September 14, 2012

Goodreads And The Infinite Social Media Universe

Nearly a month ago, Goodreads announced that it had hit ten million users. This modest website, headquartered in San Francisco, was formed by Otis Chandler and Elizabeth Khuri Chandler in their living room six years ago. The Chandlers are L.A. Times people: Otis’s great-great-great-grandfather founded the paper, and his wife used to work there. But the Chandlers are also kind of over newspapers, and are prepared to get over independent bookstores. “Book reviews in newspapers, well, those are gone,” Otis Chandler told the Times in a profile two years ago. “Independent bookstores are almost gone. Chains will probably be gone soon. It’s all happening online now.”

Goodreads eventually beat out LibraryThing as the leading catalog of the books we read and the opinions we have of them. How? Something to do with: free book giveaways, author interviews, and real-world book clubs and other meetups. It’s also another mode of online social networking. Way more specific than Twitter or Facebook and generally more mild-mannered than Yelp, Goodreads offers a lot to readers, and yet it looks, comfortingly, like a pre-Web 2.0 website. There are no big, colorful, Fisher Price-y buttons to click on, no slick transitions through features or pages. Goodreads looks basically the same as it did five years ago, and in that way it’s true to the medium that it’s promoting. (Never mind right now about whether Goodreads is making money or not; these social networks are most valuable as cultural experiments.)

The most that the average Goodreads member shares about a book they’ve added to their collection is a rating: 1 to 5 stars, like on Amazon and Yelp and most other websites that deal with things we pay for. A rating is all most people have time for, or else we don’t necessarily feel comfortable publicly sharing our thoughts on a book. Books on Goodreads (and Amazon, for that matter) are more often than not tattooed eternally with an average rating of 3.25 to 3.75, according to my unscientific research. This might be frustrating for authors until you realize almost everyone is in this boat together. Not to mention: who cares about ratings? It’s more important that lots of people read the book. You can’t know why someone gives the rating they do, especially if the person doesn’t include a review, and even then, you’d have to peer into this person’s psyche to understand, and if you did, you might not like what you saw there. There is, for instance, a man named Chris Roberts who likes to give bilious one-star reviews on Goodreads, seemingly exclusively of books by female authors who reside in Brooklyn.

The novelist Kathleen Alcott recently quipped that Goodreads is like “Yelp for people who want to use the word effervescent.” Thankfully, there isn’t a lot of the crazy, diaristic preamble that we get on Yelp, that “My husband’s parents were coming to town and we really wanted to show them the best of [name of town here] and we were trying to decide between Italian and Thai and eventually landed on [name of restaurant here] even though my husband said he was really sick of Thai and wasn’t sure whether his mother would like it because she doesn’t like spicy food” kind of preamble. But the question that comes to my mind with Goodreads is the same question I would pose about Yelp, or any of these things: Why? Why do we build these logs of eating and reading experiences and random thoughts and jokes or links to interesting articles?

I use Goodreads fairly diligently. But I think it would actually take me less time to handwrite — an act I seldom perform now — all the books I read and what I think of them than to enter the information into Goodreads. But a notebook is black and white; Goodreads is in color. The notebook is private; Goodreads is a community. A piece of paper is static. Goodreads moves, or at least I make it move with my cursor, and I can flip through different pages instantaneously. I can cover a lot of ground. My brain has been conditioned by years of television and computer use to enjoy screen-movement, I believe, and while I’m surfing Goodreads a message circulates in my brain: It’s almost like I’m reading a book right now.

I like to see the covers of the books that I have read, to check them off my list, and to see chronologically all the books I’ve read this year. I like to see what people write about books. But the clickable joys of Goodreads mean that I try to get on and off it quickly. It is on the Internet, therefore it is classified as a time-suck. I do not write reviews on Goodreads. So wouldn’t it be better for my brain (and maybe the authors) if I kept my stars to myself and composed some slow, patient, handwritten thoughts in a notebook? Or just tell my friends (as opposed to my “friends”) about the book? Partly, I trust Goodreads to keep my record of reading and starring safe forever. I do not trust myself to keep a notebook safe forever. Also, Goodreads is pegged by its founders as a book discovery tool, and sometimes, for me, it is (trawling the “Giveaways” section is a particularly good way to find out about upcoming releases, particularly lesser-known titles, and you can enter a giveaway in a couple of seconds). But it’s unfortunate if I “discover” a book on Goodreads and then decide not to read it just because the rating isn’t high enough (but again, it seldom is), or because several people wrote reviews of the book that collectively determined “meh.” Then there’s the question of paid-for reviews, which may not exist on Goodreads yet (to the public’s knowledge) but do exist on Amazon, another place where the masses go to find out what they should read.

As to that last, more of the masses should probably go to community bookstores to find out what to read. At community bookstores, there are no ratings. At many of these stores, staff members choose books they like and write a caption of praise, kind of like a description of a wine at a wine shop. They are handwritten, personalized, thoughtful. The process of picking out a book is more organic there: circle around a shelf, fondle a new hardcover, read a random page, move slowly to the register, and throw down $20 or so. But then, that ultimate decision at a bookstore, at least for me, is necessarily informed by something I read or glanced at on the Internet. This past June, I’d been hearing things about Sheila Heti’s “novel from life,” How Should A Person Be? When I visited Books, Inc. in Berkeley later that month, that book was displayed prominently just inside the door. I had just self-published a book, so had a new appreciation for making sure that authors got as much of my money as possible. The book cost $27 with tax. It was a great read. But then I knew it would be great, because my trusted people of the Internet – friends and friends of friends – all but promised it would be.

I enjoyed giving Heti a pointless rating on Goodreads, but more so, I enjoyed adding myself to the number of Goodreaders who had read the book. It’s like casting a vote – including yourself among the other readers. But in the social media universe, you are almost always telling people how you voted, not just that you did. Crucially, I had no interest in reading what other people had to say about this book, partly because I liked it so much. People are so disappointed in things! They swarm social networks with their disappointment. Inevitably there would be a dozen or so three-star “meh”s on How Should A Person Be‘s page. I just didn’t want to know. This book felt too much like it was mine, borne of friends’ and acquaintances’ praises, purchased deliberately at a store, held, carried home, and brought across the country on summer vacation.

But I still waste an awful lot of time on Goodreads, reading tepid reviews of books that haven’t come out yet, marveling at trolls like Chris Roberts, being baffled by and somewhat envious of users who give every book five stars, cackling at people’s 3000-word reviews. Inevitably users’ negative opinions taint my opinion of books I haven’t read yet, which is why I seldom buy books via the Internet anymore. I need those opinions to wear off or disappear altogether from my mind before I can buy something. But I still read reviews as entertainment.

After accepting my dad’s friend request on Goodreads the other night, in itself kind of an event, I turned on the TV to watch an episode of the dreadful Bravo series Gallery Girls, which I had recorded, and I wondered if in the future we would be as diligent about our Internet usage as we are about our TV watching (I did not say discerning; I said diligent). For most people, TV is off limits during the day, and for some it is all but completely off limits. But the Internet? Its tenuous connection to actual work goes an awfully long way. Those of us who “have to be” on the Internet for work invariably are early adopters of things like Instagram and Goodreads. Even if I try to be diligent about how much time I spend on these sites, I am more than willing, whenever some cool new tool emerges, to throw another log on the social media fire.

Part of the appeal of these sites is, of course, that they keep us engaged with the pretty glow of our screens and the joys of connecting with others, however vaguely, and kicking back, wasting time and not thinking very hard, which I really think our bodies are drawn uncontrollably to the way smokers are drawn to nicotine. But it’s also because these sites are helping us to keep track of basically everything that we do. We don’t have datebooks or diaries (or at least fewer of us do); we have this multimedia collection of public missives that Facebook will probably own all of by 2018: our photos, our scattered 140-character thoughts and recommended links, our reading lists, our runs. What don’t I share on the Internet? I can think of only a handful of things: My bathroom activities. My deepest thoughts, secrets and concerns. My credit card debt (see above). My bedroom activities. My conversations with others. My arguments with others. What I eat.

Does recording most of my life somewhere on the Internet actually make life seem more memorable, more sacred? Perhaps, but so much happens on our computers now that it can be hard to differentiate “memorable” and “sacred” from mundane and forgettable. Being on the Internet is like being at a rave. All the things that happen to me there tend to blur together. I keep coming back, keeping refreshing and flitting through apps and websites that are supposed to be forbidden by my wonderful Chrome add-on, StayFocusd, because I’m looking for something that’s going to stand out. Things do, of course, every day: someone’s Tumblr post, someone’s joke on Twitter, someone’s magazine article. But to paraphrase Christina Aguilera, my brain is saying, What else am I missing?, but my heart is saying, Make it go away.

I tell myself I have accepted Goodreads into my life wholeheartedly because it is centered on something so noble and pure: reading –– disappearing into another world. And then reappearing to talk about it on the Internet. TC mark

Liz Colville

Liz is a writer based in New York City. She has written for The San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Pitchfork, New York