It's easy to recognize a negative book review. But how can you detect an unfair one? Popular review website GoodReads now finds itself in the midst of a debate over what justifies a negative book review and what freedom online reviewers – including anonymous ones – should have.
In a recent column on the Huffington Post, the administrators of the website Stop the GR Bullies stated their concern over what they said are bullying reviews being posted on the GoodReads website, which allows users to post reviews of the books they read. The Stop the GR Bullies administrators say that bullies have been posting negative reviews of books because they holds grudge against an author or simply want to harass someone.
“If they are given any reason to target an author, they will attempt to destroy that author's reputation and career for either their own personal amusement or for vengeance,” the administrators wrote in their column.
On the website Stop the GR Bullies, which appears to have been created this month, four administrators posted screencaps of reviews that they say are examples of the bullying trend. They also posted profiles of Goodreads users whom they say are bullies.
In their column on the Huffington Post, the administrators cite the Goodreads comments policy, which reads, “You agree not to post User Content that: (i) may create a risk of harm, loss, physical or mental injury, emotional distress, death, disability, disfigurement, or physical or mental illness to you, to any other person… (v) contains any information or content that we deem to be unlawful, harmful, abusive, racially or ethnically offensive, defamatory, infringing, invasive of personal privacy or publicity rights, harassing, humiliating to other people (publicly or otherwise), libelous, threatening, profane, or otherwise objectionable.”
“If you surf the GR fora, you will see hundreds of instances where the GR TOS is being violated, which shows that Goodreads is not policing their site,” the STGRB administrators write in their Huffington Post column. “Further, they are unresponsive when posts like these are reported.”
While some comments on the column supported the administrators’ message, others didn’t see what the problem with the Goodreads reviews were.
“I have to join in with those extremely disconcerted that HuffPo sought out these people and gave them a platform to continue this ridiculous and dangerous campaign,” one commenter who gave their name as OtotheA wrote. “I see people who can't deal with criticism of work that they put out into the marketplace.”
Another commenter objected to the fact that the STGRB website posted profiles of the alleged bullies without offering any identifying information about the website administrators.
“They have the audacity to ‘out’ reviewers but refuse to have their real names, or even have a bio or a picture here,” a commenter named Katiebabs wrote.
However, others commenting supported the STGRB site and their message.
“Maybe it's not a big deal to authors who are already fairly well established,” a commenter using the name TeaPartier said of the negative reviews. “But those people who are just starting out, this is serious.”
After the column was posted, Andrew Losowsky, the Huffington Post books editor, posted a column titled “Stop the GR Bullies: An Explanation.” In the piece, Losowsky explained that while columns are edited for grammar and factual errors, they do not go through the same process as a news article on the site.
“To those who feel that we let them down, I can only apologize,” he wrote. “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.”
Losowsky said that many users had contacted him citing a case in which they said a reviewer who had been called a bully by the STGRB website had been threatened via telephone. Losowsky said they had been unable to corroborate the incident had actually happened.
“In an email to me, one of the people who runs the site categorically denied stalking, threatening or telephoning any of the people who have been featured on Stop the GR Bullies,” he wrote.
Author Foz Meadows posted a column on The Huffington Post sharing her thoughts about the Goodreads controversy. She cited the alleged incident of a woman being harassed over the phone as one of the matters concerning her.
“The STGRB site stands as singularly unhelpful forum for discussion, unashamedly more concerned with personal vendettas, retaliatory anger and biased crusading in a name-and-shame format than a considered exploration of the issues,” Meadows wrote.
Questions about negative online reviews, of course, are not new. In one high-profile example, historian and writer Orlando Figes paid damages to fellow authors after it was discovered he had gone onto amazon.co.uk and left negative reviews of their work under the name Historian while positively reviewing his own books. He first claimed the comments had been left by his wife.