Blog - Optimal Goodreads

Why Goodreads is my Optimal Social Media Platform

Driving out of Zion National Park, through the Utah desert, I had a really excellent conversation with two close friends. It was the spring of our senior years; one was beginning work at Facebook, the other was starting as an architect in NYC. As we sped along on I-15 back into Arizona, our conversation drifted towards what exactly could make Facebook a better place to be.

At this point, I had mostly given up on Facebook as a social media platform that I would enjoy. The only types of posts that I would ever see were either very charged up political opinions, or humble (and not so humble) brags of their own life. There is not anything wrong with making these kinds of posts, but they were also not things that made me feel happy, and it certainly did not explain why I was wasting so much of my time scrolling down my timeline. [1] Beyond that, Facebook seemed to be a giant megaphone for all of society, and the voices that made the most noise - drowning out good faith conversations with intentional trolling and astroturfing. Where had things gone so wrong?

But, of course, it is easier to tear something else down rather than come up with a better idea yourself. So, what would be my ideal social media platform? It would be a place where you can stay connected with both old friends and acquaintances. It would be a platform where the discussion of ideas, both simple and complex, would be seen as more valuable than the discussion of people. It would be a place to sharpen your own thoughts while being led to serendipitously discover others. It might even encourage you to be creative and mindful when contributing to it. It would be self-defeating, encouraging you to use itself less and less over time, as you discover more and more of the world to explore.

What would that mean in practice? And why is Goodreads the optimal version of that?

To start, an online social media platform is still merely an extension of our in person relationships, and is still limited by our own cognitive capacity. [2] It is fairly meaningless to have a large network if you are not actually interacting with the nodes in that network, so platforms that are focused on adding connections, friends, followers, etc eventually become something other than a social media platform. There is no longer a "social" aspect to it - instead, it just becomes a stage to perform and curate the best aspects of your life to a disinterested audience. [3]

What I want from a social media platform is the ability to connect with people based on things that they have done and experienced. While the promise of the internet is to connect people around the world, I desire for there to be something concrete to connect over. Although just having internet text boxes does provide a blank canvas for interesting stuff to be done, I have founded that constraints can often spur on more creativity. Instead of being assaulted with a wide array of different ideas - from pet photos to political polemics - a social media platform like Goodreads provides an immediate seed crystal for discussions.

For those unfamiliar, Goodreads is a way to track the books that you have read. You are able to add a book to your shelves, add updates to what you are currently reading, and leave reviews after you are done with a book. You are encouraged to add friends, creating a timeline where you can see what your friends have recently added to their own shelves, as well as allowing you to like and comment on other people's updates. The platform isn't particularly polished - its entire theme seems to be beige squares, which does seem to capture the dullest librarian stereotypes. But for what it lacks in style, Goodreads makes up for it in its usability and functionality.

As a prerequisite, any book that I mark as completed on the platform is something that I had already invested time and energy in reading, meaning that I probably already have a well-formed opinion about the book. Afterwards, I'm encouraged to be creative and thoughtful in writing reviews and comments, because I know my friends are able to see it. It's exciting to see when my friends add a book that I have recently read to their shelves, because it means that they have an opportunity to share in the same experience, and that we would have something to talk about in the future. And, with the benefit of having friends with very different interests, I have been able to discover books that casual library browsing may have never led me towards.

But out of all of these features, the most important one is that the platform does not command attention. [4] At the end of the day, it's not really possible to waste hours and hours of time browsing through books on other people's shelves. Instead, from using Goodreads, I'm encouraged to close my browser and open a book. That, in a nutshell, is what I hope to see from an optimal social media platform: the ability to encourage offline community. Rather than be a substitute for face-to-face chats, online communities would work best as an add-on, broadening horizons.

However, those same platforms fail at encouraging truly deep conversations. This can be seen even in the way that we browse the social media platforms today - while on break, while our mind is on auto-pilot, to fill the gaps between awkward periods of time. We aren't regularly scanning through someone's post, searching for deeper meanings. However, what these platforms can do is to set the seed of an even more engaging conversation, over a cup of coffee or even in a video call. By providing more points of common ground, social media platforms are able to assist in-person relationships. [5]

I'm not sure if all of these goals are achievable, or even desirable for everyone. After all, what tech giant would want to intentionally want people to not use their product, therefore leading to less ad revenue? And for that matter, why does Goodreads exist anyways? While this platform started off as a private tech startup, it ended up being acquired by Amazon in 2013. Since then, it seems like it's been used by the juggernaut to funnel attention to new books on their platform, providing prioritized links from books to their Kindle and Amazon listings. I'm still torn on whether this is a necessary evil - after all, these sites do need to be funded on the backend - or if corporate ownership will eventually lead to more sudden, draconian changes in the platform. [6] So far, it seems like the community is still supporting Goodreads, but it doesn't seem as stable of a platform as, for example, Wikipedia.

I don't know if there will emerge any kind of new social media platform that would fulfill my arbitrary criteria, or if the existing giants will slowly adapt their own platforms. I remember the buzz surrounding and when they launched, but despite having beta accounts, neither of those platforms seemed to have something that made me feel attracted to using them. But wherever it goes in the future, it is unavoidable that these platforms already play a huge role in our lives. I do hope against hope that they will slowly become better over time. Perhaps such platonic ideals are unachievable, but like idealistic college kids chasing the moon in Utah, it is definitely something worth pursuing.

[1]: For a more complete categorization of some annoying types of Facebook posts, please see Tim Urban's excellent blog on that topic.

[2] See Dunbar's number as one example of the limitations of the human mind.

[3] Social media - it's just the market's answer to a generation that demanded to perform. So the market said, "Here, perform everything, to each other, all the time, for no reason." - Bo Burnham, Make Happy

[4] Sometimes, I do wonder if this is directly related to the beige color scheme of the platform just being unappealing to look at for too long.

[5] I am still wary of categorizing relationships as "real" or not, mainly because I still feel a kinship to the online relationships I had cultivated from a young age. My personal gut feeling is that a purely digital relationship can easily fade in and fade out, whereas people who you have shared actual physical space with can seem more reliable, in a sense.

[6] This is part of the reason why I keep a html table of the books that I have read. Sure, it's a bit more work, but even I don't read that much to make it really a pain.

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