I was thinking a bit more about our discussion of personal collections last week, and I wanted to look more at everyone’s favorite book site, Goodreads. I’m not really sure what to call Goodreads. An article I was reading called it a “book-focused social network,” which is accurate and inclusive as far as it goes, but not particularly descriptive. “Facebook for books,” I suppose you could call it. The social component, the recommendations, the shared reviews, the communal lists and trivia, is certainly a major part of the site, but the core of site is the creation of “bookshelves,” personal lists of books you have read or are reading or want to read.
Something I think is rather interesting about this site, and what makes it a little different from some of the other kinds of digital collecting we’ve been discussing, is the that fact that the site takes a physically existent, generally private collection, and makes it public, communal. Private collections of books, from grand private libraries down to the plywood-and-cinder block bookcases of paperbacks that some of us have tucked in corners, have existed also long as books have, but the kind of public exposure you have on Goodreads is new.
A lot of people, myself included, use Goodreads as a kind of personal book tracking/cataloging system. There are a number of software packages and websites that will help you build a catalog of your books, like this one, but it seems that people tend to choose Goodreads over other sites and software. Part of that is affordability (free!) and ease of use, but some of that is probably how much you can interact with other readers. Apparently book nerds are quite social when we don’t have to interact face-to-face. There’s looking at other people’s bookshelves (another example of very personalized cataloging), and making recommendations and sharing thoughts, but there’s also the creation of communal “bookshelves” (lists). That last creates a particular intersection of public and personal collecting. Pinterest (and Tumblr, and other personal “collecting” sites) will let you “repin” or “reblog” (or “re-nail” if it’s a male-centric site?) but there isn’t really a place where the community can create a collection together. The list section of Goodreads is one of the most popular public sections of the site. There are thousands of lists, from “Best Books Ever” (90,000+ voters) to “Zombies!” (2,000+ voters) to “Great Books That Make You Want To Scream They Are So Good” (3 voters), and hundreds of thousands of people adding books and voting on them.
Communal collection building (even the virtual collecting that manifests itself as “best of ” lists) is an aspect of collecting that doesn’t seem to be particularly well-understood or utilized. We’ve talked about crowd-sourcing metadata creation and the like (individuals working separately), and about how institutions and individuals collect, but not about how a community works together to build a collection. Is there some way to recognize that collecting impulse at an institutional level and create collections (even virtual ones) based on communal interaction?
On a tangential note, Goodreads was just bought by Amazon (see this article), so it looks like all of our communal book-related activities will be helping with Amazon’s algorithms and reviews. Which brings up the questions of the private nature of personal collecting: should companies be able to use all the lovely data we’ve compiled for them on sites like Goodreads and Pininterest? Once you’ve made something visible to other site users is it up for grabs? The never ending saga of Facebook’s privacy settings…