Shelfari and the New Social Contract

The high value we’ve come to place in reputation on the Web is underscored in several ways by the recent dustup  over Shelfari. In short, Shelfari is being called out (primarily, but definitely not exclusively, by Tim Spalding, of competitor LibraryThing) for two violations of the norms of that reputation system:

While Shelfari CEO Josh Hug has posted something that might be called an apology/explanation regarding the spamming, when considered alongside the rampant AstroTurfing, claims of benign neglect lose their credibility.

What is particularly telling is the profound sense of violation (and deep embarrassment) expressed by those who feel duped:

Our personal social networks are not only more valuable than ever to us, but also to businesses, in particular those whose success requires social transmission. Smart ones will avoid pissing in the well.

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  • Andrew, in addition to my “red face, egg on face” the whole experience continues to be an instructive experience of the role that social capital plays in our online connected lives. My friends trusted me – and many of them signed up for Shelfari. I am STILL getting emails about it – confused friends because they can’t find my account (I deleted it) and DO wish to connect around books.

    But I violated their trust. What will happen next time? This sort of behavior by companies and our own inability to discern what we are clicking into can be a pretty darn destructive force over time. The stakes will only get higher.

    My lesson? I had more social capital than I ever knew and I may have lost some of it by being duped by Shelfari and my own lack of caution in being duped.

  • We got Shelfari-spammed on css-discuss, a member-only mailing list with about 8,400 members, a month or two back.

    At the time, I thought it was bad behavior on the part of the user, and reported it to Shelfari as abuse. They responded pretty quickly. Then it happened again, and I complained again, and got no response.

    I’m wondering now if this was an effect of auto-mailing GMail address books, as I’m pretty sure the “abusive” account in question was on GMail. Methinks it’s time to blog about it…

  • shelfari = spam

    Have said it before, will say it again: Shelfari deliberately *ignored* the problem the first time, hoping it will go away. (The excuse? They were “busy.” Yeah right.)

    Now that the bad publicity is too much to ignore, they *pretend* to care for user experience, when only months before they couldn’t give a flying foo about individual users who complained. Make no mistake: they were very, very deliberate about their tactics. They knew what they were doing, they knew it was pissing people of, and they did it anyway.

    And what irks the most is the disingenuous way they went about it, feigning innocence, etc.

    Evil, exploitative sleaziness shouldn’t be allowed to profit. But that’s what Shelfari is banking on – that they’ll get away from this at no cost to themselves, with lots of spammed sign-ups. There’s no way I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt because that’s exactly what they’re counting on.

  • True, we have had complaints over the summer and early fall from users who clicked and sent to their entire address book unintentionally. We didn’t realize it was a fundamental problem with our design.

    The number of invitations has been rising dramatically as our sites usage has also risen dramatically. We saw complaints rise at about the same rate. Over the most recent weeks, the degree to which our UI was completely broken exposed itself. We have since fixed it.

    Yes, it was too late. I should not have put our current projects ahead of addressing user complaints with our invitation system. If a number of blog posts and e-mails, some of which I personally responded to, didn’t catch my attention, an e-mail from one of our Investors Brad Feld should have. I regret and am sorry for not putting our users interests ahead of our product plans. Instead I replied to Brad’s initial messages pointing to our old research and waved off the higher complaint rate as a natural side effect of our explosive growth. That decision was the worst mistake I’ve made since starting this company a year and a half ago.

    As for astroturfing, this is something I honestly was not aware we were doing. When I woke up today and reviewed Tim’s thorough investigation, I was quite mad and disappointed to find out what had been done. I remember providing explicit instructions to our team to “identify yourself as from Shelfari” before making any comments. Most of the comments in question come from an intern who took part of his time to recognize bloggers who mention us and share some of the new tools we are releasing. Somehow my instructions to mention that he was from Shelfari were lost. We decided last week to release our intern and hire a full time community manager with more experience to help manage our rapidly expanding community. I really don’t know what to say about it other than it was a mistake and we’re paying for it.


  • Sendhil

    In my opinion, is a better alternative to shelfari.

  • I don’t understand how Shelfari could have squandered investor money by flushing all sorts of social networking good will down the toilet when accepting the original UI that opted in a potential subscribers *entire* address book. That is simply unacceptable UI from all sorts of levels and if I knew the team members who signed off on that UI decision, I would have them hung, drawn and quartered.

  • Tom

    What Shelfari did is disgusting and unacceptable. I have had people sending me the same kind of spam from Tagged and even Myspace in 2006. But last few days, I have gotten half a dozen of emails from friends saying to join Shelfari. None of them actually wanted to send the email and they apologized a day later for spamming. They do that with Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo and AOL. They are SLEAZY.

  • DaveA


    re: astroturfing.

    Um, “The intern did it”? You’re running a Web 2.0 company and you left your entire corporate online reputation in the hands of an intern, who, ah, didn’t follow your explicit instructions? And no one above this “intern” checked. For months.

    And…we’re supposed to believe that.

    It took months to respond to the invitation problem; months to respond to the astroturfing problem (there’s still no response on the Shelfari corporate blog to the astroturfing charges); and as of today, the “new, improved” invitation form that auto-hijacks entire address books is still Opt-out.

    And…we’re supposed to believe there was never any nefarious intent.

  • I really do apologize for the astoturfing. I take full responsibility. Doesn’t really matter who was writing the posts — they were useless. Lesson learned – I have made changes and this will not happen again in a company I manage.

    Regarding invitations — yes we screwed up. We apologize it took us so long to respond to complaints and address our design problems. I’ve tried to explain what actually happened in prior communication but in the end it doesn’t matter. We let our eye get off our users satisfaction with our products and won’t do it again.



  • First off, let me just say that I don’t work for Shelfari and have no true stake in their success. I have used Shelfari for a few months and personally found little to complain about with them. Actually even met some new folks who share similar interests in books. But I am troubled by all of the hoopla lately. Okay, now on to my main point…

    I work for a small and quickly growing company that’s unrelated to Shelfari, LibraryThing, and others. However, I see similarities here…and they largely come from the bloggerati who jump on companies looking for blood wherever they can find it. Did Shelfari screw up? Hell yes they did. Did they make some extremely stupid decisions? Hell yes again. Are they “evil” and “sleazy”? C’mon…let’s leave these words to the folks who truly deserve them.

    But Josh has a lot of work to do to rebuild trust in a company that’s all about trustworthiness. Bet he didn’t appreciate that a few months ago and now is the time to watch and see what happens. For his and Shelfari’s sake, let’s hope they’re quick learners who understand the value of transparency and their customers’ social capital.

    Maybe I’m a little more quick to forgive than I should be…I just know that few outside of Shelfari truly know these folks who work there and their character. It’s too easy to assume the worst and far too easy to engage in character assassination. Josh, if you’re really serious about making things right you’ll start by making TRUST your #1 company commitment. Everything will flow from there…either back up to your user’s good graces or straight down to the latest corporate funeral. We’ll all be watching.

  • Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for linking to my post on shelfari that I wrote quite sometime back. I also run an online music community called and we too have an option to invite friends from address books (as it is quite convenient .. may people ask for it). However since most gmail address books contain 100s of addresses, we do not select any address by default … users can check the addresses they want to invite and then send the invites … also we clearly state which users will be invited and which of your contacts are already present on so that there is no confusion.

    It is however good to see shelfari has fixed the issue .. personally i feel that by mass spamming you can get signups but not users … so its really of no use in the end

    Prateek Dayal

  • Just so we don’t get TOO warm and fuzzy here… Shelfari has *not* “fixed” the issue (which is that your entire address book is selected by default); in fact, on their blog, they make it clear they do not consider that to be the issue.

    Rather, what Shelfari considers to be the issue is that it wasn’t *clear* that your addresss book was selected by default, because it was also (a la RealPlayer circa 1995) selected and scrolled out of view.

    So they “fixed” it: Now you can see that all your (former) friends are about to be spammed.

  • Pepe

    It was terrible experience, I ended up spamming my boss, my previous professors, my ex-girlfriend (yeah, still had her email for some stupid reason) … it was a massacre of ego. Anyway, when I contacted them with details of how the invitation is tricky and the spam was sent for the second time, they did not acknowledge the problem. Instead they just said they do have a note which says that mail will be sent second time! The first part of my complaint about the ridiculous invitation was ignored and replied about the second invitation. They don’t care about what kind of embarrassment users go through. Hey they got lot of advertisement for sure, I guess they expect eventually everybody will come around.