviews and/or ratings of books every day and that only a tiny fraction of those may be flagged as problematic in one way or another—frequently the complaint, it seems, is that a review contains a spoiler.

Despite glitches along the way, in January alone of this year, Chandler has reported, there were more than 1.15 million quotes from books shared among members. In short, this is easily the biggest effort of its kind in history.

Put another way, we have never seen a population of this magnitude brought together for this purpose.

Put still another way, if there is a learning curve for a 22-year-old would-be published author in such a setting, there is also a learning curve for the company, itself.

We look at a corporate entity growing at a spectacular rate and we expect its procedures and technologies to function perfectly. How realistic is that?

Can you say to yourself that the 22-year-old author deserves some slack for finding her encounter with such a major undertaking to be at some points intimidating, frightening, confusing? Of course you can.

Can you worry that there may, indeed, be some members of this vast international population who will take advantage of a newcomer’s confusion and behave in abusive ways? Of course you can, and you can do it without for a moment condoning such behavior. Bullying in any form is practiced by thugs. Where it exists, it needs to be stopped. Goodreads has the capability to delete members found to be transgressing its standards of interaction. I have no doubt that its administration takes that action when an investigation proves it to be appropriate.

And can you understand that in an age when the digital dynamic has upended old patterns of book discovery, we need Goodreads to succeed in stimulating readership, not fail? I’m betting you can.

I’m also betting that the 20 million people who are participating in Goodreads offerings today aren’t doing it because they’re enjoying being bullied at the site. I think most of them are having what they consider a positive experience. Or they wouldn’t be there, would they?

The kind of hand-wringing intensity that has accompanied the Howard allegations and debates in recent days are a form of tacitly condoned bullying, in themselves. We are all bullied by hyperbole, rants, unstated bias, and ill-informed accusation. And I, for one, am tired of seeing the industry! the industry! riled up and shoved around in one direction and another by people who thrive on crisis, who get their kicks upsetting everyone else.

Alarmists are bullies.

The next time you start hearing of someone who’s been badly treated in one part of the publishing world or another, the first thing, if you’re close to the issue, is to make sure the perceived victim is supported and protected, certainly. It’s not the person on the receiving end of what looks like an attack from whom we expect a cool head under fire (and that includes Howard in this case).  It’s from ourselves we need to demand careful reaction.

Try recommending facts over quick “grapevine” reactions to your followers. Argue for patience; alert restraint.  Think twice before you “spread the word” on something you can’t see clearly. Once an incident is identified and the aggrieved party has been put into touch with the correct administrators, wait and watch a little while. Partial information can be damaging to good people and good companies, too.

When you feel the pressure to jump up and run around the room shouting with everyone else, try remembering that it’s just books we’re talking about here. Not life and not death. Books. They’re very important to us, yes. But are they worth hurting each other and important institutions? Just books. Take a breath, say it with me: just books.

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Main image:  iStockphoto – StephenHenry4


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