‘Frictionless sharing’ is an instructive failure of 2012

Two of the news organizations that led the push into social reader Facebook apps are retooling their products, and Facebook itself is signaling that it’s time to leave behind the “frictionless sharing” experiment.

The Washington Post has extended its Social Reader — the app whose name went on to define the genre — outside of the Facebook environment and onto the open Web at socialreader.com. At the same time, it introduced more privacy controls over the sharing of a user’s reading activity, and enabled users to follow specific topics they enjoy reading about.

Meanwhile, the Guardian closed its social reading app altogether. “We are now focusing on building intent-driven sharing prompts and will not simply share your reading and viewing activity,” product manager Anthony Sullivan told me by email.

That means The Guardian will focus on getting readers to explicitly choose to share content or react to content. It’s a refined concept of “social participation,” Sullivan writes:

In the future, for example, users on our site may be able to “agree” or “disagree” with comment pieces, take part in polls or express their view on the likelihood of a football rumour coming true. The key thing is that the user will be in control and if they’re not interested in sharing it will not impact on their experience of accessing our content.

Facebook itself now says this is the better way for publishers to go. A spokeswoman provided this written statement:

As with any new product, we have learned more about the partner and user experience associated with social readers since launch, and evolved our guidance for publishers to encourage them to focus on distributing content through tools such as the share and Like buttons.

What went wrong

The primary reason for the retreat of frictionless sharing is that the numbers just weren’t sustainable.

“The initial launch in a blaze of glory, with recently read stories pinned to the top of everybody’s Facebook news feed, was clearly overkill to a lot of Facebook users,” writes Martin Belam, former Guardian user experience chief who led its app design and launch. “Getting the kind of content super-distribution that allowed Facebook to briefly oust Google as the main referrer to guardian.co.uk requires lots of people to be exposed to the content, and Facebook has long since stopped notifying users of every single read.”

As soon as Facebook stopped hyper-promoting frictionless sharing in news feeds, usage plummeted.

In April, The Washington Post’s Social Reader had 12 million monthly active users. Now, it has about 600,000 according to AppData, a decline of 95 percent.

The Guardian had nearly 6 million monthly active users of its Facebook app in April. Now it has about 2.5 million, a decline of about 75 percent.

Most Facebook users didn’t want this, for all the reasons we’ve discussed before — thoughtless sharing means little to your friends, can lead to faulty assumptions about why you read something and have a chilling effect on what you choose to read.

Frictionless sharing was an idea we tried. It failed.

But even as someone who was critical from the beginning, I don’t fault anyone for trying this or for failing. We need to defend the right to fail. We need to remove the stigma too often attached to that word.

We didn’t know for sure it would fail until we tried it, so we’ve learned something valuable. And the news organizations who experimented with it also simultaneously developed technology skills and personalization insights that may someday be the keys to a successful product.

On to the next experiment.

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