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Behold the End of Experts: Why the Goodreads Sale Really Matters

Following Goodreads' surprise sale to arch-nemesis Amazon last month, its uber users shut down their accounts en masse. Is the Era of Experts officially dead?
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The death of film critic Roger Ebert in April inspired an immediate outpouring from friends, colleagues, and admirers. They mourned not only a great man, but also the end of an era: the age of experts.

With the rise of consumer-review sites like Rotten Tomatoes, Yelp, and Epicurious, it's easy to gloss over the important groundwork laid by experts like Siskel & Ebert, Lester Bangs, and Craig Claiborne--journalists who taught us the art of the critique. Nowadays, everyone has an opinion, and far too many ways to broadcast it. And so we find ourselves overwhelmed with dirty data, or a glut of reviews, recommendations, and rebukes that carry no weight of authority.

Exceptions do exist, of course. Take Goodreads, the popular book-review site. Although it has 16 million members, its heaviest users are authors, bookworms, and disgruntled former English majors who actually know what they're talking about. This makes the recent sale of Goodreads to Amazon--the arch-nemesis of people who love literature and independent booksellers--all the more shocking.

It stands to reason that Amazon knows it is loathed (not just disliked, but actively loathed) by the experts who built Goodreads from the ground up and that many die-hard users would close their Goodreads accounts posthaste. Indeed, that's precisely what's happened. According to Rob Spillman at Salon.com, "On the Goodreads Facebook page, sentiment about the acquisition is running 10-to-1 against it. Many members felt proprietary about the site and posted with surprising venom that they felt betrayed and were going to delete their accounts."

Still, the acquisition is being lauded as a strategic win for Amazon, assuming that it did not pay the ludicrous $1 billion initially guestimated by Bloomberg Businessweek. (Others put the figure closer to $150 million.) Jordan Weissman at the Atlantic says, "There's plenty of value for Amazon to unlock." And TechCrunch notes, "The amount of data that Goodreads has on its users alone makes the acquisition a slam dunk."

All of this suggests that Goodreads' value does not hinge on its expert users, but rather on their already-captured data--the reviews and recommendations that average users find so valuable. According to the Atlantic, roughly 29 percent of Goodreads users learned about the last book they bought on the site. Some observers suggest that Amazon will simply embed the Goodreads recommendation algorithm into Kindles to power a stronger peer-to-peer commerce platform. That makes perfect sense for driving sales of more e-books and providing a better user experience for Kindle readers.

But we have to ask: Are our experts really so disposable? Will we suffer, in the long run, for valuing quantity over quality?

"Even if Goodreads succeeds in keeping a semblance of independence, the era of naively posting one's preferences is over," Spillman (@robspillman) writes. "We collectively were under the delusion that Goodreads was different than the data-mining machine that is Facebook, when in fact we're all just data waiting to be harvested."

Do you agree?

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IMAGE: rachelpasch/Flickr
Last updated: May 2, 2013

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