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Jaq D Hawkins

Some Musings

A Turf War On Goodreads?

Goodreads is a site dedicated to bringing authors and readers together with some rather good facilities for organising references to your books and those that you would like to read. A message went out recently that it now has 10 Million users, not bad for a site that has only been around for a few years! As social networking sites go, it has filled the gap left by the defunct MySpace forums and organised things so that people with common interests can talk in groups with others who have the same interests.

Inevitably, anywhere you have people you get some conflicts. Sites like this become microcosms of real life and areas of the site will become microcosms of the site itself. This can lead to 'turf wars'. I've seen it run rampant on the old MySpace forums to the point that the forums were closed. It brings the tone of the site down and stops users who want to enjoy the site for its intended purpose from fully having that enjoyment.

Now, I'm going to try to play Devil's Advocate in the point I want to bring out in this article. Long before I ever joined Goodreads I saw the growing problem that is generated by the explosion in self-publishing, e.g. overblown self-promotion.

As long as there have been forums, there has been spam. One form of it is authors who have just released their first book and enthusiastically promote it everywhere they can. To be fair to the authors, they are encouraged to do this by any number of advice sources. However, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. The most common mistake is joining a forum, dumping a self-promotional post, and then disappearing. This virtually guarantees that no one in the forum will take any notice and a moderator will probably delete the post.

The other common mistake is to engage with reviewers. Trying to explain something that a reviewer didn't 'get' or complaining that the reviewer doesn't like the book leads to a slippery slope. Goodreads advises authors not to engage with reviewers for this reason. The only reviewers I've communicated with (apart from my personal stalker) are those I've personally given a review copy to, and only to thank them for their effort in writing the review.

Yes there is one who didn't 'get' something and only gave me 3 stars citing that reason. There's no point explaining the point to someone who doesn't normally read Fantasy, he's already had the reading experience. That one was a review trade outside of my genre and his Christian Fiction book got 5 stars from me. It was a unique idea and was well-written. I may have cringed when I saw his return review, but he got a polite thank-you and still has the 5 stars from me.

Most often when an author, especially a new one, engages with a reviewer to disagree with a point of their review it goes wrong and can flare up into a full scale argument. However, the blame must be shared. Sometimes reviews are written by people with a penchant for nastiness and the author is responding to what comes over as a personal attack. The trouble is that on Goodreads at least, this has developed into a polarity that has even led to a group being formed by reviewers who are fed up with authors responding with arguments, counter balanced by an opposing group that has a webpage offering help to authors who have been attacked by 'Goodreads bullies'.

This phenomenon is primarily a dispute affecting Romance and YA authors and readers.

One bystander responding to an attempt to troll put it best:

"I find this a very interesting point. It helps me to understand some of this. Because I don't read romance or YA romance. So this whole landscape with the reviewers and authors in a very engaged and intense, and dare I say it, often somewhat adversarial relationship, its kind of new to me."

Now, I'm not going to tar all the members of either group with the same brush.

There are 219 members in the Badly Behaving Authors group but the real trolling activity appears to be the work of around half a dozen members, perhaps with a few peripheral followers that join in the 'swarms'.

The trouble with groups of this nature is that they inevitably breed trolling. A perfectly intelligent person might join, having been in a silly dispute and feeling fed up. They may have seen several examples of smamming, posturing and argumentativeness and needed to rant at sympathetic ears.

However, there are always a few members who glory in gratuitous nastiness and will lead the others to any possible 'new pickings'. They will actively encourage a 'hive mentality' to give them back-up when they find a target.

Conversely (I'm playing Devil's Advocate, remember?) An opposing group will see the hive as a unit and having already been put on the defensive, become an opposing force that no longer questions whether the author might bear the greatest blame in an individual case.

For example, I won't mention the name but there is one author who has become famous on many forums for extreme posturing, e.g. making claims about the greatness of his books that spill far into the ludicrous. It's the sort of example that makes the hate groups make some kind of sense.

Once two sides of an issue become polarised, neither is objective.

Where this seriously goes wrong is when the few instigators lead the hive on any witch hunt available. For example, I explained about the woman who has stalked me for over five years, sucking up under one identity while disparaging any of my projects under another. Screen prints proving the connection between them are on the article 'An Oddity'  http://jaq-d-hawkins.bravesites.com/an-oddity.

The stalker is of course a member of the BBA group, as such groups attract this sort of person. By calling her piss-take article a review and calling on the 'Hive' for assistance, she diverts attention from over five years of active malice and focuses attention on a single dispute that she can convince these people relates to their purpose in life, to troll. Again, I don't refer to the full 219 members, just the people who regularly participate in attacks, never questioning whether the attack is justified.

These people just want a fight. It's what they enjoy, more than actually enjoying a good book. They never attack alone, they always have another of their group back them up, often several.

These people as I said are mostly Romance and YA readers, so far from my target audience. Most of them would never have heard of my books, but a 'shelving campaign', one of their favourite methods of trying to vandalise a book page was directed at me on the word of the stalker, holding up the legal wording of an email to her host site as 'evidence'.

Somehow I'm supposedly suing her for a review and her people have to 'get me'.

One of the methods of trolling directed at me recently was the "she's suffered enough" ploy, which is an attempt to gain sympathy from disinterested bystanders. Actually, my stalker's Livejournal shows that she was never the least bit bothered.

It also shows (using her own posted quote from our correspondence) that I told her straight out in the first reply to her email that I had no intention of taking legal action.

The whole basis for the swarm attack was based on a lie, one that anyone with a measurable IQ can clearly see. Those who recruit others from the hive are knowingly perpetuating a lie.

There have never been lawyers involved, I told her as pictured above that it wasn't a practical option.

In the same journal she links to an old Wikipedia talk page that was generated from a separate incident of some rather silly trolling that resulted in the page getting locked for a time by Wikipedia. She takes out a comment from me, directed to someone called Mr Marmite that I was pretty sure I knew who he was. On the journal she says, "If I'm Vanessa and Mr Marmite is Vanessa..."

The page doesn't mention Vanessa. In fact, I suspected Mr Marmite of being someone who had just been banned from three groups in two days for joining purely for the purpose of picking  arguments. My finger had pressed the button on two of them.

This "everything is about me" attitude is typical of this kind of trolling. As long as there are straws to grasp to further stir up the hive, she can keep it going until people get wise and start looking at the evidence, or lack thereof. The real die-hard hater won't look at evidence that could disprove their position because they don't want to be confused by facts. Facts become an inconvenient truth when the need to stir up a hater attack takes hold.

Unfortunately, people dragged into battle by the ring leaders can have a real dilemma when faced with solid evidence that what they've been doing is trolling. No one wants to admit that they've been played for a fool.

It takes courage to have an independent thought and break away from hive mentality, something that is generally in short supply among those who tend to join in from the start.

Others who get into the 'game' find creative ways to further their efforts. One true mark of a full time troll is that they will know the Terms of Service for a site inside and out and they will find ways to skirt the rules any way they can, while hypocritically denigrating the enemy for 'gaming' the system.

The below example is a response to the recent announcement of updated review rules, where Goodreads is openly telling users that reviews "about the author" will have less priority than reviews about the books.

Looking for ways around the rules to spread malice backfires on the troublemakers in any number of ways. Sometimes they push it too far so that the people who run the site are forced to undo everything they've done. They complain that their trolling lists on Listopia "disappear mysteriously" but by infiltrating a recommnedations tool with inappropriate lists they draw attention to their intent and don't think for a moment that it's because trolling lists don't belong on a site like Goodreads.

The form of attack in reviews pictured above was used on one of my books recently, causing a spike in sales as there were mentions of horrific goblin sex and mermaids eating babies which appeal greatly to the horror audience. I only hope that they aren't disappointed that there isn't enough of it.

I don't speak for Goodreads in any way and have no 'inside tracks' with the powers that be, but simple logic and a spare thought for the idea of a business model says that this sort of activity brings down the tone of the site. The potential of losing these few losers among the 10 Million users is not an issue.

Goodreads is visibly making an effort to put a lid on overt trolling. This is obviously so that the other 9,999,993 users can enjoy the site without having to put up with this childish nonsense.

I almost don't have the heart to tell the 'shelvers' that their efforts actually help the author. Every time a book is shelved, regardless of the name put on that shelf, it gives the book 'points' on the internal system that raise the popularity of the book on Listopia lists, where people actually look for recommendations. This is why you see books listed above others with more votes on that list.

But before anyone jumps with glee that it also affects the troll list, keep in mind that that one is probably slated for execution too. After all, no one looking for a recommendation is going to bother with it. They'll look at the 'Best Romance of the Century' list where the shelvers have helped vote up the same book. Kinda defeats the purpose, doesn't it?

With a couple more swarms, my books might even get a high enough rating to get on the Fantasy recommended list that new members get put in front of them the minute they sign up. As far as I know, I'm the only Fantasy author currently benefitting from the shelver's efforts. As I said, they normally operate only in the worlds of Romance and YA. These are not my readers.

Most of the 10 million users are blissfully unaware of this micro-community war and get on with finding, shelving and recommending books as the site was intended to be used. But just under the surface, that .00002 percent continues to click those like buttons and write false reviews or make up irrelevant shelving to mark their 'turf', while the opposers of such tactics are pushed to find counter methods to undo the intended damage. You can almost hear the theme from West Side Story in the background...