Shelfari’s Bots Are Running Amok

Internet bots have Shelfari[1]been around for a long time, and we're all used to seeing them perform useful tasks like track news in Google, change prices on websites, or in the case of Shelfari, add details to a book listing by pulling names from the text of the book. Sometimes the bots run rampant, often with hilarious results, but in this latest case the results are only funny to anyone not directly affected.

Author and blogger Suzanne Fyhrie Parrott reported on her Unruly Guides blog earlier this week that one of her books was under attack on Shelfari by the X-Ray bot that Amazon set up on the Shelfari website.

The bot in question was designed to skim ebooks in the Kindle Store and then add relevant character and location details to the book listing on Amazon. That is a sound idea in principle, but in practice it doesn't always work out.

Take, for example, Parrott's latest book. It's a how-to guide for the Epub editor app Sigil, so there's really not much in the way of character and other details for the bot to find.

But don't worry; the bot found a solution to that problem: it started adding the names of Parrott's competition as characters in the book. Here's how she described it in an email to Amazon:

The last couple days I thought my book was being “attacked” on Shelfari — adding characters to my How-to book. But, after some digging, I find it is an automated system called X_ray for Shelfari.

While this may be your departments attempt to “help” authors, and in turn readers, this isn’t pertinent to nonfiction books. Mainly, it is adding “characters” to my Shelfari book that are not in the book.

Actually, the additions are people who have the same or similar books or business as mine (essentially competitors.) And by adding them you are adding this information into my ebooks on every device that reads Kindle X-ray.

shelfari_character_issue[1]

It's not clear to me where exactly the bot is finding the names, but I am sure that  Parrott's competition appreciates the free advertising.

Kidding aside, this is not the first time that this bot has messed up. The bot has been active on the Shelfari website for a few years now, and it has built up a solid minority of authors who don't appreciate the bot mucking around with their books.

I may have thought that this bot was a good idea when I first reported on it in May of this year, but not all authors agree with me. There are several threads over on the Shelfari forums with complaints like:

I think x-ray is useful if it x-rays the book ONCE, and then lets us alone to edit out its mistakes. You take out the duplicates of a character's name and then it gives you the same duplications later. You take out the city and company names that it thinks are characters and then they all come back somehow.

and

I second Jonetta's and Eileen M's approach. There is nothing wrong with trying to robot in some info but re-writing data that's been correctly entered by a human is just plain dumb. Especially when the crowd-sourcing effort is trying to fix the bot's mistakes!

And there are several reports of this bot adding characters to the listings for nonfiction ebooks:

While I wouldn't miss X-Ray, I would miss the absolutely idiotic character names and locations that it comes up with for works such as cookbooks. Laughing long and hard everyday is healthy.

The idea is funny, yes, but some authors and editors have had enough.  This bot is so annoying that it has driven some to simply give up trying to clean up after it:

Last month, I had over 500 of these changes dump into my email while I was out of the country. I had limited access to the internet and struggled to get to what was important with my clogged email account.

My personal issues aside, I can no longer waste the time to reverse these changes. All we've ever asked for is a response to our criticisms of this program. As I stated above, I'm not offering any challenge to initially DOING the x-ray, just the repeated running of them.

That was 3 months ago, and the bot was still misbehaving this week.

There's no word from Amazon or Shelfari about what they plan to do to fix this, which is a shame. They've taken what would otherwise be a good idea and ruined it by using it too frequently and inappropriately, and as a result they are starting to drive away their best users.

If I were Amazon I would kill the bot until I could fix this issue. Or at the very least give it a little more human supervision by requiring a human to approve all of the edits and additions. Sure, that runs up the cost, but it's a better option than the mess Amazon has right now.

About Nate Hoffelder (11389 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader: "I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

4 Comments on Shelfari’s Bots Are Running Amok

  1. What would be the benefit of this app even if it were working correctly? How would knowing the names of characters in the book influence people considering purchasing the book?

    • I don’t know of a benefit. X-Ray is a cool feature in Kindle ebooks, but that doesn’t mean that the bot was a good idea. It doesn’t add enough in-depth info to make it interesting.

      I agree, on a practical level the list of names is not terribly interesting to the reader.

      • The X-Ray info in books I encountered so far is not (never) in depth, nor do I see why it should be. It offers an additional structure to a book, for statistic, finding a certain page (where was character x when), looking up something. Sometimes it is easier to use than search, sometimes not.
        Offering the same information (the correct one for novels) on a webpage may tell someone wether they know this book or not, or wether a favorite character/place turns up.
        But the information and they way the bot works as it is described here is simply wrong, for non-fiction I see little use, and even for fiction one X-Ray-scan would be enough.

  2. Suzanne Scourfield // 26 November, 2013 at 1:37 pm // Reply

    I know this is slightly off the topic above but in my experience Shelfari is a service that runs amuck quite often. I have never signed up for or “okayed” any social networking or ebook networking services on any of my devices (have no interest in any of them), yet on my Google Nexus (2012) any time I downloaded a Kindle book through the Kindle App I got not only the e-book, but an additional Shelfari copy that was corrupted, impossible to open, and impossible to delete. I would have to completely uninstall the Kindle app and clean out the cache before re-installing; only then would the corrupted files be gone. A real nuisance. I haven’t read a Kindle book on my Nexus since; at least not through the normal channels.

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