You can't go a day without someone declaring that the book is dead, whether at the hand of the Kindle, the iPad, or social media. And while those technologies are certainly vying for attention with the printed book, a lot of social media users still read them–and are even using social media to complement their reading.
First to the social-networking-for-bookworms space was LibraryThing, a site launched in 2005 that attracted a passionate but modest user base. But since late 2006, Goodreads has eclipsed LibraryThing according to Alexa stats, likely due to its early embrace of Facebook Connect integration.
I've been using Goodreads since 2008. I'd heard about LibraryThing when it launched, but was dubious–why would I want to meticulously recreate my library in a virtual space, for all to see? Back in 2005, I was a social media doubter, and couldn't understand why I would take something I considered very personal and personable–reading, and discussing books with friends–and do it online.
By '08, I had become a social media addict, and when I received an invitation to join Goodreads, I decided to give it a try. I was ready to discuss and trade book lists, share reading suggestions and the like, to have the idealized cocktail party where everyone are voracious readers and are eager to discuss their lists.
Goodreads is easy to set up for anyone who's used a social networking site or an Amazon Wish List in the past. Users create reading lists, categorized into "read", "reading", and "to-read". You can post your progress through a book you're currently reading, and write reviews that will appear on the book's Goodreads page, which is visible to all users. Users in an individuals' network can join a comment thread on that particular review, or join the site-wide discussion about the books. The discussion threads tend to be contentious, yet remain literate and lively.
User profiles and friend acquisition works similarly to just about any other social networking site in existence–you log in, create a profile that highlights your literary interests, and add friends from the network. The most time-consuming element of the site is adding to your read books list, which is just about as tedious as you would imagine, unless you're the type that gets into curating and documenting your personal media collection.
To its credit, Goodreads tries to make the process as simple as is possible, considering that you're cataloging an analog technology in a digital space. The site allows you to search for books to add by title, author, or ISBN, or by browsing user-made lists of thematically-linked books. For users with Amazon wishlists or catalogs of their libraries in spreadsheet or text file form, Goodreads offers import tools, which can speed up the process.
What tends to happen–as evidenced by the majority of profiles of the 40 people in my Goodreads network–is that users add a portion of their library, affix a starred rating to some of those books, and move on to adding the books they're currently reading or have recently finished. It's simply more fun and interesting to chit-chat about what you're reading right now than about books you put down a decade ago.
It's worth spending some time cataloging your favorite (and least-favorite) books from years past, though. One of the most useful tools the site offers is the ability to compare your tastes with any user on the site. By clicking "compare books" on a user's profile page, Goodreads will compare ratings of books that both you and that user have reviewed. It may be not the most nuanced way of finding fellow literary travelers, but it's a great and easy way to determine the people in your network who are trusted sources of recommendations.
Much of the site's success can be attributed to the wise move to integrate with Facebook Connect. As Facebook has become the de facto space for online congregation, niche social networking sites such as Goodreads have capitalized on users' existing Facebook profiles and friend networks, instead of making forcing users to mingle in multiple walled gardens. In the case of Goodreads, this integration is seamless. Users who connect their Goodreads and Facebook profiles can update their reading list, see others' reading list updates, comment on user reviews and add users to their Goodreads network, all without leaving Facebook.com.
While the Facebook integration offers a bare-bones entryway to Goodreads, a much more robust set of features resides over at the Goodreads site, including the "writing" section, where users can post their own work. The diversity of submissions is impressive, though the quality also varies widely. The user's writing page is overwhelming, despite the ability to filter the results by genre. If your friend network includes a number of engaged writers and readers who are interested in peer criticism, you might find some utility here. A glance through the writing landing page, however, demonstrates that there is a lot of content posted to the site that people are not engaging with, demonstrated by the flood of submissions that haven't been "liked" or commented upon a single time. The feature could be a useful way to share writing with a handful of friends who are actively engaged with your work, but don't go in expecting to be discovered by a literary agent.
Another interesting, but underused, feature of the site is the ability to write "friend stories" about any individual within your network. Similar to Facebook's "how I met this person" feature, in the context of Goodreads, this tool could inspire users to take creative license writing the narratives of their social connections. Unfortunately, in my personal network, I was unable to find any profiles where this feature had been used. It may be another indication that many members are only using the features easily accessed through the Facebook interface, and rarely accessing Goodreads directly.
If you're both a voracious reader and an obsessive social networker, there's much to like in Goodreads' service. Nearly every published work of note has a passionate discussion thread surrounding it, populated by a spirited and collegial user base. But the ultimate value of a social network is in its social graph, and how the people in your social graph are using the network. And in this way, Goodreads comes up short for me: in my network of 47 friends, many of whom are avid readers, few utilize the review or comment features. Instead, the tendency–one that I am guilty of myself–is to use the site as a public catalog, sharing their lists of recently- and currently-read books, and only rating the books on the simple 1-5 star scale. A quick glance at the dashboard feed reveals updates on what people in my social network are reading and what they recently read, and a vague sense of whether or not they liked the book. Not particularly condusive to discussion or debate.
Judging from the robust conversations and debates that surround high-profile books, it appears that my experience is not representative of how all people are using the site. People are clearly using Goodreads to express strong opinions on books, ranging from takedowns of critics' darlings to passionate defenses of controversial works. In one of the site's most intriguing trends, the authors themselves–both prominent and emerging–are joining the discussion about their work. Without a doubt, these discussions are taking place, even if they are not within my personal network.
I've also found it somewhat jarring to transition from the solitary experience of reading to the cacophony of social media. It's a very different experience, and I've found that it's best not to mix to the two. I prefer to let a book linger after finishing it, to wait weeks before forming an opinion, while I see how it sits with me. Such an experience isn't well-met by the quick-fire debates that online discussion thrives upon, so I've found that I have to avoid the comments page of a book I've recently read, for fear of jumping to a rash conclusion based on someone else's opinion of the book. The conversations and debates are much more edifying once I've had the time to let my own opinions on a book develop.
Goodreads hasn't quite become that idealized cocktail party that I desired–there's too little buy–in from my personal network, and a bit too much noise from strangers, a problem endemic to most social networks.
But it has certainly been valuable to me (at left!): I now trade recommendations with passing acquaintances I had no idea I shared tastes with. By following the profiles of bloggers and authors I've enjoyed elsewhere, I've discovered under-promoted gems that I would never have found on my own, such as David Oppergaard's Wormwood, Nevada. I've found my opinions on books challenged in a way that I haven't since my days in college, sitting in a room of engaged literature students.
It's a different, entirely new, way of being a reader: a more social, engaged, and at times off-putting experience–but an ultimately enriching one.