Free Speech and Bullying in Book Reviews: Is there a happy middle ground?

Posted by Jessi (Geo) on August 6, 2014 | 16 Comments

A guest post by Ashley at Nose Graze

Hey folks! My name is Ashley and I have a book blog over at Nose Graze. Huge thanks to Jessi for letting me stop by today.

I’m going to address a topic that literally scares the pants off of me. I feel like it’s so touchy and so controversial, it makes me nervous to even think about it too loudly. But it’s time to put on my big girl pants and just get it out there.

I’m going to talk about finding the perfect middle ground that allows you to give people “free speech” but still avoid harassment and bullying. Then I’m going to tie that idea into a new book cataloging site my husband and I are building, LitRate.

Deleting reviews and shelves on Goodreads

One of the big reasons people are unhappy with Goodreads is the fact that they went on a “let’s delete book reviews” rampage. Goodreads deleted many reviews that they considered to have “author bashing” or bullying. Some people say, “Good riddance! Those reviews were rude and unhelpful anyway!” but other people say, “What about our free speech? This is censorship!” And then there’s the grey area of, “Were those reviews really bullying in the first place?”

Sigh, it’s a very fine line. Having been an administrator and moderator of a very popular website/forum with millions of users, I know exactly how hard it can be to find that happy medium. You don’t want users to be allowed to go on rampages, calling each other names and harassing people. But at the same time, you don’t want to be too restrictive or you’ll push people away. How can you let people speak their minds without letting them cross the line?

I’m hoping I can find that happy middle ground in a new and upcoming book cataloging site, LitRate.

Introducing a new book community: LitRate

My husband (the Coding God) and I have a VERY ambitious project on our plates. We want to create a new book review/cataloging site called LitRate. You will be able to search for books, discover new reads, categorize your books, and chat with fellow book lovers. That’s right: we’re taking on Goodreads.

We don’t just want to create a Goodreads clone. We want to simplify their idea, then reinvent it. We want a site with less of a corporate/marketing push, and more of a personal, individual feel. Imagine a site with better searching capabilities, less drama, less spam, and a place where YOU have more control.

How we’ll balance “free speech” with moderation on LitRate

When creating a site like this, we have to decide how we’ll handle the idea of “free speech”. Can we let people say whatever they want without penalty? If someone posts a review that calls the author hurtful, racist, or otherwise offensive names, how do we react?

On LitRate, we’ll have a few priorities:

  1. Only take action against the worst possible offenses (such as hate speech).
  2. Never delete content. Even if something needs to be removed from view, it won’t be deleted or inaccessible to the creator.
  3. Let the community decide what should be removed.

Okay let’s tackle these points in order!

When it comes to moderating being done by the staff members, we want to only remove content that’s truly horrible. This would include hate speech, racism, and really inappropriate name calling. But even when we have content like that, we don’t want to ever remove this content from a user’s account. We want users to be in charge of their own reviews and always have access to them. In order to achieve this, we’ll adopt a “no deletion” policy.

Let’s say someone posts a review that’s riddled with racist remarks and hate speech directed at the author. It’s cruel, horrible, and not even really considered a book review (it’s more like a “let’s be extremely offensive towards the author” note). Instead of deleting it, we would hide it from public view and inform the creator. The review wouldn’t be visible to anyone searching the site, but the person who wrote that review still has access to it on their account. They can still read their own review and edit it, since it hasn’t actually been deleted. They can even choose to remove the offensive content, and then the review would be un-hidden.

For everything else that doesn’t qualify as “horrendously hateful and inappropriate”, we want to let the community decide what should be visible or not. In order to do this, we’re going to implement a “vote up/down” system. Instead of “liking” a review, you can vote it up. Or, if you think a review is inappropriate, unhelpful, or just bashing the author, you can vote it down. Once a review reaches a certain amount of “down” votes, it will be hidden by default. However, you would still have the option of “click to unhide” the review if you choose to see it. Think like YouTube or Reddit comments.

We want to give our community as much freedom as possible, without turning it into a breeding ground for harassment and insults.

Like these ideas? Help LitRate succeed!

What you see here is just a small taste of our vision for LitRate. If you’d like to learn more and help make this idea happen, please check out our Kickstarter campaign. We’re very excited about this site and can’t wait to get it there into the world. We just need your help getting started!


[Jessi] I don’t know about you guys, but I’m SUPER excited!! I think Ashley and her hubby have a wonderful idea and I know they will succeed….I just can’t wait to see it. Thanks for stopping by, Ashley!
Jessi (Geo)

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16 responses to “Free Speech and Bullying in Book Reviews: Is there a happy middle ground?

  1. These are great ideas! I was lucky enough to not have anything removed during GR rampage, although now I’m missing at least one review for no reason at all. So I’m getting very annoyed with GR at this point, especially since I can’t even view my shelves to see if any others got deleted. Anyway…

    I do have one concern about the up/down ratings. Basically, if would suck if it turned into Amazon, where ANY negative review gets down voted whether it’s a well thought out review or a “OMG THIS BOOK SUX! THE AUTHOR SUX TOO!” Super fans seem to band together to get any negative review pushed down, and it would be awful if a review on LitRate got hidden because of something similar. Negative reviews can be really helpful, but this kind of mentality might make them disappear with this kind of system in place. Hopefully no one like that joins the site, but it is a possibility.

    • I’m glad you’re excited about this Angie!

      I think this would be a great discussion for the Twitter chat on Thursday. We could talk about the pros and cons of allowing down votes. :)

      I definitely see your point though. Sometimes it’s extremely disappointing. Like, I think this system would work quite well in a ‘mature’ community. But then you always get the immature people who can come in and ruin the system for everyone, you know? It just sucks that sometimes we have to cater to people like that.

      • I too went immediately to Amazon’s system. A review that’s negative in rating, but not offensive shouldn’t get hidden. I wonder if negative votes might require a reason for voting negative from a set of choices – I don’t like the review, I don’t agree with the review, I found the review unhelpful, This wasn’t really a review, or I found this review offensive. (And maybe something similar for positive votes – since I can see people voting up on reviews just because they agree, but they aren’t actually useful). From there maybe the system would sort votes based on the reason why – with offensive votes leading to hidding, less useful votes appearing low in the queue of reviews, etc.

        LOL love how I just come up with this idea having ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA if what I saying is doable or how hard it is? My brother complains about me doing this all the time, so feel free to say, “that would be nice but totally impossible.”

        Regardless I’m so incredibly excited about this!!

        • Hmm interesting! It’s certainly possible, it would just make the algorithm more complex. You know, how we decide on which ones to hide or which ones to push up to the top.

  2. I’m super excited for LitRate and I donated to the Kickstarter! I think it’s going to be such a great website for book bloggers. I love Goodreads for organizing the books I want to read and the books I have read, as well as sorting onto shelves for blog purposes, but some of the minor features really annoy me. Parts of the website have just gotten really…corporated and confusing.

  3. I’m not sure I’m too keen on the vote up and down concept (but then I’m not really a reddit user either) it seems like that would be a way to get reviews that are genuinely helpful hidden when just more people who love the book don’t like the review of someone who didn’t like the book when there is no inflammatory content in the review to begin with. So how would you avoid situations such as that.

    For instance the outliers in the range of who likes and doesn’t like a book. A book could be hugely popular. For sake of understanding using small numbers here – say 100 people read the book. 85 people for the most part enjoyed and loved it – 3-5 stars. The other 15 did not giving it 1-2 stars. Those then 15 reviews say 5 of them are 1 star reviews and have legitimate reasons why the book did not work for them. But they get constant down votes which then bumps their reviews into the hidden from public view zone. Isn’t that unfair? Because they are not inflammatory but just disagreeing with the majority.

    That’s the danger of a up/down voting system being used to block reviews from public view. Unless you already have a plan in place to not actually hide these reviews? It just makes me leery as all. The up/down voting could be great to see more popular reviews putting them near the top of the queue if something were just looking at a book but I don’t agree with blocking them.

    And I’m one of those weird oddballs that actually agreed with some of the censoring that goodreads did because there was some nutso drama being posted that just wasn’t about the books so I wouldn’t have considered them book reviews but just author bashing (even if in some cases the bad behavior was on both parties part) anyhow I look forward to hearing if you have any thoughts to share!!

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