This is my fourth (and final) blog post assignment for my Journalism course. It’s kind of an op-ed in its own right, though not something I was likely to bother writing about if not for the assignment.
Back in September, at its f8 conference, Facebook announced a new kind of app, with the ability to use “frictionless sharing”—basically a fancy way of saying that users’ activity can be shared without users specifically clicking a “Share” button.
The first reaction to this announcement was lukewarm at best. As users began to notice just how much activity was being shared, they complained about both ends of the process. Some users were upset about how much of their activity was being shared (Spotify, in particular, started out by sharing every single track listened to); others felt overwhelmed by the new activity ticker in the upper right corner of their Facebook home pages (which was flooded by Spotify posts in the beginning).
News organizations jumped on board with their own apps for auto-sharing every article read by a Facebook user. Some, like Washington Post Social Reader, live entirely in Facebook, allowing (and encouraging) users to read articles without even leaving Facebook.com. Others, like Yahoo News, share activity from the organization’s site via code that pushes activity to Facebook.
The Yahoo News model of frictionless sharing is actually more disturbing, because there’s little to no indication to the user that sharing is taking place. Activity on Facebook can be reasonably expected to be shared, but activity on a third-party site seems outside Facebook’s influence.
There are other considerations as well, around the meaning of sharing. As Farhad Manjoo wrote in a now-archived Slate article, “You experience a huge number of things every day, but you choose to tell your friends about only a fraction of them, because most of what you do isn’t worth mentioning.” Nicki Porter, blogging for CopyPress.com (which provides content development services), made a very relevant point based on that: “If we only share about 10% of what we see online, we’re sharing the best 10%.”
Philosophy and user opinion aside, the last two months have seen massive growth in news app usage. Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman wrote this morning that news organizations are reaching millions of users through these new auto-sharing apps. In particular, Open Graph statistics released by Facebook yesterday show:
- Yahoo News: 600% increase in traffic from Facebook; 10 million users connected, who read more articles than the average
- The Independent: 1 million monthly active connected users; articles from the late 1990s taken viral
- The Guardian: 4 million users installed their app, more than half of them under age 24; averaging nearly 1 million extra pageviews per day
- Washington Post: 3.5 million monthly active users of Social Reader app; 83% of readers under age 35
Facebook is helping news organizations with a box at the top of the homepage News Feed that shows a small selection of stories that friends have read recently.
The lesson from all this is that a platform like Facebook, which has over 800 million active users (as self-reported on its statistics page), can be a real boon to news outlets. Traffic equals eyeballs, and more eyeballs can generate more advertising revenue.
What’s especially interesting to me is how similar the new sharing (which is officially part of the Open Graph API) seems to Beacon, a “mistake” (said Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook) that launched in late 2007 but was shut down in 2009.
Beacon also shared user activity on third-party sites back to Facebook, at first without permission. The class-action lawsuit Lane v. Facebook, Inc. resulted in Beacon being modified to require user confirmation before any sharing occurred. Open Graph sharing as it is today resembles the original Beacon, sending data to Facebook and publishing activity without any user intervention or even consent.
I, for one, stubbornly refuse to install any of those new auto-sharing Facebook apps. (Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to bypass the request for permissions that pops up when I click an article featured at the top of my own News Feed.) I agree with Farhad Manjoo and Nicki Porter: Sharing is about choice. If I want to share something, I’ll take the three minutes to post it myself.