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.