Negotiating ownership and agency in social media: Community reactions to Amazon's acquisition of Goodreads
First Monday

Negotiating ownership and agency in social media: Community reactions to Amazon's acquisition of Goodreads by Anne-Mette Bech Albrechtslund



Abstract
This paper presents an in-depth study and a discussion of Goodreads users’ reactions to the acquisition of the popular social network site for readers by Amazon in 2013. The purpose is to provide an empirical and critical examination of the negotiations over agency and ownership evident in the discussions ensuing the acquisition. The boundaries and norms of Goodreads are negotiated by its users, and the threats to withdraw their active contributions in the wake of the Amazon acquisition are seen as a way to negotiate a definition of what the site should be. Goodreads is shown to be an example of the way online social spaces become contested because of different interpretations of their purpose and functions, and it is argued that its success is ultimately dependent on users’ self-understanding as a community.

Contents

1. Introduction
2. Amazon’s acquisition of Goodreads
3. Conceptual framework
4. Approaching and delimiting the case
5. Analysis: When Amazon bought Goodreads
6. Discussion
7. Conclusion and further questions

 


 

1. Introduction

This paper explores the development, dynamics and power relations of online, networked reading culture through a study of the reactions to Amazon’s acquisition of Goodreads.com in March 2013 (Amazon, 2013). Goodreads is a popular social network site for book readers and authors, conceived by software entrepreneur Otis Chandler “to help people find and share books they love”. It is in many ways a typical social media site with its emphasis on social interaction and user-generated content, set within a “tightly controlled visual regime” (Nakamura, 2013). The platform is primarily used as a way to create a personal archive of books which the individual user has read and reviewed, using the site’s five-star rating system, and as a way to follow or befriend other users and seeing their updates in a live stream. As such, Goodreads is centered around the individual user, but it also contains a large discussion forum section (“Groups”) which is mostly user-driven. However, one section, “Goodreads Feedback”, is managed by Goodreads staff and contains official announcements, service information, and questions from users. The Amazon acquisition was announced to Goodreads members in this section with a similar message posted on the official Goodreads blog. The ensuing forum responses and blog post comments related to the case are the focus of my analysis of users’ reactions to the Amazon acquisition. I will argue that the discussion forums, registering direct interaction between Goodreads management and members, offer insight into the ongoing negotiations of ownership (of the online social space and of its contents) and agency (as to the degree of control and access towards Goodreads, and the potential conflicting intentions of different actors).

In the paper, I present an in-depth analysis of the reactions on the Goodreads discussion forums to the Amazon acquisition which contribute to a broader discussion of the dynamics of online participatory culture. My approach is qualitative and text-oriented and draws on theories and insights from various sources mainly in the fields of Internet research (Baym, 2010; Dijck, 2013; Bruns, 2008), narrative inquiry (Bruner, 1991; Webster and Mertova, 2007), information studies (Jaeger and Burnett, 2010), and consumer studies (Belk, 2014). Internet research has long been occupied with shifts in power relations and agency in digital culture (Jenkins, 2006; Scholz, 2013; Dijck, 2013). The controversy treated here is an example of the ongoing tensions in the “culture of connectivity” (Dijck, 2013) where different stakeholders operate with sometimes conflicting intentions and self-understandings. Particularly characteristic of social media platforms is the uneasy relationship between content-creating user communities and the commercial interests of corporate actors, and this is what manifests itself in the Goodreads-Amazon case.

This work is framed methodologically as a case study which is approached through a text-oriented analysis focusing on three extensive comment threads in the Goodreads forum section and blog. In these texts, narratives unfold about the struggle to define Goodreads and its purpose. Provoked by the “breach in legitimacy” (Bruner, 1991) threatening the implicit trust between users and management, they indicate how online communities dependent on user-generated content are engaged in continuous negotiations of ownership and agency. These negotiations are scrutinized in detail, and the analysis is structured around these two key aspects of the conflict: One is the ownership and emotional attachment members feel towards the community, an attachment which is exposed as vulnerable to management dispositions. The other aspect concerns the agency towards the user-generated content (reviews, discussions, etc.), the lifeblood of the Goodreads site, which is also perceived as being encroached upon with the new policy statements.

My analytical aim is, in other words, to explore and make sense of the Goodreads-Amazon controversy by examining significant themes and points of conflicts evident in the users’ responses. The analysis describes how Goodreads members and management negotiate the meaning and purpose of the community. It shows that what members react to with such emotion and urgency is the threat of having their felt ownership of and agency towards Goodreads restricted. They respond, in turn, with threats to stop contributing to the community as a way of demonstrating their value and indispensability to Goodreads. It becomes clear that a core issue has to do with competing “information worlds” (Jaeger and Burnett, 2010) staking a claim in the purpose and rightful use of Goodreads.

The case is interesting to social media scholars especially as it highlights these tensions inherent in digital culture and the associated negotiations about ownership, identities and information flow. As such, this case, as an example of the way such tensions can play out in a specific context, points to the power relations and struggles characterizing today’s popular social media. For scholars and practitioners who are occupied with the effects of social media and digital technologies on existing cultural practices, this case study offers insights into the development of a new, digitally networked reading culture and the dynamics and frictions shaping it.

 

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2. Amazon’s acquisition of Goodreads

Since its establishment in 2006, Goodreads has become the largest social cataloging site in the world and now boasts a user base of more than 50 million (in 2017). Amazon’s interest in Goodreads as both a source of extensive data on reader habits and as a direct channel to potential customers is not surprising, but it caused a state of disbelief and concern in the Goodreads community which was reported in several media outlets (Flood, 2013). Amazon’s acquisition clearly generated fears and speculations — among Goodreads members as well as journalists and bloggers — that Goodreads would be, if not completely abandoned, then at least turned into a commercial vehicle for Amazon’s products instead of an independent, mostly user-driven online space for communication about books. The immediate responses on the Goodreads forums to CEO Otis Chandler’s announcement that “We are joining the Amazon family” are telling: Members were concerned, confused or angry — one poster even expressed being “sick to my stomach” (28 March 2013).

One of the greatest worries appears to be that of losing freedom and being subject to corporate exploitation. Amazon’s bookselling business thrives on user reviews as well as recommendations based on previous purchases and browsing histories, and it was clearly a concern among Goodreads members that their community and their personal ‘shelving’ profiles would be used for Amazon marketing. Related to the commodification issues are the worries that the site’s review and posting policies would be regulated more according to Amazon’s guidelines — a shift which was further confirmed in an announcement later the same year about Goodreads’ review guidelines, stressing among other things that “reviews should be about the book” and not focus on “off-topic” discussions (20 September 2013). This announcement was widely perceived by Goodreads members as related to the Amazon acquisition. At the time of writing, Goodreads is still run independently from Amazon, and there have been no management replacements or dramatic changes to the site’s overall features and functions. However, members do continue to express disgruntlement with recent years’ development on the site, including small steps towards increased advertising among the content.

We have seen several other examples of controversies involving user protests in online environments. For instance, when Activision Blizzard introduced new terms for participation in the official World of Warcraft forums, requiring all players to identify themselves with their real names, the community reacted strongly against it and finally caused the company to reverse their decision (Albrechtslund, 2011). Another famous instance of these “pseudonym wars” or so-called “nymwars” was Google’s attempt to require the use of real names for its social networking service Google+, an approach which was widely and passionately denounced by users and ultimately abandoned (boyd, 2012). In such cases, the negotiations between users of a service or members of a community and the corporate owners or managers of online spaces have led to actual change in policies. However, in many other cases, particularly those which have to do with disagreements over changes in management or in design features, criticism does not seem to have any direct effect. Facebook, for instance, has often disregarded users’ objections to the numerous changes and innovations in its user interface over the years (Hoadley, et al., 2010). Acquisitions or mergers between corporations — which lead to changes in ownership of online platforms — have never been rescinded because of user dissatisfaction. So, while the World of Warcraft forums debate resulted in a policy change, it did not have any effect on the Blizzard-Activision partnership which — to many users — was at the root of the problem (Albrechtslund, 2011).

 

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3. Conceptual framework

My approach is particularly shaped by the strands of Internet studies and consumer research that draw mainly on thinking within cultural studies and critical theory. In relation to my analysis, such an approach is motivated by an interest in the empirical and critical examination of the struggle over cultural agency and ownership which becomes apparent in cases such as this, a process which is always at work in popular culture (Fiske, 1989). The struggle here is both that between the management and the users of an online social environment over the right to define the values and purpose of the community, and that between those who produce or publish cultural works and their audiences over the right to determine what can be said and done about these works. Furthermore, the struggle to claim and reclaim ownership concerns the online communicative space as well as the cultural objects it cares about. Bolin (2012) writes of a merging between “social work and textual work” in the digital environment. This happens when the evaluation of cultural products and experiences which occurs in conversation between consumers become conflated with the manifest textual expressions which are preserved as digital material and potentially appropriated by the media industry.

As an example of user-led protest or criticism, the case is in many ways emblematic of a larger issue. In social media dependent on a high level of user engagement (mostly in the form of content production), there is always the potential for tensions surfacing between the users and the corporate actors (Bruns, 2012). As such, the outbreak of tension following the Amazon acquisition of Goodreads is a typical instance of users protesting changes to a platform in which they are highly engaged. In this paper, I make sense of these protests by viewing them as negotiations between primarily users and management. However, such negotiations do not necessarily occur along well-defined battle lines between “digital workers” and “oligarchic owners” (Scholz, 2013). The network of actors negotiating their stakes in the community is more complex — at least, this is clear in the case of Goodreads.

Bruns (2012) outlines a basic structure of actors involved in social media: the “industry producers”, “community produsers”, and “the operator of the platform itself”. This structure is relatively easy to identify on social networking sites like Facebook, where the producers/produsers provide the content and the operator defines the rules and limits of participation. In the case of more community-oriented social media sites like Goodreads, the boundaries between these actors are less clear. As is evident from the discussions I analyze in the following, Goodreads management is associated very closely with Otis Chandler. He is seen as a person with whom members have collaborated over the years in developing and maintaining the site. As such, his role — and in extension, the role of management — fall somewhere in between the different fields of interest. In the following, I hope to show that the discourse around the Amazon acquisition is a way for members to negotiate not only their own degree of agency in the community, but also that of Goodreads management.

The potentials and limits of agency are closely connected to issues of ownership, as the analysis below will show. On the one hand, Goodreads is a space where users generate content and are often consulted and involved in the development of the site’s features and functions. But on the other hand, users have no real influence on Goodreads as a corporate entity and its different organizational and business-related operations. Goodreads is, after all, at the same time an open, vernacular platform for literary socializing and a commodity generating profit from users’ activities on the site (Nakamura, 2013). The controversy revealed how the different configurations of ownership in our increasingly digitized culture lead to “clashes of agency” (Watkins, et al., 2016). What these new configurations mean to consumers — in this case, as readers and members of online communities — is the broader question that this empirical study attempts to address. If we understand ownership as something which is produced through certain practices by a network of stakeholders, then it becomes clear that ownership is not a fixed or finite entity but continually constructed and deconstructed (Watkins, et al., 2016). This process can be conceptualized as a negotiation between and among different stakeholders. Digital culture is characterized by a “post-ownership economy” (Belk, 2014) which often involves fragmented and access-based modes of consumption, and this complicates the question of ownership and agency. In the analysis, the discourse around the Amazon acquisition as it played out on Goodreads will be described and then related to a broader discussion regarding configurations of ownership and power relations in social media.

 

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4. Approaching and delimiting the case

My approach to studying the controversy is interdisciplinary and qualitative. It is a case study focused on thematic discourse analysis because, I will argue, the reactions to the Amazon acquisition are so intense that they warrant a “detailed examination of a single example” (Flyvbjerg, 2006). The single-case study can be of value in several ways which are relevant to the Amazon-Goodreads controversy, providing both theoretical and empirical insights. Flyvbjerg identifies four main types of cases — the critical, extreme, maximum variation, and paradigmatic cases — which have different strategic purposes but which are not mutually exclusive. This goes for the present case as well, as it can be interpreted simultaneously as a critical and extreme case. It is not a primary aim of my analysis to confirm or challenge existing theoretical propositions, as both Flyvbjerg, as well as Yin (2009), suggest is the rationale for the “critical case” variant. Nonetheless, the case does provide further documentation that digital culture is brimming with tensions as described above. However, these tensions mainly manifest themselves clearly when provoked by what narrative research refers to as a “critical event” (Webster and Mertova, 2007) or a “breach” (Bruner, 1991) leading to articulation of the norms or “scripts” accepted by a community. This corresponds, at least to some degree, with the idea of the “extreme or unique case” (Yin, 2009) which “reveal more information because they activate more actors and more basic mechanisms in the situation studied” (Flyvbjerg, 2006).

In other words, the Goodreads-Amazon controversy is an “extreme” case in the sense that it constitutes a disruption in an otherwise well-functioning online community. As argued earlier, the way this disruption unfolds can be seen as typical in that there are several other examples of similar instances of users protesting changes to the online social spaces they are engaged in. That it is typical does not necessarily mean that the controversy reflects a general attitude among all the members of Goodreads. The case study documents a disruption, as mentioned, and is in no way a polling or a mapping of the attitudes among Goodreads members towards the Amazon acquisition. Reviewing the discussion threads relating to the case, it is obvious that only relatively few of the millions of users are actively participating in the debate. As I will argue below, this is typical for participation in online communities in general, but the impact of the vocal minority on the general perception of Goodreads should not be underestimated. I address the question of representability further in the discussion section towards the end of this paper.

To first get a grasp on the case, an important task is to delimit the field of study, both in terms of analytical approach and empirical material. The primary empirical grounding is text and is analyzed thematically. Posts in the “Goodreads Feedback” section serves as the unit of analysis in this paper, particularly two threads connected to the Amazon acquisition of Goodreads: “Exciting News: We’re Joining the Amazon Family!” (28 March 2013) and “Important Note Regarding Reviews” (20 September 2013). These two threads are also by far the most commented on in the whole section with respectively 2,509 and 6,406 posts in all (at the time of writing), indicating the significance of this issue to the community of users. A third substantial source here is Chandler’s elaborating blog post “Exciting News About Goodreads: We’re Joining the Amazon Family!” (28 March 2013) with 2,267 comments from users. I monitored and collected these posts and comments with particular focus on posts from the first week.

Blog posts, tweets, and other contributions to the discussion from other sites have been used as background material. Obviously, the posts and conversations on the discussion forums and related blog posts about the incorporation of Goodreads into Amazon only constitute part of the story. Several sources reported and discussed the acquisition, including news media (Kaufman, 2013), online magazines (Miller, 2013), blogs (notable examples include Literary Ames and BookRiot) and social media pundits (see Johnson, 2013). This material has been reviewed and catalogued for the purpose of this study. However, these sources almost all report on the so-called “backlash” witnessed in the Goodreads discussion threads which are generally seen as the central point from which to gauge users’ feelings toward the acquisition. For the purpose of this paper, the threads are of particular interest because they constitute a communicative space shared between Goodreads’ management and its user base. Initial exploration of the posts revealed certain significant, recurring motifs (such as “family” or safety and trust) which were then traced by searching and reading throughout the threads. In the analysis, I present these recurring motifs and integrate them into the broader thematic framework relating to community and ownership, and the negotiations thereof, which appear to be at the heart of this material.

Quotes are presented as unedited with typos and other errors intact, and attributed with their posting date. Usernames are redacted in most cases. It could be argued that because the discussions quoted here take place in a public forum, where posts are visible to all, there is no need to protect the identities of these users. However, the question is if any analytical value is gained by attributing quotes with actual usernames. Additionally, just because the forums are technically ‘public online space’, users might not always feel or be aware that their interactions are observable by all (Elm, 2009). In this study, I seek to trace recurring motifs and topics in the discussions and am not interested in the interactions between particular users or groups of users. Furthermore, users are always able to delete or modify their own comments, and insisting on associating posts with particular usernames for the sake of this study would deny them basic control over their content. By removing usernames, attention is drawn towards the content of the posts and not the individuals producing it, and any potential harm towards users is minimized.

 

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5. Analysis: When Amazon bought Goodreads

5.1. Identity and community

Members of online groups tend to identify themselves as communities (Chayko, 2008). In Rheingold’s (1993) early description, virtual communities are defined as “social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace”. While the term is sometimes unduly stretched, by marketers and scholars alike, to fit all manners of groupings on the Internet, ‘community’ remains a useful term for capturing and emphasizing the emotional experience of social connection in a technologically mediated environment (Baym, 2010). Baym identifies five qualities supporting the use of the term in online contexts: “sense of space, shared practice, shared resources and support, shared identities, and interpersonal relationships” [1]. To these qualities we might add, keeping in mind Rheingold’s description of the virtual community, a temporal experience, i.e., the sense of a shared past or history.

At first glance, it might be difficult to match the Goodreads site as a whole to all of these conventional qualities of online communities — does it make sense, for instance, to speak of a shared identity in such an amorphous network including millions of people? Although Goodreads has a large group of members who can be considered regular users, only very few of these are highly engaged with the site’s content (Quantcast, 2015). However, this is a typical pattern of participation in online communities, where users can be positioned on a continuum between mere “visitors” who approach the site mainly as a tool and more involved “residents” who engage intensely with the site as a social space (White and Cornu, 2011). Interpersonal relationships are certainly achieved and maintained in the many group activities and personal networks across Goodreads. As mentioned earlier, Goodreads is comprised by numerous smaller groups which together overlap and interact with the larger community. As such, it makes sense to define Goodreads as a community insofar as we can speak of smaller, intersecting groups of users within the larger network who play a key role in sustaining a sense of communal space and shared resources. Some of these include users with thousands of followers and ‘liked’ reviews who are highly visible in reviewing and discussion activities across the site.

The site as a whole is clearly touted as a “community for book lovers”, and judging from the activities on the discussion forums on the site, there is indeed a long-standing tendency among members to self-identify as a community, at least among those who are active forum posters and commenters on reviews. Articulations of this are clearly prompted by the Amazon acquisition of Goodreads. The notion of a ‘family’, indicated by Chandler’s announcement that Goodreads is “joining the Amazon family”, works as a central metaphor, but carries very different meanings for the parties involved. Chandler’s use of ‘family’ clearly provokes the anger of some Goodreads members: ‘I loathe the misuse of the word, “family”. Fuck. You. Otis.’ (4 April 2013) Although most members are not as rhetorically aggressive, they do express strong concerns:

Amazon isn’t a family and a corporation isn’t a person. A more accurate description would be ‘octopus’ ... and a destroyer of bookstores. (28 March 2013)

I am also saddened by this news. When i read you had “joined the Amazon family”, I thought it was just access to metadata being restored and such. Unfortunately, it’s more like the way plankton join the sperm whale family ... I fail to see how this will be good to readers or authors. :( (28 March 2013)

I guess I am not the only one who finds this incredibly sad news. Nice spin, “we’re joining the Amazon family.” I guess money does talk. I will be evaluating whether I still want to be a part of this “family.” (29 March 2013)

Apart from the expression of annoyance at Chandler’s use of the word ‘family’, these quotes are typical in that they articulate a general apprehension of Amazon, perceived by many members as an all-powerful corporation vying for complete control of the book market at the expense of physical and independent bookstores. In other instances, Amazon is also held responsible for the death of print books, but this point of view is less frequently present in the comments, as e-reading (and the use of Amazon’s Kindle) is a widespread practice among these users. Further elaborating on the ‘family’ metaphor, its emotional connotations appear manifest in many members’ reactions, including the following:

Until this merger announcement I felt like we were a part of Goodreads. That in a sense we had a stake in an independent site due to all the work we do as Librarians, reviewers and Group Members. It was like a family. Not like the “Amazon family”, but the kind of family that you are when you are involved with independents. The Mom and Pop store feel. I have lost that feeling now. It makes me sad as this place was a home away form [sic] home. (30 March 2013)

Sadness and regret at the loss of Goodreads as a ‘home’ is a typical reaction, and in this particular quote, membership of Goodreads is tellingly described as being part of a family-owned “Mom and Pop” store as opposed to the corporate Amazon family. Indeed it seems that, at least in the case of Goodreads, the notion of being part of a community is clearly associated with a feeling of ownership.

A year before the Amazon acquisition, Goodreads had decided to drop Amazon’s API as primary means of collecting data about the books shown on the site because “the terms that come with it have gotten more and more restrictive” (according to Chandler in a forum announcement 20 January 2012). This decision required reconstructing data for many books with substantial help from the so-called Goodreads Librarians — members who volunteer to help editing and updating book information (titles, descriptions, editions, etc.) on the site. Not surprisingly, one of the first reactions brings this up: “Does this mean that the weeks and months of work we put into repairing the catalog last year was for nothing?” (28 March 2013), and it is continually referred to in the discussions:

The message to librarians tries to sell us on the idea of a renewed relationship with amazon by stating that amazon’s metadata will return to Goodreads. We already proved last year, WE DID NOT NEED AMAZON FOR BOOK DATA. I feel quite sure that this merger is not about Goodreads gaining book data from amazon, it’s about amazon gaining consumer data from Goodreads.

I am not happy to have helped build and promote a site/community that sold itself to amazon. I can’t celebrate Goodreads returning to an “abusive partner”, like amazon has been to Goodreads, authors, readers, publishers, brick and mortar stores, their own employees, and every citizen of a state in which amazon refuses to pay taxes. (28 March 2013)

Goodreads’ content is primarily produced by its members, making them see themselves less like customers and more like contributors. As the forum discussions show, the Goodreads librarians in particular express feelings of commitment and responsibility toward the site. The sale of Goodreads has suddenly made it clear to its users that they have no real ownership of the site. Following this, the many emotional, angry or worried reactions to Chandler’s announcement constitute a way of reclaiming some sort of ownership, or at least addressing the lack of it. In the forum threads and comments, for example, members repeatedly demonstrate their importance to Goodreads by threatening to leave, or at least to stop contributing to the site:

The only thing that can keep me around is yall — this system getting any value add from me for Amazon???! No. No, thank you. I don’t review on Amazon for a reason. (28 March 2013)

Several of my friends are still here but will be leaving, or will stay only to participate in groups they created, but not to add books or review. They’re deleting reviews here, or have already done so. It doesn’t feel like the same place to me at all. (4 April 2013)

Not contributing or removing reviews means giving up membership of the community regardless of actually deleting one’s profile on the site or not. It is, of course, also a way of threatening to break the implicit mutual ties of obligation powering Goodreads as a community. Furthermore, the attempt to salvage or reclaim their own content led many users to discuss and facilitate the export of their data to alternative sites or their own archives. However, as one member remarks, “Unfortunately I can’t export my groups 8000+ members” (28 March 2013).

It seems that reclaiming ownership as well as rebuilding the community is what drove the establishment of a (now defunct) alternative site, Leafmarks, which resembled Goodreads in all main features and functions, but was ostensibly “not about selling you something” because “we are readers first, and we’re not all about getting rich and selling out to companies that will compromise the Leafmarkian values” (Leafmarks, 2014). A cofounder of the site is a prolific Goodreads member and book blogger who is one of the most followed reviewers with the most votes/likes on Goodreads. That a member who continues to maintain a high profile on Goodreads has at the same time been instrumental in creating what could be called an alternative Goodreads society appears to be quite a paradox, but bears witness to the ambiguous power relations at play in the relation between users and corporate facilitators of social media (see also Bechmann and Lomborg, 2013).

The same ambiguity applies to members’ relationship to Goodreads CEO Chandler as it is expressed in the comments. It is clear that members have great respect for him personally, and that many feel they share a history with him, always referring to him as “Otis”. Later in the day of the Amazon announcement, Chandler returns to the “Exciting News” thread to address some of the criticism directly. When Chandler responds to the concerns expressed in the thread, he does so in typical fashion by quoting and addressing a series of comments and questions concretely, but he apparently also feels the need to define his own role in the Goodreads community: “Goodreads is indeed the sum of the amazing people here. It’s something I cherish and treasure, and am honored to be the steward to help it continue to grow” (28 March 2013). There is clearly a difference between being a “steward” for the community and being an owner or a manager of it, and Chandler’s choice of term for himself signifies a distinctive kind of devotion to the community. In the history of Goodreads, Chandler has been known to interact often with members in the feedback forums and involving members in developing the site from its beginning. This is remarked upon with regret in comments to a thread entitled “Dear Otis” from April 2015:

I have a dim memory of the years when you interacted a lot with us all. It was great! We felt involved in building a social book site, and we were. Now the emphasis is on us as the target market to sell to and you are no longer personally involved chatting with us. Changes were inevitable with the Amazon ownership but they seem very cynical and always presented with euphemisms as though it is to benefit the readers and not a new marketing initiative. (1 April 2015)

I’ve been an active user since the early days, and I do feel very sad, that GR isn’t now the wonderful place for readers and authors to share and discuss books, with excellent and responsive service that it was then. Even though I still am an active user, and still appreciate things about GR, I do feel I’ve lost something. (1 April 2015)

Comments like the above indicates that the feeling of losing ownership and involvement of Goodreads remains an issue among especially long-time members and continues to be discussed within the community.

5.2. Control of content

The concern over the Amazon acquisition is particularly crystallized in members’ response to Goodreads’ changed practice in enforcing their review policy. This is evident in the thread “Important Note Regarding Reviews”, started six months after the Amazon acquisition by Kara Erickson, Director of Customer Care at the time, in an attempt to answer questions about changes in “what is allowed in reviews and on shelves”. The crux of the issue is the new policy of deleting content focused on author behavior in member-created reviews and shelves, i.e., reviews criticizing books based on their authors’ behavior either within the Goodreads network or in the general public. What readers deem to be bad behavior include authors using so-called ‘sockpuppets’ to give favorable reviews to their own books, expressing discriminatory opinions in public, or intimidating critical readers.

In the amateur review culture permeating the social Internet, conflicts and discussions resulting from the changing dynamics between users and producers are plentiful. This also applies to a digital reading culture shaped by nonprofessional book bloggers and sites like Goodreads, and the thread in question clearly feeds into the on-going debates about the changing relationship between readers and authors. Also referring to the change in Goodreads review policy, Matthews (2016) discusses how particular confrontations between authors and readers result in fierce negotiations between authors and readers over their perceived roles and norms for behavior. However, of particular interest to the present inquiry is the struggle over ownership and community norms evident in the discussions of Goodreads’ review policy. One of the big issues causing dismay is the deletion of several members’ shelves and reviews in accordance with the new moderation policy without having first given notice:

Well. I’ll call this the nail in the coffin. With some advance notice, I could have renamed a shelf or made it private or taken it offline. Instead you just deleted years of book collecting willy-nilly.

Horrible decision. I’m done with you. (20 September 2013)

This mistake is readily admitted in Erickson’s edits to her first post, but members continue to challenge the policy statement which clearly threatens members’ sense of control over their content on the site. Together with reviews, shelves — which are actually lists generated from user-created tags — constitute the main building blocks of a user’s personal space on Goodreads. Tagging is a highly idiosyncratic practice on the site. Many members do not veer from the default categories like “read”, “currently-reading”, and “abandoned”, but among especially the more prolific reviewers, tags are often used creatively and are a central feature in reviews. Members’ shelves, generated by these tags, can then be browsed by other members; this is a common way of finding new books which is wholly user-driven. A typical example would be this collection of tags attached to the review of a dystopian novel in the Young Adult genre:

in-a-name-challenge, 2012-reads, almost-fell-asleep, didn-t-see-that-coming, disappointments, doesn-t-deserve-the-hype, gimme-the-next-book, hooray-for-masochism, i-totally-saw-that-coming, judge-a-book-by-the-cover, project-dystopian, take-your-insta-love-and-leave, unmet-potential, read-reviewed (25 November 25 2012)

Such tagging strategies serve as a personal appropriation and negotiation of the site’s features. They are also suggestive of a collective practice in the community, where terms and categories develop from mutual influence between members (see also Desrochers, et al., 2013).

When the freedom to define shelves is perceived to be at risk, reactions are predictably strong. Having shelves deleted seems to feel like a violation to many. Within the first few hours after Erickson has posted the news, members report such reactions as feeling “disturbed”, “disgusted”, and “stomped on”. Questions of censorship are quickly brought up:

Will probably be deleting my Goodreads account now if I cannot use my shelves the way I wish. And to think that I have contributed almost 700 reviews to the site. They will be going with me. This is censorship, and it is wrong. (20 September 2013)

And once again, I’m baffled by how Goodreads handles its communication. Simply drop a censorship bomb on Friday and then probably ignore your site with millions of members the entire weekend again, hm? (...) Although this new policy will probably not affect me personally, it disturbs me nonetheless. (20 September 2013)

In a later edit to her initial post, Erickson denies that censorship is at play. Instead it is about “setting an appropriate tone for a community site” (20 September 2013). However, this does not appease the critics, for whom the very act of intruding on members’ right to define their own shelves is thought of as censorship. Within the first week, a listing for a book called The Great Goodreads Censorship Debacle by an author called G.R. McGoodReader appears on the site. Creating fictitious book listings on the site is one of the playful activities with which users negotiate the social space on Goodreads, and this entry, including the derisive and outrageous reviews which quickly accompanies it, is a harshly satirical addition to this practice. The book listing and the reviews are removed a few days later, as could be expected, and serves as confirmation for many members that the rules and standards on the site are arbitrarily enforced and insufficiently explained.

Members speculate that management intended to target only a specific group of reviewers with the “important note”, i.e., the sharper-tongued reviewers on the site who have been known to put their criticism quite harshly, especially towards self-published authors (known in the community as “SPAs”) who benefit from the easy access to readers on a site like Goodreads. Consequently, their comments address the fact that the review policy changes are only announced in this thread and not site-wide, considering that only a relatively small group of members are actively following the “Feedback” group:

Out of the much touted 20 million users, how many actually have any inkling that the rules just changed in a major way, and that they could have shelves and reviews possibly up for deletion? (2 October 2013)

The perceived lack of clear communication from management, beginning with Chandler’s announcement of the Amazon acquisition, thus only serve to propel the speculations and questions, and it seems that for many, trust has been broken between Goodreads and its users. Below are just a few examples of members referring to Goodreads as a place that is no longer ‘safe’:

From the Exciting News! thread and blog post:

They will collect data on me every day in all different ways. I thought I was safe from Amazon here. Our little independent Goodreads site. :( (28 March 2013)

Goodreads has been a ‘safe’ little ‘sales free zone’ where bookish discussions could be had freely and without regard for eTailer preferences. Now it’ll be a Kindle-centered site where not liking Kindle is a crime (instead of a book-centered site where it’s irrelevant what eReader you prefer so long as you like to read) (28 March 2013)

From the Important Note thread:

This site has been a SAFE place to talk about books, reviews, social issues, and we were NEVER censored. What a horrible change to something I came to really value. (21 September 2013)

I think I’ll probably stay but I’ll be a lot more careful, and I will be duplicating all my reviews elsewhere, probably in multiple places. What the real change here is: I probably won’t read indie authors anymore, because frankly some of the ones I’ve seen here and elsewhere scare me. (...) Now when I do read indies, I will probably just star rate them, without review here — those reviews I can do elswhere, where it’s safe to. (21 September 2013)

The quotes above show how the concerns are particularly centered around perceived threats from three specific actors: Amazon collecting customer data and pushing advertisements, Goodreads management changing design features and policies on the site without consulting the users and authors responding to negative reviews, aggressively marketing their books and ‘gaming the system’ to gain more likes and higher star ratings. In other words, the struggle involving the vocal Goodreads members takes place across several converging battlefields which are all about users seizing or fighting for control and ownership of the cultural and social spaces they inhabit.

 

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6. Discussion

In the following, I will discuss both the possible limitations and broader implications of this case study. It is important to restate that those who voice their concerns in the threads and comments are certainly in the minority out of the millions of Goodreads members. Taking only these relatively few members’ statements as representative of the attitude of the Goodreads community as a whole would be a vast overstatement. The majority of media audiences are still silent or ‘inconsequential’ users (Bird, 2011), it must be remembered, and defining what it means to be an active contributor to social media sites is a relative matter (Dijck, 2009). The present study is clearly not a polling of Goodreads users’ attitude towards the Amazon acquisition and its related issues. The empirical material selected offer no statistical grounds for such an estimation.

In fact, as previously noted, it does not make sense to speak of the entire population of Goodreads as one coherent community with shared values. Goodreads as a community exists most manifestly in the relatively small portion of users actively referring to and conversing with each other in the Goodreads forum as well as in the shared practice of creating groups for sharing and discussing anything related to book reading. But there is no single stage upon which the community gathers and as such, no unified voice to discern. Typical of an online social environment (Kendall, 2008), arguments and feuds between Goodreads members emerge frequently, and interpersonal power relations certainly influence which voices are more audible than others. Among the members expressing themselves in the threads and comments, many differences of opinion can be found, varying from disagreements over nuances to total opposition. In other words, although the critical responses outnumber the positive or neutral considerably, we cannot know how or if these influence all the other users who do not contribute to the discussion online.

While we cannot assume that these outspoken members speak for the millions of silent Goodreads users, or that the majority of users harbor opinions or even knowledge about the Amazon acquisition at all, the impact of the criticism should not be underestimated. Without the support and work of dedicated users, a site like Goodreads could not be called a community, or at least not an attractive one. Goodreads is dependent on these users to contribute and create symbolic objects of value, i.e., reviews and discussions, and they need to feel ownership or control over these (Hellekson, 2009). Therefore, when members threaten to leave or stop contributing, inconsequential as it may seem, the image of Goodreads as a community is put at risk. Or, to put it another way, while the site continues to be a successful business by creating economic value, it might lose its worth as a community.

Much like virtual worlds such as multiplayer online games cannot easily be delimited, in terms of space, norms or social identities (Lehdonvirta, 2010), Goodreads is obviously not completely distinguishable from the larger context in which it is situated. Both relationships and information flow across sites and are merged with other contexts in different ways. User reviews from Goodreads show up on Facebook and Google Books, and members interact in other contexts. The boundaries between these spaces can be explicitly defined, as when a review links to an outside book blog, or more implicit, as the connections to Facebook and Google show. In the case of the Amazon acquisition, these boundaries are up for negotiation. How information may or may not cross boundaries is a key issue in these negotiations. Jaeger and Burnett (2010) describes how different “information worlds” can “break into open conflict with one another (...) because they have different understandings of information that they have a mutual interest in.” [2] These differences of understanding are obviously at the root of the conflict in the case of the Amazon acquisition of Goodreads. Judging from the responses examined in the above, Goodreads is considered a ‘place’, or even a ‘home’, which used to be safe and feel, as put by one member, like “our little independent site”. As we have seen, members address this sentiment most directly when confronted with the perceived threat of Amazon taking over Goodreads.

 

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7. Conclusion and further questions

The reactions to Amazon’s acquisition of Goodreads within the community of users have served here as a lens to examine the struggle over ownership and agency in social formations on the Internet. Goodreads is an example of the way online social spaces become contested as they facilitate various uses and functions: For members, it works among other things as a personal archive of books they have read or want to read, as a searchable database of books including both user-created and site-curated tags, as a social network site, and as a place for sharing and conviviality. For authors, Goodreads is a platform for promotion and interaction with readers, offering increased visibility but also making them more vulnerable to criticism. For booksellers, Goodreads provide valuable customer data and can work as a promotional tool making it easy for users to move directly from independent browsing to actual purchase. The sometimes uneasy balance between these multiple uses and functions is apparent in this study: Users seem to view Amazon’s inclusion in the ‘family’ of Goodreads as upsetting this balance by reframing the purpose of the site. Their reactions form the articulation of an understanding of Goodreads as a community driven by its members and not by commercial interests, and the threats to withdraw their active contributions can be seen as a way to negotiate a definition of what Goodreads should be.

This case study gives rise to many questions in need of further research. The reasons why a portion of users hold Amazon in such resentment could be further unpacked and are not only related to online community dynamics, but also more broadly to the transformations in reading culture brought about by digitization. Goodreads is an example of reading culture unfolding within the constraints and possibilities of social media. Social media provide readers with tools to produce, access and distribute information in an unprecedented way, but they also provide the means for commercial actors to restrain and control users in different ways. And the tension inherent in this situation is what emerges in the discussion about the Amazon acquisition. As mentioned briefly in the analysis, the debate about e-books vs. print books also runs through the discussions among users. For some, Amazon is seen as responsible for destroying ‘real’ books and bookstores around the world. The apprehension towards e-books is an interesting indication of the way reading as a cultural practice is tied to the materiality of the book and of the way digitization is sometimes perceived as threatening. Another issue requiring further consideration is the way the discussions analyzed in this paper can inform us about the experience of being a reader in a digitized culture, where Amazon moves to position itself as a powerful gatekeeper, controlling and designing literary consumption and distribution alike. Finally, the relationship between authors and readers, including the continuing negotiations about roles, rights and norms is a pertinent issue for further study. End of article

 

About the author

Anne-Mette Bech Albrechtslund researches digital culture and communication. She holds a Ph.D. from Aalborg University, Denmark, and has published research on gaming communities, online identity, the cultural practice of social media and more.
E-mail: annemetteba [at] gmail [dot] com

 

Acknowledgments

I want to thank the anonymous reviewers for their fair and constructive criticism, and reviewers as well as colleagues for the many useful suggestions and advice in the process of researching, presenting and writing the paper.

 

Notes

1. Baym, 2010, p. 75.

2. Jaeger and Burnett, 2010, p. 36.

 

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Editorial history

Received 7 November 2016; revised 18 April 2017; accepted 19 April 2017.


Copyright © 2017, Anne-Mette Bech Albrechtslund.

Negotiating ownership and agency in social media: Community reactions to Amazon’s acquisition of Goodreads
by Anne-Mette Bech Albrechtslund.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 5 - 1 May 2017
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/7095/6161
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v22i15.7095





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