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Summary:

Facebook’s recent launch of what CEO Mark Zuckerberg calls “frictionless sharing” has caused a lot of controversy over whether the feature is an invasion of privacy. But the reality is that Facebook is simply adapting to the increasingly social way we are living our lives online.

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Facebook’s recent launch of what CEO Mark Zuckerberg calls “frictionless sharing” — in which apps from services like Spotify and publishers like The Washington Post  can post a user’s activity to their wall, without asking for permission for every item — has caused a lot of controversy over whether the feature is a worthwhile addition or a massive invasion of privacy. Consumer advocacy groups such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center are arguing the latter, and have even asked the government to step in, while some users have deleted their Facebook accounts in protest. But there’s an argument to be made that Facebook isn’t forcing anyone to share; it’s simply adapting to the increasingly social way that we are living our lives online.

EPIC and the American Civil Liberties Union seem to be making the case that even if users get the choice to share a continuous stream of their activity through one of Facebook’s new “social apps,” they will either forget that they have done this or not understand the consequences of their choice, and therefore will wind up sharing more than they should — sharing that the advocacy groups argue benefits only Facebook, since it gets more personal data. Said EPIC director Mark Rotenberg:

The main point is that Facebook is encouraging users to ‘share’ information in ways that they do not truly control because it is Facebook that ultimately determines who will have access to the information users provided

To some, “frictionless sharing” has more than a few echoes of Facebook’s ill-fated “Beacon” project from 2007, which posted a user’s activity at third-party websites and services to their Facebook wall, but was eventually shut down after criticism over the privacy implications. According to former New York Times  developer Michael Donohoe, the newspaper initially worked with Facebook on a social app similar to the one launched by the Washington Post and The Guardian, but decided the “frictionless sharing” concept seemed like an invasion of users’ privacy, even though users would get full control over whether they chose to share their activity through the app.

The inevitable privacy backlash

Gizmodo writer Mat Honan and others are protesting by either deleting their Facebook accounts or saying they will never use any service that requires Facebook Connect, and longtime web-programming guru Dave Winer says he is also scared by what Facebook is proposing. Spotify, meanwhile, has had to roll out a private-listening option after an outcry over its new frictionless-sharing features, and the fact that users can’t join the service unless they have a Facebook account. I’ve even noticed an uptick in people trying out would-be Facebook competitor Diaspora as well, although it has had little traction since it launched last year.

While it’s tempting to see frictionless sharing as just another cynical attempt by Facebook to get more personalized data that it can use to target advertising (based on the principle that if you aren’t paying for the service, then you are the product that is being sold), there are some clear benefits for users from this kind of sharing. Has Facebook moved too quickly, or overstepped what some feel are the boundaries of privacy? Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean it is going in the wrong direction.

As with many other features of the network, seeing what Facebook calls “lightweight” activity in the Ticker, such as friends listening to songs or reading articles or watching movies, is a way of staying in touch — however briefly — with those friends and connections. It may be noisy, and much of it may be uninteresting, but it also exposes you to serendipitous experiences. I’ve already found music and video clips I’m interested in just by watching that activity. It also fits right in with the concept that underlies Facebook and most social networking, which is what user-interface designer Leisa Reichelt has called “ambient intimacy”: the idea that there’s something to be gained by having transient and lightweight connections to people in your life.

The news feed was controversial too

That concept was also behind another Facebook feature that caused a huge outcry of criticism and led to people quitting the network in droves — namely, the news feed. It seems so obvious and commonplace now that it’s hard to remember when the news feed didn’t exist, but there was a lot of backlash to the feature when it first launched in 2006. Many users seemed uncomfortable with the idea that their activity on the site — whose status they “liked,” whose photos they commented on, etc. — would be broadcast to other Facebook users all the time.

In a lot of ways, that was Facebook’s first experiment in “frictionless sharing,” and it proved to be hugely popular and successful. The news feed is the core of what makes Facebook so virally popular with many users — and what makes them spend longer on the network than virtually every other social website combined, according to a recent survey from Nielsen about our online social behavior.

That kind of success, along with Facebook’s rollout of other features that also push the sharing envelope, has undoubtedly convinced Zuckerberg that his “law of social sharing” — that the amount of data people share doubles every year — is a good predictor of what people will do, regardless of what they say they will do, or how much they criticize features like frictionless sharing from social apps. And soon, the idea that apps are sharing a continuous stream of our activity will seem just as commonplace and uncontroversial as the original news feed.

So is frictionless sharing good or bad? The answer, as with most things that involve Facebook, is a little of both. Some people will probably never accept that the network is pushing them to share more, and will always be suspicious of what might happen to that data, and there will no doubt be incidents when the data is used improperly or leads to something embarrassing. But social sharing online isn’t going away any time soon; it’s not just the core of Facebook, but the organizing principle of the modern web — Facebook is just a symptom of that change, not the cause.

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  1. Endoftv Asweknowit Friday, September 30, 2011

    R.E.M.ix: ‘It’s The End Of TV As We Know It’
    In tribute to REM, Michael Stipe … and Social Entertainment.

  2. Thank you, facebook, for making me want to run a dedicated VM and proxy just to use your site.

  3. This “frictionless sharing” is the same as “passive sharing” that Blippy and Swipely tried to do with purchases. I believe the fact that both those startups pivoted away from that model shows that passive sharing has little value to users.

    While privacy is a concern, I think the bigger concern is that this type of sharing holds little value. While you said you did find interesting things in the Ticker, I would argue that if it’s only useful a small percentage of the time, you will eventually become blind to it as happens with ads.

    The other issue is that the Ticker not very intelligent. If I see a friend listening to a song, then I might click on it out of curiosity. I might decide I hate that song, but suddenly our mutual friends will see 2 people are listening to the same song and will likely click on it too, starting a self-perpetuating cycle. Without any context for why someone is listening to that song, which would be provided if it were actively shared, the information is of little value.

    1. I agree that it doesn’t have a huge amount of value, Chuck, but it does have some. And the fact that it’s not a large amount of value actually makes it easier to accept the frictionless part. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Social Media Insider Friday, September 30, 2011

    It may be the future of something, but not “sharing”. Let’s call it what it is – “socially manipulative data harvesting for the benefit of marketers”. I swear, Facebook is better at manipulating the english language than the GOP! :)

    1. Well, since you feel the need to bring politics into a post about facebook, I guess I’ll join in.

      What makes you think the GOP is any worse that the liberals? CNN? The New York Times? MSNBC? Very few politicians give straight, honest opinions on anything. Answers are always spun to try to sound appealing to everyone. Well, except for in the “No Spin Zone” on Bill O’Reilly (/sarcasm off).

      Seriously, stop listening to the politicians or their friends in the media.

      On Topic: I could care less if Facebook wants to share what song I’m listening to on Spotify or if some marketer wants to use that to try to sell me something.

      1. Hey Neill,

        My recent favorite: Wealthy individuals who don’t want to pay more taxes are “job creators”. Others – It’s not an “estate tax”, it’s a “death tax”; it’s not “eavesdropping”, it’s “electronic intercepts”; it’s not “drilling for oil”, it’s “energy exploration”.

        I’m not criticizing the GOP for it, they’re masters of framing issues to sell their point. The democrats on the others hand ….. Reminds of the old saying: I’m not a member of an organized political party – I’m a democrat! :)

  5. Kelley Mitchell Friday, September 30, 2011

    FACEBOOK & YOU: If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer. You’re the product being sold.

    http://verydemotivational.memebase.com/2011/09/28/demotivational-posters-facebook-you/

  6. It may be the “future”, but it’s not a future I like very much, not even from a simple privacy standpoint, which FB has a horrible track record in.
    Earlier this year Eli Pariser did a TED talk on the danger of “Filter Bubbles” (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles.html) and I am definitely leaning his way in terms of how Facebook, and Google, are actually damaging our ability to gather information by paying too much attention to social cues and habits. I don’t always want information that is based on what me and my friends are doing/reading/interested in.
    Facebook’s direction may be the future, but it’s the wrong direction the future should be heading.

  7. With frictionless sharing FB will become even more noisy and for the user it is getting more difficult to find important content. This gives room for new simpler services which focus on active sharing.

    1. That’s a great point, Tobias. Thanks for the comment.

  8. It’s bad, turn it off, firee the guy who proposed this. Zuck has his head in the cloud and the people whispering this stuff in his ear need to be trimmed.

  9. Social Media Insider Friday, September 30, 2011

    In most cases it’s fairly obvious who a piece of functionality was designed for. It the case of “Ticker”, it’s obvious that is was designed for the benefit of Facebook marketers, not Facebook users.

    If the primary goal was to create value for users, there would be smart tools on the back end to aggregate things by category/etc so it would easy for the user to check in periodically to see what things are more popular with their friends and family.

    However the may is WAS executed, the only people who can make sense of the inevitable, unending river of minutiae is Facebook, who packages that data for marketers so they can conduct insanely granular target marketing.

    So selling it as “frictionless sharing” is just brilliant from a marketing / messaging standpoint. It’s also blatantly deceptive and manipulative.

    1. I disagree — would you say the same thing about Twitter? The ticker is basically the same idea, a stream of content that a user can either click on or simply allow to flow by. I don’t see that as obviously designed only for data mining.

      1. The difference is that Twitter is *actively* shared information. If you choose who you follow carefully, then every thing you read is something someone found interesting enough to take an action to share. To me, that is vastly different than mindless broadcasts of inconsequential daily activities.

      2. Two completely different types of information. Twitter is user-initiated broadcasting, Ticker is activity anchored derivative information that is harvested and automatically displayed.

        The only real thing they have in common is they both display via a feed.

  10. The difference was that in 2006, Facebook was the only game in town. That is no longer the case

    1. Facebook is much more the only game in town now than in 2006! In 2006 MySpace was the market leader, and there were several legitimate growing competitors (Bebo, Hi5, Orkut Tagged) – they are all dead or dying now, and Facebook is massively dominant the social space.

    2. Not really that’s why marketers are falling all over themselves to try to get your information and why Fuckerberg has become a total corporate puppet. Try to mention MySpace without hearing a snicker.

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