It has been fascinating to see people respond to the acquisition of the largest book-focused social network, GoodReads, by Amazon, the largest book-focused anything. (In fact, it’s so large, books are just one of the many, many products the company sells, but bookselling was its first focus; the company has had a huge impact on both book culture and book commerce. This acquisition is one of many that have consolidated Amazon’s influence in the publishing world.)
If you are deciding which site to use, Book Riot published a thorough and smart comparison of the two sites last July (see part 1 and part 2). I have been a LibraryThing member since about 2007 and started using it primarily to replace a kludgy homemade website where I had been posting book reviews. I tried out Goodreads soon after it launched, but didn’t want to maintain catalogs on two sites, and preferred the familiar layout and the business model of LibraryThing. (Rather than rely on targeted advertising and magic venture capital dust, it charges a small lifetime membership fee of $25.00 and repackages reviews and tags as an enhancement for library catalogs. The terms of service is actually very similar to Goodreads’, but I don’t think Tim Spalding would sell his company to Amazon, and I trust him not to turn my reading tastes into marketing opportunities.)
For many Goodreads members, the acquisition came as a rude surprise and many who are concerned about the growing power of Amazon began to explore competitors. The response is very like the way people reacted when Google announced it was mothballing its RSS feed Reader: betrayal, outrage, anxiety about the size and power of a single corporation, and a crowdsourced scramble to find alternatives. Once people have invested their own creative labor into a site, have woven it into their daily routine, and have established social relationships there, it’s a rude shock to realize that it’s not actually theirs at all.
This scramble to test alternatives has also exposed many of the things people want in a platform built around sharing a love of books – and what happens when groups and their established cultures collide. Tim Spalding, LibraryThing’s founder and owner of a majority share, started a discussion about what the acquisition means for LibraryThing. Along the way, many feathers were ruffled and some were soothed. Spalding wrote “I find Goodreads too pushy on the social side, too cavalier about user data and–on average–not as intellectual as LibraryThing can be.” Not surprisingly, some Goodreads members who were checking out the site took offense. In the ensuing discussion, some LibraryThing loyalists dug the hole deeper, while others tried to repair the damage. I’ve seen similar behavior in an online book discussion group in which members sometimes disparage another group in order to express what they like about the group they are in. Since these groups include overlapping memberships, feelings get hurt and members feel torn between the social codes of one group and those of another.
Both Goodreads and LibraryThing are a wonderful antidote to the claim that nobody reads and the book is dead. Both sites attract avid readers – millions of them – and offer opportunities to create personal book collections and share reviews. Both sites have extensive social features and ongoing conversations around books. Both involve members in volunteer work that improves the site.
But they have significantly different flavors. LibraryThing is more focused on individual members’ catalogs, drawing on book metadata from many sources, making it useful for those who collect pre-ISBN books or non-US, non-English titles. (There are over 700 bibliographic databases from which to draw data, including national libraries across the globe.) Goodreads is much more social and contemporary and is designed to enable Facebook-like group formation and socializing around books.
Within each site, communities coalesce and thrive, but the threaded discussion at LibraryThing takes a back seat visually to the cataloging of books. LibraryThing is more like a library, with a major focus on cataloging, less on finding the next book to read (or purchase) – though it has a sturdy recommendation engine. The company also shares with libraries a healthy respect for privacy, a fairly knee-jerk attitude to freedom of speech, and a culture of transparency (up to a point, given it is a privately-held company with no interest in making its code open source). Goodreads is more like Facebook – funded by venture capital, very large, and reliant on the data its users provide to serve up targeted advertising and to gather a spectacularly large and detailed set of book-related data to monetize.
One other distinction that seems to have cropped up as these cultures collide is where authors and publishers fit in. Goodreads tolerates a lot of marketing and is much more attractive to publishers, authors, and … well, Amazon. LibraryThing has a welcome mat for authors and publishers, but there are distinct social boundaries that the community has set beyond which marketing and promotion is unwelcome. The terms of service states clearly, “”Do not use LibraryThing as an advertising medium. Egregious commercial solicitation is forbidden. No matter how great your novel, this does apply to authors.”
The discussions at LibraryThing about what the Goodreads sale means have been eye-opening, both because I’ve learned a lot about what other members get out of the site and what features it offers that I’ve never stumbled across, but also because of what readers say about their sense of community and what they want from a social reading experience. Some of these desires are technical (a mobile version, for example) and some are functional (preferring one type of social interaction over another) or aesthetic (with “dead salmon color” coming up a lot, but also graphics versus text and other design preferences).
But some of the differences are tribal, and those are the ones that are the most interesting to me.
EDITED to add: This LibraryThing blog post articulates what makes LibraryThing LibraryThing. The way it was composed is very consistent with the company’s nature – it was open to all members to contribute ideas (on a non-personal-data-gobbling site), and Tim Spalding did the final edit.