Shelfari: When Usability and Ethics Collide

By on November 6, 2007

At what point does a usability flaw become unethical? If a usability flaw continues to cause people to do something undesirable to them but very desirable to you — and you know this and don’t change your interface — at what point do you become a massive tool?

I’m left wondering if Shelfari has gotten to that point. As I posted last week, they really pissed me off when some crappy usability on their site sent 900 emails under my name to everyone in my address book. It was intensely embarrassing for me, but I’m sure it was very handy for Shelfari — in fact, 34 people accepted the invitations.

The usability problems were pretty clear, and I outlined them in my post on it last week. I emailed Shelfari about this (see last week’s post for the email I sent), and this was their response:

We only send emails on behalf of users who have explicitly authorized us to do so. The invite friends page clearly lists your friends in the system and all the email address of friends from your address book who from which you are given the opportunity to invite. If you don’t want to send emails to your friends there is an unselect button above each section. We have actually evaluated numerous designs for this process and have chosen one that we felt was extremely clear explaining the process and what is happening.

Gosh, that sounds…rehearsed. Could it be because it’s boilerplate text? Well, yes, in fact, it is. “Danny” from Shelfari, the same guy who emailed me the drivel above, posted this as a comment to Gadgetopia:

Hello, I am an employee of Shelfari and found your blog a bit disconcerting. Shelfari by no means forces or tricks its members in anyway to sending invitations to all of their contacts.

So far so good, but…wait for it…

We only send emails on behalf of users who have explicitly authorized us to do so. The invite friends page clearly lists […]

Yeah, that’s right — Danny pasted the same text into a blog comment that he sent to me in an email. You must keep that text real handy, Danny, because it seems this happens a lot:

Jesse Wegman from the New York Observer unwittingly sent invitations to 1,500 people.

[…] I accidentally failed to uncheck the approximately 1,500 names in my Gmail address book that Shelfari had helpfully pre-checked for me, thereby inviting to join Shelfari, under my name (and ostensibly from my e-mail account), every single person with whom I have exchanged an e-mail in the past three years, in addition to every single person who has ever been on the same cc list as I have, regardless of whether we have ever met, in addition to every single listserv I have ever joined and every single Web site from which I have ever ordered anything (Amazon, Circuit City, and Law Students Against the Death Penalty have all, sadly, declined my invitation

A commenter to Gadgetopia had this to say:

I just had the same thing happen to me. My ENTIRE address book was poached. I think this is purposeful so they can spread their service faster and pass it off as an “oopsy!”

I emailed customer service and received no reply. I deleted my account. They still sent a reminder email!

Rodney Olson did the exact same thing:

Even though I didn’t press the button below the bottom list I still should have deselected the contacts before pressing the button from the top list. My silly fault compounded by what I consider to be a dishonest method of enlisting new users for Shelfari.

After Shelfari sent out another round of emails, which I specifically asked them not to, and failed to respond to the email I sent them, I have deleted my account. I refuse to deal with a company that has no regard for its users.

After all this happened, I decided to go back to the guy who invited me to Shelfari — a local lawyer named Todd — to let him know what his original invitation caused. Here was the Google Chat conversation:

Me: Did you get my email about Shelfari?

Todd: probably. I entered one person’s name and it took everyone’s name in my gmail address book. […] I didn’t see any warning that they would take my entire address book. I put in a name or two then I started getting replies for literally hundreds of people. The site is a good idea but I don’t appreciate having my email list hijacked.

So, there you have it, even the guy who invited me did it accidentally. That’s four stories, five if you include me, and I wasn’t even looking.

Going back to Danny’s cut-and-paste excuse for a second, he says:

We have actually evaluated numerous designs for this process and have chosen one that we felt was extremely clear explaining the process and what is happening.

Well, Danny, you’re wrong. And not just regular wrong — you’re mind-numbingly, eyeball-flatteningly wrong. So wrong to be patently ridiculously wrong.

You apparently have zero respect for the fact that you’re playing around with people’s address books (the only thing worse is the lack of respect I showed my own address book by letting you in it). Seriously — how often do you think someone wants to send an Shelfari invite to their entire address book? I mean, cut the B.S. and level with me — how often do think this situation occurs?

Almost never. This is compounded by the fact that most Webmail services add everyone to your address book to which you’ve ever sent an email. So everyone’s Webmail address book is hopelessly bloated with one-off emails to people and services we’re never going to contact ever again.

Given that, I’ll ask again Danny: how often do you think someone wants to send a Shelfari invite to their entire address book? Yet you so helpfully and optimistically check all the names in gleeful abandon then set that “Send Invite” button out there in the most retarded place you can imagine. Gosh, it’s amazing these little accidents keep happening, isn’t it?

A lot of you may be sitting there think, “What’s the big deal? So you sent out a few extra emails…” So, I’ll close this with account, from Jesse Wegman’s experience:

[…] many other people in my address book I have not spoken to in a long time. Some of these people I have not spoken to for very specific reasons, such as, for instance, the woman who broke my heart in 2002 after she swore up and down that she was in love with me, and then married some tweedy environmental lawyer and moved to Park Slope, or the old deaf landlord on East Fourth Street with whom I had a flame war over an unreturned security deposit, which he had no right to keep in the first place because the window casing was a piece of crap and would have broken anyway.

I would not voluntarily write to these people for any reason, let alone to ask what they’re reading. But now, through the magic of default check boxes, I have reconnected with them […]

It’s a big deal.


My friend Declan found something else interesting in Google. He searched for the text of Danny’s comment, and found this post on the blog of Beth Kanter.

Beth says:

I’ve gotten too many messages from colleagues that have the subject line “Do We Read The Same Books” and it encourages you to sign up for a social software called Shelfari. The “bacn” from this program was sent to a listserv, and it annoyed people on the list. The problem is that the Shelfari uses the “find a friend” feature to spam your friends without permission. So, don’t install Shelfari or you will be apologizing to your friends.

There’s one comment. From a guy named “Danny.” He writes:

I am an employee of Shelfari and found your blog a bit disconcerting. Shelfari by no means forces or tricks its members in anyway to sending invitations to all of their contacts. We only send emails on behalf of users who have explicitly authorized us to do so […]

Gosh, that sounds familiar…

Another Update:

This was added to the Shelfari Wikipedia page today. I swear I didn’t do it and I don’t know who did.

Shelfari has received bad press for its potentially disastrous “Invite Friends” page, which causes new users to send unintended invites from the user’s private email address to their entire network of contacts. Shelfari then continues to send follow-up invites as if from the user’s email address.

There’s a citation after “bad press” which links to Jesse Wegman’s story at the Observer.

Another Update:

Shelfari is updating their own Wikipedia page. The quote above was changed three hours later to this:

Shelfari has received bad press for its “Invite Friends” page, which causes new users to send invites from the user’s private email address to their entire network of contacts. Shelfari sends one follow-up invite from the user’s email address.

Here was the edit note:

Removed commentary and innaccuracies [sic] from Line 20.

The IP that changed this is the same IP of “Danny,” the admitted “employee of Shelfari” that left a comment on Gadgetopia yesterday.

What’s interesting is the text they decided to leave alone. If the subject of this sentence…

[…] “Invite Friends” page, which causes new users to send invites from the user’s private email address to their entire network of contacts […]

…doesn’t change it when he has the opportunity, is that a tacit admission of that fact?

I thought editing your own Wikipedia page was prohibited, but apparently it’s just “strongly discouraged”:

[Conflict of Interest] edits are strongly discouraged. When they cause disruption to the encyclopedia in the opinion of an uninvolved administrator, they may lead to accounts being blocked and embarrassment for the individuals and groups who were being promoted.[1] Merely participating in or having professional expertise in a subject is not, by itself, a conflict of interest.

Editors who may have a conflict of interest are not barred from participating in articles and discussion of articles where they have a conflict of interest, but must be careful when editing in mainspace. Compliance with this guideline requires discussion of proposed edits on talk pages and avoiding controversial edits in mainspace.


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  1. Molly Malsam says:

    I agree this is an ethical issue. I do usability research for a living, and I can tell you that if we did a usability test on this design and even one person inadvertently sent an unwanted email to everyone in his address book, the design would be rejected, Although, we would never design such a thing in the first place; one of the tenets of good design is to ensure that the users understand what they are doing when they make a selection.

    Even more basically, software should be considerate, as Alan Cooper states: "If we want users to like our software, we should design it to behave in the same manner as a likeable person." I would not like someone who made me send an unwanted message to everyone in my address book.

    It's absurd and obviously disingenuous for Shelfari's rep to state that the design was "extremely clear explaining the process and what is happening". I'd be shocked if they did any testing and even found one person who fully understand what was happening on their invitation page. Clearly several extremely tech-savvy individuals in this discussion arena alone were deceived.

    There is really no place for this kind of deception in online social networking. Users are barraged with such opportunities, and they will quickly reject those that do not respect them. This thing won't fly as it is, I guarantee that. So if the people at Shelfari care about being successful, they should pay attention to these comments.

  2. cmadler says:

    I did understand what Shelfari was asking, and I spent several minutes looking for an option to "skip this step". I didn't find one, because there isn't one. It appears that the only way to proceed with the signup is to send the emails.

  3. What's interesting is that Danny didn't come back to define the company with the additional comments that were made ...

    And, his comment in terms of customer service and pr - really does not demonstrate the main tenant of web2.0 - listening.

  4. Jurek says:

    A great site to use as a negative example for the ISO 2941 / 11 dialogue principle: "A dialogue is error-tolerant if, despite evident errors in input, the intended result may be achieved with either no or minimal corrective action by the user.” My students will love this!

  5. Dave says:
    I did understand what Shelfari was asking, and I spent several minutes looking for an option to “skip this step”. I didn’t find one, because there isn’t one. It appears that the only way to proceed with the signup is to send the emails.

    They've obviously implemented a poor design or we wouldn't even be discussing it.

    That being said -- as soon as you enter your name, email address, password, and agree to their TOS, the very next screen states "Shelfari is better with friends, Select your address book, [Gmail] [Yahoo] [AOL] [Hotmail]" and right below that: "Skip making friends for now".

  6. Molly says:

    I just looked at the opt-out part because someone else told me they signed up without doing the address book thing, and while a link to skip is indeed there, it's in very small font to the lower right, it's light gray and not underlined (which is not necessary anymore but further obscures the option) and clearly, the focal point of the page is selecting your address book, making it seem like that is the next logical step.

    I got to the address book listing page the first time I entered without even noticing the opt-out options on the preceding two pages. Then you've still got the issue that Deane originally mentioned, which is that it seems like when you click "Send Invites" under the Select your friends section, you would only be sending the email to those under that section rather than everyone on the page.

    It's sort of like the witch luring Hansel and Gretel into her house with the lovely bright candy and the songbird leading the way. "But only if they had looked down over here through this window into the basement," she'd say, "they would have known not to come in. I gave them the chance to get out of it!"

  7. Dave says:

    I'm absolutely not defending them, their opt out link is very deceptive. I'm just saying its there. And once you proceed past that page you're screwed.

  8. Carl says:

    You should send this to the Consumerist!

    So did you end up closing your account with them? I wonder how many other people decided to as well?

  9. Deane says:

    So did you end up closing your account with them?

    No. You see, that's the thing -- I love the service. And I'll happily use it and evangelize it as soon as they change this one small thing...

  10. At least 'Danny' had the decency to reply to your email. I got nothing. But then again, I suppose he's still wading through the mountains of similar emails from unhappy users.

    After I deleted my account I simply signed up to

    It does all I need it to do without spamming my friends and contacts.

  11. Brooks says:

    While I think it's clear that they are capitalizing on bad UI to trick people, I also think that their edit of the Wikipedia entry is fair. "Potentially disastrous" is a needless amplification of the already strong "causes people to send..." phrase. The entry is no less accurate with the edit, and is (in my opinion) even stronger without the "potentially" adjective.

    All that said, I certainly won't be using the service any time soon. I hate slimy business practices like that.

  12. Deane says:

    While I think it’s clear that they are capitalizing on bad UI to trick people, I also think that their edit of the Wikipedia entry is fair.

    I agree. That's why I didn't revert it.

  13. Tim says:

    Hey. I founded their main competitor, LibraryThing, so I'm not disinterested. That said, Shelfari is spamming and lying their way to success, and it kills me. Two things:

    1. I was able to find fifty irate blog posts from people who spammed hundreds or thousands of their contacts. (Let me know, I'll send the list.) It wasn't even hard. They are a record of anger, embarrassment and frustration that cannot be denied. They know what they're doing.

    2. If you dig a little deeper, you'll discover that "Danny" has also engaged in a campaign of astroturfing, talking up Shelfari in blog comments without saying that he worked for them. The posts are easy to spot because he has the user name "schaufferwaffer" and that's not a common word.

    He says things like:

    "I am a big Shelfari user. What are you waiting for? Sign up and add me as a friend (schaufferwaffer). Recommend a good book to me!"

    "I like your bookshelf. I'm also on Shelfari. Friend me "schaufferwaffer". Any good books you recommend?"

    "Ohhh also on Shelfari. Also a big fan. I love the mystery genre! Recommend me some good books….schaufferwaffer is my id."

    The best was:

    "I like the blog! I am also a Shelfari member. What do u think of the new contest ... I think i can win it! Add me as a friend "schaufferwaffer"

    (Of course, he couldn't win it. The rules say employees aren't allowed to even participate.)

    Anyway, I'm glad someone is catching on to them. They've been on my shit-list ever since their first press release--they LOVE press releases--said they were the first site of their kind and, of course, journalists bought into it. LibraryThing wasn't even the first site, and we started more than a year before them!

    Uch, anyway...


  14. Otis says:

    Well put Tim!

    My name is Otis, and I started a third main competitor to Shelfari, called Goodreads. I've also been very discouraged with their tactics lately, because even though they are getting lots of complaints, the tactic is working because they are getting lots of traffic from it.

    You can even see when they launched their "invite page designed to trick people" on Alexa.

    As a competitor, I have to stay competitive - so I'm really hoping all the negative press comes back to bite them, because I really enjoy running a product that people like :)

    I have two points in writing this: number one is to encourage people to keep blogging about Shelfari's trickyness as long as they keep doing it. So far, people are having no problems doing that. However the saying "all press is good press" is mostly true, so my second point is to encourage people to also mention that there are a number of other sites for book lovers that are well designed: notably, Goodreads and LibraryThing.


  15. cedar says:

    Shelfari are scum. They are dishonest to the point that if you give them the benefit of the doubt, they'll exploit it.

    They're gambling that the evil that they do will be worth the spammed sign-ups that they attract, and that repels me. Evil should not be rewarded.

  16. Aditya says:

    I faced a similar problem when I had signed up for shelfari back in August. I found the interface to be a bit unreliable, and have more or less switched to the Visual Bookshelf application on facebook. It is easier to use and already part of a social network which has quite a few of my friends on it, and it does a better job of asking you about who you want to invite.

  17. My company does not directly compete against Shelfari but we're in the space. Does anyone really believe this was a "bad UI/process design" on accident? They are a late stage entrant into the book space with well entrenched players like many of the companies mentioned on this blog. I'm quite sure their board and investors were looking for proof their offering was a big enough differentiator that they could in fact play in the space...that translates to getting there faster and in the online space, that means either buying users or deploying means that are less expensive but get you viral results....tapping into peoples address books. What they failed to realize in this cost/benefit up front is that you cannot build a community of loyal and dedicated users on deception. Their grow graphs on Alexa and other services are indeed impressive....until November. Strangely, that coincides with when all the news/blogs starting discussing their perceived deceptive practices...I'm quite sure they ceased with at least part of the "auto-opt-in" address book process, or you wouldn't have seen the drop off as you can see. They've got a lot of PR cleaning up to do and in the end, they'll have to see if taking this approach to get faster growth was worth pissing people off.

    Scott CEO BookCrossing

  18. Nurture says:

    I left Shelfari for two reasons. One is the email issue being discussed here. The other is an inability to manually add my books, many of which don't seem to be on their database OR amazon.

    I muxch prefer GoodReads and LibraryThing, both of which I use. They are much simpler and more user friendly. They also respond to emails promptly and politely. LibraryThing even added Multiply to there also on list at my request!

    I would definitely recommend either of these sites over Shelfari any day.

  19. this site allows anyone to post real or fake reviews on anyones book without any way to prove the authenticity of the review or the reviewer, who can post anonymously. what a joke. no wonder amazon bought them to sell more product.

  20. Luis says:

    I don't even remember joining Shelfari (i never heard of them before), and have received some email from people accepting my invitation to I am 96% i dont even know this people or have them in my email contacts at all!! what can i do?

  21. [...] Anyone remember the Shelfari debacle? [...]

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