Trust: A Valuable Quality

My current fascination is the nature of online reading communities, which I hope will be the subject of my next sabbatical, assuming my proposal is accepted. So the sale of Goodreads to Amazon is naturally fascinating to me. 

April 3, 2013

My current fascination is the nature of online reading communities, which I hope will be the subject of my next sabbatical, assuming my proposal is accepted. So the sale of Goodreads to Amazon is naturally fascinating to me.

Goodreads is a social platform for readers who enjoy keeping track of what they are reading and sharing bookish information with other readers. Though it was not the first platform of its type (LibraryThing holds that honor) it is certainly the largest, with over 14 million members. Some of those members are concerned about Amazon’s potential use of their reading habits and its increasing embrace of everything to do with the book market and have reacted to the sale with the same kinds of emotions many of us felt on learning that Google was abandoning its RSS reader: shock, betrayal, outrage, and a search for a replacement. Unlike Google’s Reaader, Goodreads is not going away. It’s almost certainly going to continue to continue operating as it does, because the data collected is exactly what Amazon needs to understand the market, sell more books, and be ever more dominant in the book business. But for many Goodreads members, the sense of betrayal is real and is exacerbated by the fact that a year ago, Goodreads severed its relationship with Amazon, baulking at the increasing restrictions it imposes on those who use its data. When Goodreads shifted to Ingram for basic book data, a lot of user-generated content disappeared. Members busily set about repairing the gaps, a community effort to protect community goods. The sudden embrace of Amazon was something of a slap in the face and a reminder that the platform does not belong to the community that uses it and makes it valuable.

I am a member of LibraryThing, the original social network for book geeks, and had long ago had decided to stick with it rather than shift to Goodreads or spend the time maintaining two virtual libraries. I trusted LibrayThing to use my data wisely and I preferred its nerdy focus on cataloging over the flashier, more consumer-oriented socializing at Goodreads. I particularly liked knowing that LibraryThing had a sustainable business model and wasn’t relying on venture capital until it had collected enough personal data to make it worth buying out. Though Amazon acquired a minority share of LibraryThing when it bought AbeBooks, the majority share is held by Tim Spalding, the smart, bookish, principled owner of the company. Though the terms of service for both platforms are in some ways similar (both assume a non-exclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, fully-transferable and sublicenseable right to display, use, analyze, aggregate, modify, adapt, publish, translate, transform, and create derivative works from the stuff you post, though only LibraryThing quotes Shelley in the process) LibraryThing’s TOS is shorter, less confusing, and more to the point, and their privacy policy is far superior. What’s harder to compare is something that can’t be reduced to a legal agreement. I trust Tim Spalding.  

In the past week, a number of Goodreads refugees washed up on LibraryThing’s shores, and it has produced a bit of culture clash. Geek culture can be brash and a bit superior, and there’s some of that in LibraryThing. There is also simply the fact that communities develop unique cultures, and a large influx of new members is not just a technical challenge, it’s a cultural one. After a very open (but sometimes contentious) discussion (which has gone on and on, and is strangely addictive), Tim Spalding started a shared document for articulating LibraryThing’s identity using PiratenPad. Both staff and members contributed. It turned into a more polished statement in the LT blog.

A couple of points resonate especially strongly with me. "LibraryThing is about readers, not marketing.” There is no push to show off numbers of friends or numbers of books read, and publishers and authors are politely shown to the places where they are welcome. (Though they are welcome all over the site as readers, promotional expression is quarantined.) I also was struck by “LibraryThing is libraries.” Library catalogs are a source for bibliographic data, which makes for a much richer database than if only Amazon is used for metadata. Libraries also are a major source of income. LibraryThing for Libraries offers aggregated (and anonymous and opt-outable) data and software to enhance library catalogs. There’s a synergy in that LibraryThing shares libraries’ values when it comes to transparency, privacy, and free speech – and goes libraries one better when it comes to valuing cataloging!

I realized, as I saw LibraryThing define itself for new members, that there’s something really important about trust, and that is something quite a few institutions of higher learning are overlooking these days. Tim Spalding owns a majority share of LibraryThing and could do whatever he wants with it. But because he values the sense of community that has developed and he values the contributions members make, he practices a certain level of shared governance with members. He isn’t shy about stating his feelings and he has strong opinions about where the company should and shouldn’t go. But he has been upfront and transparent about these things and I trust him not to take the company in an unexpected direction simply because he can or because it would benefit him personally. I trust him to listen. I trust him to avoid heading in a direction that would distress the membership. I trust him to care about the health of the community and what it stands for. I trust that he’s in it for the long haul, not setting up for a sale so he can move on to the next thing.

It struck me today that too many presidents and boards of trustees don’t understand the value of trust, perhaps because it doesn’t occur to them to have trust in their community members. They are financially responsible, and that’s their mandate to decide which direction an institution should go in. Who needs consultation when you have been given power (and often a big salary to go with it - isn't that a mandate, right there?) Who needs to share decision-making or information or values when sharing might diminish your ability to make unilateral decisions at whim? Trustees and presidents of this type are not in it for the long haul. They don’t need trust. They don’t need the community’s confidence; they have confidence of their own to spare! They will move on, having some brash accomplishments to brag about, and the community will be left clearing away the rubble.

This type of leader is like the CEO of a venture-capital-funded startup, one being positioned for sale. Who needs to care about community values when you're only there long enough to improve your CV before you move on? 

I'm happy to find a few places, here and there, where trust in a community still matters. 



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