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So, Has Your Information Been Sold to Any Huge Companies Lately?

Part of enjoying a book comes after you finish reading it. Once that last page is read a reader is able to discuss it with their friends, recommend it to colleagues, participate in a book group, write a review, or—well—the list goes on long enough to fill a book. Given people’s love of sharing what they’re reading (and what they want to read next) it was obvious that there would eventually be social networking websites specifically targeting book lovers.

And it was also obvious that sooner or later those social networks were going to be bought by an online retailer. Behold! In a move that should surprise nobody: Amazon announced (on March 28, 2013) that it will acquire the social network for book lovers Goodreads.

For those unfamiliar with Goodreads, the Amazon press release provides a proper picture of the site:

 “Founded in 2007, Goodreads now has more than 16 million members and there are more than 30,000 books clubs on the Goodreads site. Over just the past 90 days, Goodreads members have added more than four books per second to the “want to read” shelves on Goodreads.”

Some who have written about this deal have pondered whether or not this acquisition means that Amazon is getting into the social networking game. But consider: 16 million members is a rather paltry sum in comparison to the several hundred million members that Facebook has, and there are far more than 30,000 groups on Facebook. Furthermore, it is difficult to imagine a social network for book lovers being turned into a platform that could challenge Facebook.

There are many very obvious aspects and motivations at work in this deal. By buying Goodreads, Amazon can make itself the bookseller of choice (if not the bookseller of choice) to Goodreads users (Amazon was formerly just an option [and not the top option]), it can potentially make Goodreads apps that are exclusive to the Kindle family of e-readers and tablets, it can send targeted deals and advertisements to Goodreads users who have placed a certain book on their “want to read” list. Indeed, this deal isn’t really about acquiring a website. It’s about acquiring information. Lots of information.

Amazon knows your purchase history. Amazon knows what you’ve clicked on and haven’t bought (assuming you were browsing while logged in). Amazon knows quite a lot about you, but much of the information they know is limited to what you’ve told it by using its website (as well as various other Amazon owned sites such as IMDB and Zappos). And if Amazon is getting as much as it can through its main websites than its easier to just buy another site. But again…this is all pretty obvious stuff. You already know it, or you should know it.

The real question that comes to mind for me has relatively little to do with Amazon (it is only doing what huge corporations do), it has to do with Goodreads. While I do not have a Goodreads profile myself I have perused the site in the past, and while it is designed pleasantly enough, I do not think that Amazon bought it for its aesthetic quality. Rather, as I wrote above, Amazon bought it for its data.

Now the trove of data that Goodreads has amassed, a horde of suitable size that the dragon of Amazon wants to roost in it, was created by Goodreads users. Those book lovers who were drawn to the site to build virtual bookshelves and follow their favorite authors and join book groups. They could have posted their reviews on Amazon (and some probably did), but instead they posted them on Goodreads. While Goodreads certainly supplied the paper and pens, it was the users who wrote their personal information all over it. All of this information now belongs to Amazon.

Does Goodreads have the right to sell itself to Amazon? The fact that the sale has happened is all of the evidence that is needed on that account. The better question to ask is: whether or not it is right for Goodreads to sell itself to Amazon. For Goodreads isn’t really selling its self (Goodreads will keep its own website) it’s selling the selves of its users: users who can justifiably claim that when they joined Goodreads they did not realize that all of their information would eventually be sold to Amazon.

There is nothing profound to be said about the purchase of Goodreads by Amazon, rather it should simply act as a reminder that any of your information that you put online ceases to be yours. It becomes something that can be sold by whatever website you’ve put that information on.

Concurrent with the age of Amazon, e-readers, and social networking sites like Goodreads (not to mention budget cuts) are the cries of woe for the fate of libraries. But it is precisely in the age when Goodreads is bought by Amazon (which will doubtless lead to the creation and sale of a new Goodreads app) that one can see what makes libraries so different. For you can bet that libraries have information on far more people than the 16 million users of Goodreads.

Luckily the information that libraries have amassed on what their users are reading is in trustworthy hands. Inscribed in the “Core Values of Librarianship” laid out by the American Libraries Association is “Confidentiality/Privacy” which the ALA describes as:

“Protecting user privacy and confidentiality is necessary for intellectual freedom and fundamental to the ethics and practice of librarianship.“

True, anybody putting information onto a social networking website (be it Goodreads or Facebook) is putting information into the public and cannot expect total confidentiality or privacy. And yet the difference here is important. When you entrust your information to an entity whose prime interest is in making money and accruing interest you cannot be surprised when that friendly social networking site sells off all of your information.

It is worth asking yourself what the “Core Values” of a site are, be it a physical site (like a library) or a social networking website (like Goodreads), before you trust it with any of your information. After all, Goodreads doesn’t have a core value focusing on the sanctity of its users personal information.

If it did it probably wouldn’t have just sold itself to Amazon.

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

5 comments on “So, Has Your Information Been Sold to Any Huge Companies Lately?

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