Currently reading: Other Words for Smoke, by Sarah Maria Griffin
Several of the former members of the Book Riot Insiders Epic Slack community have likened their grief over cancelling their memberships to the emotional experience of a bad breakup. Many of us have dated this guy. You know him. He’s extremely charismatic. Everyone loves how friendly he is, how he espouses his feminist values, how he knows all the right words to say to make people feel heard, and special. But when the shine wears away, you start to see the cracks in that veneer. You suspect that perhaps his values don’t exactly align with what he’s been telling you all along. He begins gaslighting you, and blaming you for the problems in your relationship. And if you’re lucky, that’s when the whole thing falls apart.
What is Epic Insiders?
Before I explain what happened and why it’s a problem the literary community should care about, it’s important to understand what Book Riot Insiders (BRI) actually is – or, I should say, was?
Book Riot is a media conglomerate that produces book-related content including blogs, podcasts, newsletters, and reading challenges, as well as related products, like the Read Harder Journal, which can be purchased from their online store. They purport themselves to be big believers in diversity, although their official belief statements don’t follow through on that. The staff and contributors list for Book Riot itself is extensive, and lacks transparency about the roles that each of the people involved plays.
Book Riot is a property of Riot New Media, a company which creates “content driven communities around niche interests that delight fans and celebrate their diversity” (from the Riot New Media website, 21/02/2019). The CEO of Riot New Media is Jeff O’Neil, and the COO is Clinton Kabler, both white cis men. There are 16 staff members of Riot New Media. (On a personal note, as a trans former-Insider, it is noteworthy that none of the staff members of Riot New Media are out as trans.)
Insiders (BRI) is described as the “exclusive digital hangout for the Book Riot community” (from the BRI website 21/02/2019), but is a paid subscription service that supports the Book Riot platform. It mirrors what you might see on Patreon, but internally hosted. Until recently, subscribers could choose between three levels of support: Short Story, Novel, and Epic. Epic was the highest, at $10 a month, and gave subscribers access to the New Release Index (a curated index of books and when they release to the public), Insider-specific newsletters and exclusive podcasts, a monthly prize drawing, a rotating deal on merch, and the Insider-only forum.
The forum was a Slack (see how Slack works), hosted on the free version of the platform, and capped at 275 Epic subscribers, plus the Book Riot staff, and some contributors. Separate Slacks exist that are exclusively for Book Riot contributors, and for staff only. The Slack was active, and many Epic subscribers joined specifically for access to that exclusive community. The Slack was the only interactive element of the “digital hangout” that BRI purported to offer.
On February 12, 2019, a new platform-wide Book Riot policy was announced by a moderator in the General channel of the BRI Slack. At the time that the announcement was made, there were 397 members in the channel, which had the description, “mayhem and anarchy”. One section of the new policy was specifically highlighted by the mod: going forward, no generalizations made about any group of people would be tolerated in the “public” channels on the Slack – that is those spaces open to all paid Epic subscribers. The examples of “groups of people” that were given were specifically “men”, and “Republicans”. As soon as the announcement was made, the moderators began to delete custom emoji that users had created in the forum, including one that read, “WHY ARE MEN”.
Noteworthy in this post is the moderator’s casual tone, and referring to BRI members as “thoughtful, wonderful, considerate, magical unicorns!”, as well as which portion of the policy the staff chose to highlight when making the announcement to the Epic Insiders.
The culture of the BRI Slack was assertively progressive and anti-oppressive. Many members of marginalized groups, including but not limited to BIPOC and LGBTQIA2S+ people, were among the very active daily users of the digital space. This policy was suggesting a massive, mandatory culture shift.
Within minutes, users began to react: very few were having positive reactions to a policy that amounted to institutionalized tone policing. Users argued that the policy contributed to a culture of oppressive exceptionalism. Despite purported “activist” values of the organization, the policy suggested dismissal and delegitimization of marginalized perspectives – #NotAllMen and the notion of “reverse racism” were repeatedly cited as examples of the kind of culture the policy would foster. The Epic Insiders agreed that for Book Riot to enforce their policy in what was an exclusive, pay-for-access, community space, was to actively stifle the very voices they performatively lifted up in the content created for Book Riot. Users questioned the motivation behind rolling out such blatant respectability politics in the space. The policy was violent.
The original post was made at 2:03 PM EST. At 4:49 PM EST, the same moderator announced that the staff were “headed out for the evening,” and would be discussing the feedback in due time. Three and a half hours after the policy announcement, 72 BRI members had joined a private channel and were making plans for an alternate Slack for folks who no longer felt safe, and who were prepared to cancel their memberships in protest of the change in policy. The conversation in the public Slack channel among users and the occasional staff person continued in full force until 5:38 PM, and then with less immediacy into the days that would follow.
Epic Insiders voiced their dismay in tones ranging from indignant to assertive to brokenhearted to scared. Members also pointed out the deep hypocrisy of the staff who were rolling out this policy – who, only the previous day had been making posts that would now be considered in violation of their own policy.
The moderators and staff who stepped in to reply doubled down. They noted that the policy would be platform-wide, and apply to contributors, staff, and Insiders alike. The full, current Book Riot “Community” Guidelines can be found here. They apply to all Book Riot spaces and all content created for the media conglomerate.
One question that, even in the days that followed, staff refused to answer: who was the team who wrote this policy, and what was the motivation to roll it out for the exclusive BRI Epic Slack?
Moderators and staff responses included:
…And this is really hair-splitting — the reality is, you can still criticize people and systems, just as the site has. But generalizations about entire groups of people who have as many intersecting identities as us just aren’t the thing now.Book Riot Staff, February 12, 2019, 4:59 PM.
Surely, the difference between criticism and name-calling is clear.Book Riot Staff, February 12, 2019, 5:14 PM
We anticipated some questions, but we clearly underestimated, and it is clear that we have some discussion and clarification to make to this policy. […] we’ll make updates or clarifications here as we come to them.Book Riot Staff, February 12, 2019, 5:33 PM
All I can say is that I promise you this community has not been made unsafe.Book Riot Staff and Forum Moderator, February 13, 2019, 7:51 AM
You can still express yourself. The first thing done was saying private channels would allow you to say the broad generalizations [if] you wanted to continue.Book Riot Staff and Forum Moderator, February 13, 2019, 8:02 AM
(Spoiler alert: after many days of supposed discussions among staff, no satisfactory clarifications or updates would ever come.)
At 10:38 AM on February 13, 2019, a forum moderator posted the editorial team’s “clarification”.
Noteworthy in this post is the significant change in tone from the initial announcement. The shift is from conversational and friendly to formal and authoritative. The hypocrisy inherent in this policy continues, for example, the post references the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s definition of a hate group in opposition to the characterization of “Republicans” (as a group) in this way under the new policy. However, in some jurisdictions, Republicans have officially been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre because of their anti-LGBTQIA2S+ stances.
In this post, the moderator characterizes the culture of the BRI Slack negatively, a theme that is recurring as I write this post. They write about the lack of moderation in the forum, that was “allowed to go on too long.” Further, they trivialize the Epic Insiders’ financial contributions to the company, noting that “this was in no way a decision required to keep the lights on or keep Book Riot in business. That is not a concern.”
The post also discouraged BRI users from continuing to discuss the policy in the Slack, and instead, encouraged the use of an Email address for providing feedback confidentially.
One follow-up announcement was made that offered no additional details or policy shift. The moderator stated at this time,
Cathartic conversations for marginalized groups are important, and can and should happen in safe spaces. Within the Book Riot platform, cathartic conversations that include name-calling and personal attacks on groups in public channels are no longer acceptable in public channels, but we understand that private channels may include those.BRI Forum Moderator
Later, a note from another Book Riot staff and moderator stated,
Book Riot has evolved over time […]. If you don’t believe that, or believe that we are operating out of some other motive, then it is probably time for our paths to diverge.Book Riot Staff and Forum Moderator
The new guidelines went into effect on February 18, 2019. At this time, Book Riot offered Epic Insiders who had pre-paid for their annual membership a refund for the rest of their renewal term if they cancelled their memberships by February 28, 2019.
After the last announcement, I cancelled my own membership. That was on February 13, 2019. When I cancelled, I received a notification that my membership would remain active until the 20th, which was the end of my current pay period. Within minutes, without warning, my access to the BRI Slack was revoked.
Show Me the Money!
It is perhaps worth noting here that for some BRI contributors, the $10/month paid for access to the Slack was not a financial burden. However, because of the diverse nature of the community that Book Riot had built with the Insiders program, many contributors had to budget carefully in order to be able to afford to support the company and be part of the exclusive Slack. For many, it was well worth it, as they felt that they had “found their people” – some for the very first time. A group of book lovers and enthusiasts as concerned with social justice as they were with finding their next great read. At least, on the surface.
Even so, by the time this response was posted, over 80 BRI users had joined the private channel and voiced an interest in leaving the Slack if the policy remained in place. $9 600 a year didn’t seem like money that should be trivialized in such a way, particularly when Riot Media boasted so few full time staff.
It is also worth speculating that Book Riot underestimated the amount of financial support they would lose from the BRI community. That $9 600 – which would rise to about $14 400/year within a week and a half – did not take into consideration that the subscribers to this program were some of Book Riot’s biggest supporters. Not only did they consume much of Book Riot’s content, they also attended live shows when they occurred, spent money on merchandise, and many subscribed to TBR, an additional paid subscription service that offered custom readers’ advisory. At the top tier, the service costs $300 USD per year, per subscriber.
What Happened Next?
There were several unusual occurrences over the following days. Some BRI members who still subscribed continued to critique the policy, but these critiques were at best ignored, and at worst, silenced. Moderators followed up with members to “remind” them that things like profanity (in any context) were not allowed in the Slack – something that had not been previously enforced. Members were also reminded that criticism of Book Riot, and discussion of the policy, was discouraged.
By February 14th, 2019, 111 former Epic Insiders who objected to the BRI policy change had created and joined an alternate Slack to continue the community that we had created in the BRI program. There were 73 channels, and nearly 3500 messages had already been sent at that time. By February 15th, that number had climbed to over 10 000 messages.
Meanwhile, the Epic Slack was essentially silent, save for a few conversations fuelled by Book Riot moderators and staff, some of whom the members couldn’t remember ever having interacted in the community before. The activity that was happening in the Slack was happening in private channels. The ongoing lack of participation in the BRI Slack under the new policy highlighted the hypocrisy of the policy itself, apparently created in part because some users had told moderators that they felt uncomfortable with the political tone of the conversations. If this had been a reality, participation in the Slack should have flourished, once those who had spoken out about the policy’s oppressive nature had cancelled their memberships and left. Instead, there was almost nothing left.
The two charts included here clearly document the impact of the policy announcement on the Epic Insiders Slack. The sudden peak of participation in private channels coincides with the announcement of the policy, and the sudden drop off coincides with the creation of the replacement Slack that was created, and the cancellations of the users who migrated.
On February 20th, at 2:30 PM, an Email went out to Insiders, the subject line of which read, “An Epic Announcement.” The same message was posted to the General channel of the BRI Slack. The full message can be read here. The announcement was that the Epic Insiders Slack – the only interactive element of the “exclusive digital hangout for the Book Riot community” – was being shut down on Friday, February 22nd, 2019, at 5 PM. Ten days after the announcement of a violent and oppressive policy, the company doubled down again. Rather than learning from the feedback of their financial supporters and engaged community members, they chose to delete the space they had created for them, and any record of what they had chosen to do.
It’s noteworthy that the tone of this message took the level of formality even higher than previous messages had, sounding almost as though it has been written with the advice of legal council. Furthermore, the message that was distributed placed the blame for this choice squarely on the shoulders of those who were brave enough to speak out against the policy. Below are some excerpts.
We’ve looked hard at our own editorial beliefs, seen how for many members of the BRI slack those beliefs ran against their own. We’ve had messages of support for the new policy, and extraordinarily strong reactions against it. Expressions of pain and disappointment caused us to take a long look at what and why we were doing what we were doing.
And what we’ve discovered is that while a specific policy is the fulcrum of this moment, it is about something more than that policy. It is about the very nature of this space.
Our staff’s safety is our highest priority, and we’ve come to believe that the nature of Slack communication, with its speed, informality, and never-ceasing schedule, exacts an emotional toll on our staff that is unsustainable.From “An Epic Announcement,” distributed on February 20, 2019.
Probably not coincidentally, some former Insiders have noted that since the policy rollout on February 12th, Book Riot CEO Jeff O’Neal deleted his public Twitter presence completely, and both Rebecca Schinsky, and Amanda Nelson are using tweet delete apps to remove their histories. Presumably, this is to remove evidence of behaviour that they had all engaged in in the recent past that would now be in violation of a policy that they themselves had created. There are some things still on the internet that are in violation, of course, including a (formerly public, now made private) Spotify playlist called “Why Are Men”, of which several former Insiders are followers.
The BRI Epic Slack disappeared at 5 PM on February 20th, almost precisely. In the Slack populated by former Insiders, folks reflected on the feeling that this was the end of an era for many of them: from the success of Book Riot Live in 2016, to the creation of the Insiders program, and the fostering of a rich, progressive community, to its total collapse less than two years’ later.
How to Respond
The crux of the issue is this. Book Riot announced a terrible policy change to their biggest supporters. That could have been rectified. Instead, the staff doubled down. Even then, if the policy had been revoked and apologies made to those who felt violated, maybe the bad blood could still have been mitigated. Instead, the program was cancelled. Evidence of hypocrisy was erased as thoroughly as possible. Blame was placed on people who were in a position of less power and privilege than those who had written the policy in the first place. Marginalized voices and huge supporters of Book Riot were alienated, then silenced.
Since then, a lot of troubling information about past and recent actions of Book Riot staff have been brought to light by former Insiders who now convene elsewhere. These stories, by and large, are not mine to share. I would privately share stories of the queerphobia I experienced at the hands of one of the Book Riot staff and Slack moderators, and of my complicated feelings about the TBR program, and the tone shift that the launch of that for-profit service signalled within Book Riot’s messaging, with anyone who is interested.
Ultimately, so many of the experiences shared and the actions taken since February 12th are the deal breaker for me, and why I can no longer support this performatively progressive company. Their actions signal such a huge disparity in values between what Book Riot says they are about and what they are clearly actually about that I can no longer see them as trustworthy. In a literary and media landscape where privileged voices are often the loudest, and there is an ongoing struggle for diverse voices to be heard and recognized as legitimate and skillful – this is no longer a company that I support, or feel anyone else should support, through being an audience member, or through financial contributions.
The ambiguous “team” who lead Riot New Media, or perhaps Book Riot itself, were the ones to write and enforce this policy, and it has been put in place for the entire company, which means all of its content is also influenced. The company has not yet shared its motivation for engaging so thoroughly in respectability politics, while still profiting from its image as a progressive, even activist, organization.
If you have feedback about this policy, Book Riot’s behaviour, and its impact on the literary community, I would urge you to direct it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Update: March 6 2019
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