I joined Goodreads early in 2016, well after its initial rise and several years after its purchase by Amazon. Despite being a voracious reader as a child, often told to ‘put down that book and go outside’, I found myself losing the skills and attention span required as adulthood and its responsibilities loomed. I tried hard to reinstate the habit but, like many others, found myself reaching for my smartphone every couple of pages and falling into the trap of scrolling, scrolling… until reading time was over and other tasks demanded attention.

Goodreads was first mentioned to me by a creative writing classmate and, although I was reluctant to join another social media platform when I had barely extracted myself from Tumblr, I installed the widget on my blog with the intention of showing I was a serious reader and, therefore, a serious writer. As we all know, a thing did not really happen if there is no evidence of it on the internet.

If Twitter is screaming into the void, Goodreads is using your inside voice. The interface is simple, although recently revamped to be a bit slicker. Readers can discuss, rate, and catalogue books as well as socialise with other users if they choose, and authors can promote their work to a new base of potential readers. The news feed is basic, small banner ads are easily ignored, and there are no pop-ups or sponsored content or push notifications vying for attention.

Goodreads is a malleable chronicle of what you have read and how much you enjoyed it. It is easy to become self-conscious, especially when books and words are your profession and you are trying to build credibility. Should I keep updating the Skulduggery Pleasant book I borrowed from my twelve-year-old brother, notifying my friends and followers every time I turn the page? Or should I just add it quietly to my lists when it is finished, no matter how many times it made me snort-laugh?

As a collection of independent reviews, Goodreads’ most appealing offering is the opinions of everyday readers. Any review-based platform can be skewed by a disgruntled (‘Another of [author]’s literary turds was birthed) or rabidly loyal (‘Forty six pages of greatness/when all is said and done/these poems by Robert Frost/beam like the autumn sun’) user group but, as digital citizens, we are generally capable of discerning between bad customer service, for example, and bad customers. The ‘word-of-mouse’ marketing inherent in the platform can help authors increase visibility and sales of their work, and winners of the annual Goodreads Choice Awards (‘the only major book awards decided by readers’) experience a significant boost in their books being added to ‘Want to Read’ shelves, improving sales through increased audience interest and targeted eBook offers via Goodreads Deals.

Goodreads has long prided itself on being a ‘community’, although that boat was rocked by the company’s acquisition by Amazon in 2013. Understandably concerned about the collection and potential misuse of their data by the world’s biggest bookseller, a number of disgruntled users launched their own, almost identical, platform, but Leafmarks folded within three years. Despite initial pushback, Goodreads’ user base continued to grow from 16 million registered users at the time of acquisition to 65 million in September 2017, although these statistics do not indicate how, or even whether, these users are active.

In cultivating a social media presence centred around our reading preferences, Goodreads also brings us face to face with one of the less desirable facets of community – the inclination to agree with the group. There have been instances where I found a book to be dull, or poorly written, or condescending to the reader, only to see others ascribing four or five stars, and glowing reviews. My confidence falters in these moments – was it really that bad? Am I being unfair or unreasonable? Maybe one star is too harsh? Maybe I missed something?

Goodreads is about comparison, for better or worse. How many books have you read compared to your friends, your co-workers, your best mate’s mum? What did you think of this book, or that one? The insidious idea of success being measurable through percentages of pages read and stars out of five can reduce reading to another milestone, another item on the to-do list, another way to perform how intelligent, successful, and admirable we are, or want to be.

Goodreads persists for the same reason that all social media persists – it is a way to manipulate and perform a certain aspect of our identity, to assert our worldliness in the online realm. Being well-read has long been associated with cleverness, and access to books and literature, as well as the leisure time to enjoy them, are still indicative of wealth and class.

Driven by this idea of perceived intelligence and well-roundedness, Goodreads became something of a compulsion for me at one point. I would read a few pages just to update my progress (although, ultimately, I think this was a positive cycle that helped me back towards reading regularly). It’s a common idea that good reading begets good writing, and I became so fixated on the ‘good reading’ that I lost sight of the subjectivity of both, and the fact that good writing is not performative, as my reading had become.

Obsession seems to be equally likely for the authors of Goodreads. In a particularly disturbing example, American YA author Kathleen Hale wrote an essay for The Guardian about becoming fixated on one Goodreads reviewer and book blogger, culminating in her contacting the reviewer at work and arriving unannounced at their home. According to Hale, Goodreads delivers a warning under all bad reviews on a book you have written, if you are signed in as an author, beginning: ‘We really, really (really!) don’t think you should comment on this review, even to thank the reviewer…’. Hale describes obsessing over her critic’s blog and previous reviews, which is no great leap from repeatedly checking your phone for new notifications. Human beings have always sought external validation, but social media allows us to seek it in larger doses and, with the constant stream of information and images we consume, the cycles become shorter and demand quicker fulfilment.

Goodreads has helped me return to reading by employing the very things that interrupted my reading habits initially – progress bars, status updates, ‘measurable fun’ – and allowing me to harness the dopamine feedback loops I have established through years of social media use. These cycles allow me to motivate myself towards something I find meaningful, and hopefully begin retraining my brain to transition from app-based achievement to the timeless pleasure of immersion in a book. It’s a complicated relationship, but one in which I feel the ends ultimately justify the means.


Image: book market / flickr

Elise Lawrence

Elise Lawrence is a caffeine-based life form originating in Far North Queensland, now living and working in Brisbane. Her writing has been published in Limelight, Mous Magazine, Kyoto Journal and Hot Chicks with Big Brains, among others, and she blogs about her new home city at Backstreet Brisbane.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Good grief. The author thinks too much. Goodreads is fundamentally a way to recommend or pan books. I review some books I really like — or really hate. Others I just add to my list with x number of stars to either warn or recommend the next guy. Of all the Social Networking sites, this is the least pretentious, the most functional, and the only one I still participate in.

  2. I could not agree more with this review of the reviewing platform. My partner and I are both big readers, and even between the two of us comparisons between how many books read in a year, how quickly we’re moving through them, and what each book rates become nearly as important as asking each other what the books are about. After almost every book we read the first question is ‘How many?’ – after which the star rating is usually explained.

    The problem with these kinds of platforms (as much as I continue to lean on them) is that it rewards taking the easy option, reading the simpler books and making your next purchase that book which is already so popular, rather than encouraging the works of challenging or lesser-known authors.

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