Recently a couple of my friends joined Shelfari and I received email from them, inviting me to join. The messages were friendly, but generic. The only variation was the user name and email address of each friend. This seemed particularly weird because the folks at Shelfari clearly wrote the email very carefully to sound casual and personal, but really, what are the chances that both of these friends would say:

I just joined Shelfari to connect with other book lovers. Come see the books I love and see if we have any in common. Then pick my next book so I can keep on reading.

Click below to join my group of friends on Shelfari!

Next came the part that really bugged me…

Shelfari Registration Page

The URL included in the email took me directly to a registration page. Why do so many social networking sites expect people to sign up before they even see what the site has to offer? Here’s an idea – why not include a link on the email that takes me to my friend’s profile, so I can see all the interesting and compelling ways I might use the site and share information with my friend?

Ok, so maybe they don’t want to include that link in the email, because they really want to encourage me to sign up. But there on the registration page is some info about the person who sent me the invite. (I’ve blurred out the details). This area of the page includes the odd pseudo-personal default message that my friend supposedly “wrote”, but… even here it doesn’t include a link to view the page that my friend created. Big mistake.

See, I already have an account on LibraryThing, a site I had stumbled across several times in a natural way, and through exploration I realized that it was so cool and engaging, it would be worth the time it would take to enter information about all the books I own. Do I relish the idea of entering all that data again, just because some friends of mine have joined some other cataloging site? Not really, and especially not without knowing what I’ll be getting for my efforts.

It’s one thing to sign up for MySpace, or Pownce – these sites take relatively little investment before you figure out if the payoff is worth it. Still, I don’t think sites like this can afford to sit back and count on the fact that people will join just because their friends ask them to, and then they’ll invite more friends because they want company. This agressive laziness goes beyond viral – this is digital MLM.

I don’t mean to put all the blame on Shelfari. Many sites are doing it. This is the same thing that annoys me about those Facebook apps I mentioned a few posts ago.  I’m sick of sites that rely so heavily on the viral marketing model, they don’t think they need to entice user participation by demonstrating features that are actually useful, interesting, or fun. I suppose you could say that viral marketing became overly cynical the moment someone realized it could be a “marketing model”, but now it’s become pandemic.

I read somewhere – I think it was associated with Project 10X, though I can’t find the reference – that people, when faced with new technology, will stick with the thing that’s familiar, even if the new version is an improvement. Even if the new version is up to 9 times better! I’m sure that varies, but technologies that require a major investment of time are going to be the stickier ones. So if you want to earn my business, in a space where I’ve already invested a lot, you’re first going to have to prove that your offering is better – maybe as much as 10 times better.

So, how did I learn more about Shelfari? I read a few blog posts (here and here – both a year old, neither seemed particularly impressed with the site). And then I visited the home page of the site, where you actually can explore, to some degree. I wasn’t able to use the person search without registering, but I was able to see my friends’ profiles if went to some random profile and manually replaced the user ID in the URL. How many people are going to bother to do that? By the time I’d gotten there, I had lost interest.

My point is, social websites, don’t make me work so hard to find out why I should care about your site. You probably won’t like what I decide.