Facebook explains why social reading apps are suffering

Emerging evidence suggests the sudden decline in usage of Facebook news apps is a symptom of the social network's varied experiments in promoting reading activity in users' main News Feeds.

On Monday I questioned what could have happened in mid-April to simultaneously and similarly disrupt so many of these frictionless-sharing apps.

Ryan Kellett at the Washington Post and Josh Constine of TechCrunch both blame it on Facebook's shift from a big "recently read articles" module that listed five headlines read by friends, to a small "trending articles" box that shows only one headline at a time.

The old News Feed module drove a lot of traffic to Facebook news apps.
The newer News Feed module is more modest, and seems to account for the decline in app usage.

Kellett, an engagement producer at the Post, tweeted that the older News Feed module "drove growth," so apps like the Post's Social Reader took a hit when that promotional tool was scaled down.

A broader analysis from Inside Facebook, which publishes the AppData statistics, solves the "What happened April 10?" question I posed Monday: "The dramatic changes in some apps’ numbers around April 10 are related to the fact that Facebook did not return MAU (monthly active users) data for a period of five days leading up to that date. As such, the growth or decline appears more suddenly than if the graphs included growth for those five days prior."

That analysis also finds that not all social reading apps had a bad month. Some, like Yahoo and Mashable, are actually doing pretty well. Yahoo probably benefits from not being as dependent on the News Feed, since its social reading app is integrated with the Yahoo News website.

Facebook engineer Mike Vernal told me in an interview Tuesday that the company will continue to tinker with how social reading activity is presented in the News Feed in coming weeks and months. So expect more changes that might affect some app usage stats.

"We're going to continue testing a few variants. This is definitely not the final design," Vernal said. "We try to get things out pretty quickly and figure out what people like about them and don't like about them, and then iterate on them."

Facebook also provided me this statement on Tuesday afternoon, asking for patience:

"We began working with news organizations last September to build social readers, and we continue to iterate alongside them to create a good social news experience. At times these updates have resulted in short-term traffic swings. As a result, some of these apps have begun leveling off to a more consistent, sustainable and engaged audience. As with any new product, we expect fluctuations to continue as the product experience evolves.

"Social readers are one of the tools we offer to publishers, and people will interact with the apps that best resonate with them. Our goal is to work with publishers to build the best long-term experience — one that is enjoyable for readers and gives news sites a way to reach new audiences over time."

The episode shows, again, the risk of news organizations relying heavily on a third-party for distribution. Facebook controls the platform and the algorithms, and even a small tweak can cause a big disruption. There is no parity here.

This experimental change in Facebook's design may be the immediate issue, but it isn't the only one.

It's also true that many people dislike these frictionless-sharing apps. The common complaints are that they potentially invade the reader's privacy, spam their friends and ruin the real act of sharing.

News orgs love them for the traffic and the network effects; Facebook loves them for the personal data signals and the chance to cement itself as the walled-garden alternative to the open Web.

But users?

The "far larger majority" of Facebook users opt out of The Washington Post’s Social Reader app when presented with the initial permissions dialogue box. Likewise, The Huffington Post tells me it has seen a 28 percent acceptance rate for its Facebook sharing app.

But the news organizations I've talked to don't seem to mind the low acceptance. They know these apps aren't for everyone, and the minority of users who do opt-in can still have an impact. The Post says that more than three-quarters of their social readers are under 35 years old -- the elusive younger readers that newspapers have not traditionally captured.

I'd like to think there's a middle ground to reach here. There ought to be ways to add an exciting social layer to news discovery and conversation without autosharing everything to everyone in a way that most everyone hates.

We should be smarter about this -- limiting activity to cases of personal relevance and meaningful content. And maybe that's why Facebook is tinkering with the News Feed modules, to news organizations' dismay.

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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