New Chapters Indigo Online Community: Both a Hit and a Miss

Indigo Books & Music, Canada's biggest bookseller, has just unveiled an exceedingly cool, but (IMHO) sadly flawed new online community. At least, I think they just unveiled it.

The news release went out yesterday - same day that they wallpapered a number of subway trains on the TTC with a mass of advertising. But according to this blog post, quoted in the release, they actually launched several weeks ago.

Either way, I want to state first of all that this was an absolutely terrific idea.

Books and bibliophiles naturally tend to create strong communities of shared interest - both online and off. People already gather in the comfy chairs in any Chapters/Indigo store, and natter about the books that surround them. Traditional neighbourhood book clubs are another obvious example.

The same kind of thing also happens in a number of places online, of course. There's a nice Visual Bookshelf plugin for Facebook, for example, and then there's the wonderful LibraryThing, the original social networking site for bibliophiles.

So for Canada's largest retail bookseller to throw themselves into the middle of the social software space, inviting Canadian book lovers to come and hang out in their virtual comfy chairs makes damn good sense. Smart move.

From a first quick run through of the site, it looks like it's an exceptionally feature-rich and promising social space, with all of the usual YASNS features (Friends, Favourites, Groups, rich Profile info, mini-blogs, etc.) and a number of special sections tailored for book-lovers (Top 10 Lists, Recommendations, Reviews, the obligatory "Shelf", etc.).

I'm inclined to like it - or, at least, I'm really trying to.

Unfortunately, my very first experience of the site got me off to a bit of a grumpy start. Here's the first problem I encountered when trying to set up a profile:

In case you can't tell from that screencap, the error message says:

! We need you to correct or provide more information.
Please note the following:
* Incorrect Information - ensure that your last name does not contain any special characters (e.g. %>?).
I know I should be used to this by now, but I still find the kind of sloppy database coding that flags the apostrophe in my surname as a "special" or "invalid" character annoying and, frankly, a little insulting. Forcing me to misspell my name in order to register because your system thinks an apostrophe is "Incorrect information" is just dumb.

Of course, I got over myself, and signed up as Michael OConnor Clarke, but things didn't get much better after that.

The next big thing to flip my cranky bit is the site's mandatory Terms of Use. I'm not sure how many of the people signing up for this thing will take the time to read all the legalese, but there's some seriously worrying text in there that is worth highlighting. It's this bit, in particular, that I find troubling (with my italics):
The User acknowledges that any content, e-mails, postings, offers, software, videos, photos, text, graphics, music, sounds, questions, creative suggestions, messages, feedback, ideas, recipes, notes, drawings, articles, stories or other information, data, materials and opinions (including, without limitation any postings on community forums) ("Submissions") that he or she may provide, e-mail, post, upload or otherwise transmit to the Website shall be deemed and shall remain the property of Indigo, including all copyright, without reservation, and User waives in favour of Indigo any and all moral rights in such Submissions.
There's more (much, much more) where that came from. Some of the provisions are pretty much what you'd expect, and not all that different from the terms of use in place at Facebook and other popular social networking services.

The fact that they assert their right to "make such copies... as We deem necessary in order to facilitate the posting and storage of the Submissions on the Website," is understandable and perfectly acceptable to me. If I'm going to invest any time in this thing, I want you to be responsible for backups.

Then there's the fairly standard wording granting Indigo the rights to take user generated content and republish, redistribute, or prepare derivative works from it. Not surprising, and something I've encountered without too much concern in other online communities.

But this thing about them claiming complete copyright ownership of every single pixel contributed by the members of the community - that just seems wrong. Presented in the context of an online community designed for authors and readers, I find it particularly jarring.

The advertising campaign they're using to launch the new community features a number of "Featured Profiles". They've persuaded several well-known authors and celebrities to sign up and create profiles on the system already, such that you can check out what Rick Mercer is reading, or see what books Jan Wong or Ben Mulroney recommend.

I wonder what these illustrious contributors think about the fact that Indigo owns every note, every image, every last little word they post on the site...? How does A.J. Jacobs feel to know that the entertaining blurb he posted to the site about his new book, "The Year of Living Biblically", is now the intellectual property of Indigo?

I know I'm not a lawyer, and it's entirely possible that I'm misinterpreting, over-interpreting, or just simply mis-reading that section of the Terms of Use - but doesn't it seem a little audacious to you?

The other issue I have with this new Community is, I'll confess, a bit of a silly one - related to one of the general (and also rather silly) little issues I have with Indigo as a whole.

For the record: I think they're a really good business. My taste in bookstores tends to skew towards the smaller, rather more personal end of the scale. If I'm a bookstore chain fan at all, I guess I'm more of a Book City guy than an UberBiblioMegaCorp fan. Online, I naturally default to Amazon.ca, more out of habit and familiarity than anything else.

But I do like Indigo. Their site is a good one and their Indigo, Chapters, and Coles stores are generally pretty nice. I just wish someone over there could sort out their branding.

It's been six years since Canada's two largest retail booksellers merged, and yet their website is still stuck with that awkward post-merger name munge: chapters.indigo.ca. Why? That continues to irritate me for reasons I can't really put my finger on. It just does.

And I'm feeling the same vague irritation about this new Indigo Online Community - why couldn't they give the poor thing a half-decent name. I can see it's an "online community", that's obviously what it is. But using such a generic description as the actual name of the thing seems just lazy and a real missed opportunity.

Brand it, for goodness sake. Add some sizzle to the sausage and give us something we can remember; some convenient catchy shorthand we can use instead of this unimaginative, literal (and not literate) label.
HE: "Hey - have you checked out the great new Indigo Online Community"
SHE: "No - what's it called?"
HE: "Um... the Indigo Online Community"
SHE: "Yawn"
Bookclub.ca looks like it might be for sale. Or bookplace.ca - that could work too. Ah, but you want to include the music and DVDs part. OK - so something less obvious, perhaps...

In no particular order:

indigo20.ca (It's Indigo 2 dot Oh, baby!)

Or even:

myindigo.ca (I mean, come on - you already own that one. It's almost a no-brainer)

Anyway. Excellent idea. Not bad execution. Utterly repellent Terms of Use. Zero points for creative branding.

I really want to like this more than I do right now, so I'm going to continue to explore the thing a little more. With those absurd terms in place, it's never going to be my social network of choice, but I'm curious to watch how it grows.