Stop the GR Bullies: A Response

When I first became aware of the Stop the GR Bullies website, I blogged in some detail about why I thought it was a bad idea. Now that the site has been live for slightly more than a fortnight, my position on the matter has only strengthened
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When I first became aware of the Stop the GR Bullies website, I blogged in some detail about why I thought it was a bad idea. Now that the site has been live for slightly more than a fortnight, my position on the matter has only strengthened, not least because in that time, at least one reviewer has received a threatening phone call at home, while another was repeatedly attacked on Twitter for something she hadn't actually done.

It's also relevant to note the strength and breadth of opposition to the website's use of disseminating personal information as a tactic: not only are well-known review and literary blogs like Dear Author, Gossamer Obsessions and Smart Bitches speaking out against the site, but prominent authors such as N. K. Jemisin, John Scalzi and Stacia Kane have also decried it.

I mention this because the site itself is quite clearly set up to defend authors from reviewers, making it noteworthy that members of both camps are taking issue with what's going on. Similarly, in its early days, the STGRB main page featured banners with links to prominent anti-bullying organisations. After being informed of the site and its content, however, all of those organisations declared that they weren't affiliated with STGRB, had never given permission for their banners to be used, and requested that the banners be taken down ( which they were).

All of which begs the question: what, exactly, is going on here, and why?

In a nutshell, the backstory goes like this:

• Goodreads is a website used by readers, reviewers and authors alike, not just as a library database, but as a social networking site with promotional dimensions for both reviewers and authors.

• This is occasionally a fraught situation, as while authors are able to see all new reviews and attendant conversational threads pertaining to their work - suggesting that, as equal users of the site, they should be able to participate or respond - standard online etiquette for authors comes down clearly and emphatically on the side of not responding to reviews or reviewers, particularly in the case of negative assessments.

• Further compounding this problem, the Goodreads rating system specifically allows users to post reviews and ratings for books that are not yet published, but which appear on the site. This has been the subject of commentary in the past, and misuse of the system cuts both ways: while many fans post five star ratings and positive reviews for books which are yet to appear on the market, detractors take the opposite approach of granting one-star ratings and bad reviews to books whose author, blurb or premise they dislike, or sometimes as a form of retaliation against the (arguably far greater) number of positive upvotes on still-to-be-published works.

• Many Goodreads reviewers elect to use snark - that is, sharp or insulting humour - as part of their reviews, some of which are negative. Such reviews, as stated above, are visible to the authors.

• Additionally, as should be generally understood about all reviews everywhere, whether positive or negative, and particularly in spaces where reviews appear in aggregate and are written by a wide variety of people: professionalism, relevance and accuracy are not guaranteed, which obviously is less optimal than it is a natural consequence of human nature. This is just as true on Goodreads as it would be anywhere else, but which nonetheless continues to catch some people by surprise.

• On a number of occasions, drama has resulted when authors have responded to negative reviews on Goodreads. In some instances, these responses have been politely worded, but met with disdain and aggression by reviewers who feel, not unreasonably, that the presence of authors in critical spaces has the effect of discouraging further criticism; on other occasions, authors have behaved badly from the get-go, either insulting reviewers outright or reacting with disproportionate anger to negative reviews or sentiments.

• As a direct response to incidents of bad author behaviour, some Goodreads lists and shelves - as named and maintained by various users - have been set up to keep track of the relevant offenders, with the stated purpose being that other users might like to consider withholding support of authors who behave aggressively, regardless of whether such incidents take place on Goodreads or elsewhere.

Enter the Stop the GR Bullies site, which asserts that snarky, negative reviews, reviewer reactions to author involvement, low ratings given to unpublished titles and the creation of blacklist shelves all constitute a form of bullying. It's noteworthy that the site expressly doesn't address the bad behaviour of authors; in fact, their implied stance is that if and when authors misbehave, it must be because they've been driven to it. To quote a post from July 11:

We understand that there are some Goodreads authors who react badly to reviews, but we have to ask ourselves: why? Why is that these authors are reacting to GR reviewers the way they are? Because they are just a bunch of crazy jerks who want to make people's lives miserable? Somehow, we don't think that's the case.

None of this, however, touches on the real problem with the site: namely, its habit of disseminating the personal information of reviewers. Without this single aspect, the site itself -- despite its occasionally libelous descriptions -- might not have attracted nearly so much attention. With it, however, the entire purpose moves from being a counterculture to something legitimately sinister, with various reviewers not only finding their photos, real names and cities of residence posted, but also the names of their partners, employers and -- in at least one instance -- the name of their family's favourite restaurant together with the days and times they usually frequent it.

The fact that much of this information now appears to have been taken down doesn't diminish the significance of its original inclusion, especially given the harassment it precipitated: quite literally, there is no other reason to list such details about anyone -- regardless of how easily they might have been found through Google - unless your intention is to intimidate by tacitly encouraging others to abuse your findings. (For anyone wanting screenshots proving the original inclusion of this material, any number of bloggers would be happy to oblige; myself included.) It's also relevant to note that the site itself is actually in violation of the Goodreads TOS. To quote the relevant section (emphasis mine):

You agree not to engage in any of the following prohibited activities... (viii) using any information obtained from the Service in order to harass, abuse, or harm another person, or in order to contact, advertise to, solicit, or sell to any Member without their prior explicit consent.

Meaning, in other words, that everything from usernames and photos to screenshots and personal details taken from Goodreads and featured on STGRB constitutes a violation of the same document whose provisions it ostensibly exists to uphold.

Since the week it came online, an overwhelming number of bloggers and authors have been working quietly and professionally to deal with the fallout from the site, whether through lending support to those on the receiving end of unexpected abuse, reporting TOS violations through the relevant channels, contacting the police in instances of real-world harassment, politely requesting the removal of the reviewers' personal information from the site (which finally seems to have had an effect), or otherwise doing their best to offer up intelligent and timely commentary on the issues at hand.

What hasn't happened, despite some speculation about the identity of the site's creators, is an eye-for-an-eye reaction. The STGRB writers might have retained their anonymity, but their targets have kept their integrity.

The questions raised by all of this kerfuffle -- the proper etiquette for author-reviewer interactions; the relationship between creators and critics on sites like Goodreads; the overall issue of when, if ever, a negative opinion ceases to be legitimate consumer advice and starts to be unwarranted abuse -- are all important, ongoing concerns, and ones the book blogger community is committed to addressing. Particularly when it comes to the use of snark in reviews, I suspect that the relevance of personal taste will continue to ensure the existence of a grey area rather than a straight-up line in the sand, which is completely reasonable -- provided, of course, we never default to assuming that our own tastes are the only ones that matter.

Yet despite all the possible richness of such a topic, 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. Though the various reactions its missteps have sparked are ultimately positive, helping to expand the existing debate in ways that will doubtless far outlive the original site, STGRB itself is overwhelmingly negative, consisting at base of nothing more than a handful of poorly-written, vituperative criticisms of strangers on the internet -- or, in other words, exactly the sort of content it otherwise strives to punish.

It's the sort of blind hypocrisy that effectively renders the whole undertaking fundamentally flawed; and that, really, is the site's greatest problem, and the reason why so many of its initial aims -- to garner support from authors, recommend the books they felt were being judged unfairly, disseminate the personal information of reviewers and ally themselves with legitimate anti-bullying organisations - have all been steadily eroded: because none of the groups STGRB claimed to represent wanted their representation, and so actively requested that they withdraw it.

To conclude: there's definitely a conversation to be had about the culture of negative reviews online, but by every relevant indicator, Stop the GR Bullies isn't the place to have it - and I say that as an author, reader, blogger, and reviewer.

This blogpost was written in response to this article by the people behind Stop the GR Bullies.

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