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Saturday, September 21, 2013

How We Decide: Trolling Goodreads

This book was pulled by its publisher because it was plagiarized and contained fabricated sources. This is the second book of Lehrer's to be recalled by the publisher for plagiarism, the first being Imagine: How Creativity Works. (Pretty fucking ironic title, amiright?) He has only "written" three books, so two out of three is pretty bad. He was fired from his New Yorker gig for self-plagiarism as well. (Basically, he was recycling content like a lazyass, although he also lifted from Malcolm Gladwell.) For some reason, publishers keep thinking it's a good idea to throw money at this asshole, even though there are allegations his most recent book prospectus was plagiarized too.

Jonah Lehrer is an unrepentant serial plagiarist who has stupid and ugly glasses. I will never read this book because the publisher has recalled it, and because I hate Lehrer's face. How's that for your author behavior, bitch?


This is my most recent review on Goodreads, which is in response to the change in Goodreads policy concerning reviews that primarily talk about author behavior, not the content of the book. Previously, the policy had been that reviews that spoke negatively about author behavior - I will not read this book because something the author sad or did - were removed from the main book page, but were still visible to friends. For those that don't use Goodreads, if you look up a book, all your friends' reviews are listed first, then those by people you follow, then the "community reviews". This last category was where your review would not show up.

As controversial as this approach was, I thought this was a reasonable approach, in the end. I had some problems with implementation, which were two-fold. First, it was applied to reviews that didn't actually violate the policy, such as David's oft-deleted review of The Giving Tree. That was just pearl-clutching about naughty words in a children's book review (though David does note that Shel looks like the devil. Shel does though.) And second, Goodreads didn't alert anybody when their reviews were hidden. It's possible they do now, but I kind of doubt it. I've always been careful at least nominally to talk about a book when I'm also shouting about some damn thing going down on Goodreads - such as this review, or this one - so I haven't had any hidden reviews. At least the last time I emailed Goodreads about whether I had any hidden reviews, which was their really shitty, opt-in solution to their problem, as far as I'm aware.

I can in many ways understand the policy to hide reviews. There are a lot of ugly, often stupid conflicts between authors and reviewers out there today, and in managing a social network, trying to cool down the rhetoric makes sense to me. So you note that such-and-such author is a jackass, fine. But that review was kept to your friends (or followers, I think), or to people who want to seek out these hidden reviews. (For example, there is a round-up of hidden reviews in The Hidden Reviews Club on Goodreads. You're welcome.) This policy wasn't my favorite, but I could live with it because it sought to split the difference between people using Goodreads to note to themselves a book that they didn't want to read, and keeping the book page from filling with unread dismissals. If only they could keep the book pages from filling with "pre-reviews" which are useless to me, but then just because they're useless to me, doesn't mean someone else can't find value in them, I guess. Anyway, point being, this policy didn't silence reviewers, it muffled them.

But now, apparently, whole shelves are being deleted, along with all their reviews. A friend noted her due-to-author shelf had been deleted, along with a large number of reviews that didn't actually violate the new TOS. The policy was implemented like swatting a fly with a hammer, with no nuance, and certainly no warning. A lot of people are crediting this change in policy to the actions of Stop the Goodreads Bullies and their allies, including STGRB themselves. (And I urge you not to directly visit their site, as they are known doxxers and assholes. Round up here if you want the story.) I find this unlikely; I imagine Goodreads is as sick of them as everyone else is. I believe this change is in response to irresponsible posts such as this one in Salon that asks, "Did a writer get bullied on Goodreads?" The short answer is no, a debut author did not get bullied on Goodreads, as the lame appended ETA in the article notes. (Also, a really brilliant piece of citizen journalism that documents that whole stupid mess can be found on Three Rs. You're welcome.)

So, in the spirit of plagiarism, which is the one I wrote this review in, I'm going to quote extensively from Mike's comment in his review of Mein Kampf, which is a two-line dismissal of Hitler's manifesto that focuses on the author's behavior:

Let me step back and say: I seriously, seriously doubt that the moronic TEH-BULLIES! crowd had anything to do with the new policy. I do imagine that this is an attempt to craft rules which prevent the flaming wars which emerge at a vibrant social network predicated on asserting one's opinion. I would disclose that I've met, and liked, and really trust/like the person who really trusts/likes, one of the GR staffers. But even if I didn't know and trust this person, I'd probably be inclined to think that--even as (cue the Pet Shop Boys) making lots of money is a goal--the site hasn't gone and isn't going through some radical shift to be an eden for the self-published or the major bookselling reich. (For the record, I don't think Amazon is the devil, either.) 

In other words, I take the new policy's intentions at their word: to try to refine and enhance community engagement with one another. 

But I wrote this review for three reasons. 

One, a regulation or a strong opinion is like a dare to me. I take enormous, childish or child-like delight in fucking with rules and rule-keepers and firm believers. This really was like my late-night calls to 1-800 numbers, or my tendency to screw around in institutional emails -- it's FUN.  

But, two, there's a reasonably sincere philosophy behind the cat-calling and game-playing. I think rules work best when least intrusive, when most responsive to community engagement. I think communities are stronger when its members constantly mock, abuse, test, tease the rules which ostensibly govern us. And I think this is most wonderfully embodied in online networks with serious, smart, engaged, funny, rule-breaking, opinionated members like this site. Community rules tend to bubble up, and shape discourse. I think that isn't just preferable to imposition from above. I think it makes more sense to what you're trying to create or facilitate. If you want a vibrant social network, keep the TOS concise, minimally invasive, and unambiguous. Otherwise you will spend ALL of your time regulating the TOS, and members will spend an inordinate amount of time leaving in a huff, or flagging and demanding TOS attention, and... (I also think *practically* rules DO emerge. The community defines its standards, and upholds them. Such regulation is more fluid, sometimes more heated, sometimes plain rough. But such regulation is an emergent property of social networks.) 

Three, as many have pointed out, in the feedback section as well as in other places where debate about the new regs rages, the imagined neat line between an attack on an author and a book-centered attack is not a fixed boundary, and it will be devilishly hard to put the fences up reliably, consistently, fairly. I think the new regs are categorically fuzzy and confusing -- and see point Two.

I think Mike pretty much nails it here.

But back to Lehrer, and How We Decide. There are eleventy million books out there, which is [11ty million minus a couple thousand, give or take] more books than I will ever in my lifetime read. We have to parse the millions for their worthiness to pass under our eyeballs; we have to decide what we think is worth not just our attention, but our hard-earned dollars. I'm not going to read another Orson Scott Card novel, for example, because that guy's anti-gay bullshit is horrible to me. (And hey, I even liked Ender's Game.) You don't have to agree with my reasons, but a lot of people out there do. It's valid to compartmentalize the author's views from the creative output, something I have to do all the time when I pick up historical works by, say, fascists or assholes. (TS Eliot represent!) But it is equally valid to say: I will not read this book because I don't want actual money going to actual people who are actively working in the world towards ends I despise. Or even just, fuck what the writer said on Twitter.

So I get that Goodreads is trying to work some spin against some really fucking shitty journalism, but this is the wrong fucking call. I recently did an interview about my experience on Goodreads, in which I said that the site changed my life. It did. I love how my fellow goodreaders have challenged me as a reader and as a person. But, again, I'm dealing with high-handed, badly considered bullshit policy choices that seem to correct the wrong problems. There was a lot of howling when Amazon bought Goodreads, and I predicted that the policy changes that drove me off the site would be incremental. I'm not bailing yet, because I believe still in the community, but I keep considering my line in the sand. (Implementing downvoting, for sure.) I'm hoping I don't just end up like the frog in the boiling water, accepting an escalating heat because, frankly, the idea of leaving makes me miserable. This policy change makes me miserable too.

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