Goodreads vs LibraryThing vs Free software
Four years ago I started using Goodreads to maintain the list of books I've read (which had lived in a flat text file for a decade+ before that).
Now it's been aquired by Amazon. I doubt it will survive in its current form for more than 2 years. Anyway, while Goodreads has been a quite good way to find what my friends are reading, I've been increasingly annoyed by the quality of its recommendations, and its paucity of other features I need. It really doesn't seem to help me keep up with new and interesting fiction at all, unless my friends happen to read it.
So I looked at LibraryThing. Actually, I seem to have looked at it several times before, since it had accounts named "joey", "joeyh", and "joeyhess" that were all mine. Which is what happens to me on sites that lack Openid or Browserid.
Digging a little deeper this time, I am finding its recommendations much better than Goodreads' -- although it seems to sometimes recommend books I've already read. And it has some nice features like tracking series, so you can easily tell when you've read all the books in a series or not. The analytics overall seem quite impressive. The UI is cluttered and it seems to take 5 clicks to add and rate a single book. It supports half stars.
Overall I get the feeling this was designed for a set of needs that doesn't quite match mine. For example, it seems it doesn't have a single database entry per book; instead each time I add a book, it seems to pull in data from primary sources (library of congress, Amazon cough) and treat this as a separate (but related) entry somehow. Weird. Perhaps this makes sense to say, librarians. I'm willing to adjust how I think about things if there's an underlying reason that can be grasped.
There's a quite interesting thread on LibraryThing where the founder says:
Don't say we should open-source the code. That would be a nightmare! And I have limited confidence in APIs. LibraryThing has the book geeks, but not so much the computers geeks.
I assume that the nightmare is that there would be dozens of clones of the site, all balkanized, with no data transfer, no federation between them.
Except, that's the current situation, as every Goodreads user who is now trying to use LibraryThing is discovering.
Before I ever started using Goodreads, I made sure it met my minimum criteria for putting my data into a proprietary silo: That I could get the data back out. I can, and have. LibraryThing can import it. But the import process loses data! And it's majorly clunky. If I want to continue using Goodreads due to its better UI, and get the data into LibraryThing, for its better analytics, I have to do periodic dumps and loads of CSV files with manual fixups.
This is why we have standards. This is why we're building federated social networks like status.net and the upcoming pump.io that can pass structured data between nodes transparently. It doesn't have to be a nightmare. It doesn't have to rely on proprietary APIs. We have the computer geeks.
Thing is, sites like GoodReads and LibraryThing need domain-specific knowledge, and communities to curate data, and stuff like that. Things that work well in a smallish company. (LibraryThing even has a business model that makes sense, yearly payments to store more books in it.)
With free software, it's much more appealing to sink the time we have into the most general-purpose solution we can. Why build a LibraryThing when we could build something that tracks not only books but movies and music? Why build that when we could build a generic federated network for structured social data? And that's great, as infrastructure, but if that infrastructure is only used to build a succession of proprietary data silos, what was the point?
So, could some computer & book geeks please build a free software alternative to these things, focused on books, that federates using any of the fine APIs we have available? Bear in mind that there is already a nice start at a comprehensive collection of book data in the Open Library. I'd happily contribute to a crowd funded project doing this.