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The Goodreads Revolution - How Social Media is Revitalising Reading

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We live in an amazing time. If you think about how rudimentary the internet, and all antecedent technology was even 20 years ago, the amount of things we can do at the touch of a button is just mind-boggling. Sadly, this does incur some pretty unfortunate side-effects, such as the decline of reading

When I say reading, I'm referring directly to books, just for the benefit of any pedants out there who might have wanted to point out that most online activity involves reading. In 2014, the Pew Research Centre reported that 23% of American adults said they hadn't read even one book in that year, in any format. While things like education level, age bracket, library access and free time have to be taken into account when you're looking at statistics like this, it's hard to escape the fact that online culture has had some role to play in the decline of reading, particularly among adults, but it doesn't have to.

If you were to ask me what my favourite social media platform is, I would say Goodreads without so much as a moments' hesitation. Why? Because it takes a fairly basic social media structure and uses it as a means to actively encourage reading. I mean, yes, it's owned by Amazon, and it's hard to ignore the fact that it's essentially being used as a marketing tool, but the way it retrofits social media tropes into a pro-reading context is laudable for its end, if not its means. It's an elegantly simple and extremely effective format.

One of the things which social media capitalises on is the inherent human nature of copying, the Mexican wave effect. Some of the best marketing ever done has succeeded because of this maxim. The iPod, for example, owes a great deal of its early success to the headphones. As Steve Chazin, one of Apple's former marketing executives noted, making them uniquely white made owners noticeable out in the world, it changed them from product owners into members of a club

Social media thrives on this notion. Think about it, if you don't know anyone on Facebook, there's absolutely no point in using it, almost every single person on the site signed up either because a friend told them to, or they heard about it through a friend. Now that all the major platforms are established enough not to worry about attracting new users so much (except Twitter), it's become more about trends, topics that rely on people following by example to gain traction. This is what gave birth to the current online marketing model, as well as things like hashtivism.

The thing is, the most this kind of thing ever get you to do is buy a product, sign a petition, share a post or sign up to a service, things you can do with a few clicks. More and more though, platforms have started turning it into a method of coaxing people to engage in more active, offline activities. Reading is one of them

The master-stroke of Goodreads is that it gives you the ability to log your progress on the books you're reading, and set yourself goals. It might seem ridiculous that anyone would need to be encouraged to read, but other forms of media follow a far more 'instant gratification' format, you just have to sit and watch or listen. The only other close comparison is games, which is probably why the market for those is leaning more heavily towards casual ones

As reductive as it might be to regard reading as any kind of 'challenge' (unless it's War and Peace or Justin Bieber: First Step 2 Forever), it's working. At present, 42.3 million global unique visits every month, and in 2013 they surpassed 20 million users. Most recently, their weapon of choice has been the 'Goodreads Book Challenge', which tasks users with pledging to read a certain number of books within the year. Being able to chart progress, add books to the 'want to read' list and compare your challenges to those of others adds a kind of casual competitive element, but a supportive one. If you finish a book, and find a few days later that one of your friends is reading it, it's very encouraging, and might even prompt you to look on their shelf to see if anything catches your eye.

Being able to post reviews also adds to the experience, and turns the whole thing into a kind of global book club (which encompasses hundreds of internal book clubs). The other benefit of retrofitting social media to promote reading is that, despite a decline in active readers, the market is booming. Self-publishing is easier than it's ever been, so much so that it's almost impossible to keep track of all the new releases without outside help. This is where the partnership between Amazon and Goodreads comes into its own. Using their API, logging and categorising all the book and user data into a streamlined recommendation system has been pared down to a fine art, and with 1.3 billion books registered on the site, the options are beyond vast.

Above all else, the success of Goodreads is in the awareness that social media isn't social. That might sound crazy, but the links between you and the people you interact with on social media are largely indirect, it's eavesdropping, on a grand scale. What Goodreads does, effectively, is say 'What are you reading?' and then organising everyone's answers so that they're visible to whoever wants to see them. If you're on the train and you see someone reading, there might be some twinge of desire to pull out a book and do the same. This is that, but on a grand scale.



Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop. Follow him @CallumAtSMF


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The Goodreads Revolution - How Social Media is Revitalising Reading Reviewed by Callum Davies on Thursday, January 28, 2016 Rating: 5

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