Shelfari: When Usability and Ethics Collide

By Deane Barker • Posted on November 06, 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.

Update:

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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