With ‘frictionless sharing,’ Facebook and news orgs push boundaries of online privacy

Facebook again may have gone too far in its quest to make privacy obsolete, and this time some news organizations could get burned by going along with it.

Facebook spent years making it easier for us to share by building its network and placing “Like” buttons across the Web. Its latest idea goes much further, turning sharing into a thoughtless process in which everything we read, watch or listen to is shared with our friends automatically.

Encouraging sharing is great. Making sharing easier is even better. But this is much more than that. What Facebook has done is change the definition of “sharing.” It’s the difference between telling a friend about something that happened to you today and opening your entire diary.

News organizations and other content companies are eagerly accompanying Facebook down this path.

After disclosing required permissions up front, apps like Washington Post Social Reader automatically share all reading activity.

New Facebook-based apps like Washington Post Social Reader, and similar ones from The Guardian and The Daily encourage Facebook users to read their stories and pump all that reading activity out to their friends.

And this isn’t isolated to what you read via Facebook itself. Yahoo News is asking readers to sign up to have their reading activity streamed to their Facebook profile. Services like Spotify and Netflix have their own apps to automatically share all media consumption.

This so-called “frictionless sharing” has big problems.

It means little to friends

One problem is that the “friction” -- the act of choosing what to share, with whom, and how — is what makes sharing meaningful.

In other words, “It’s the thought that counts.”

The fact that my friend read an article is not useful without knowing more. Did he like it? Did he think I would like it? Did it make him laugh, cry, gasp or sigh? Did he read it because his boss or his teacher told him to, or because he was genuinely interested?

A couple months ago I wrote about research that revealed the five reasons people share news online: to help others, to define ourselves by what we choose to share, to show someone we’re thinking of them, to get credit for being helpful, and to spread the word about a cause.

The fact that people choose to keep most things private places significance on what they choose to share. If everything is shared automatically, nothing has significance.

“Sharing without intention is not social, it’s overwhelming, it’s noise,” social media consultant Jeff Gibbard observes on his blog. “Not everything I read, I endorse. Not everything I watch, I like. Not everything I listen to, I want to share. Without intention it’s simply surveillance.”

It is misleading

If a woman reads a Yahoo News story about breast cancer and that fact is automatically noted in her Facebook activity, what are her friends to make of that? Does she have cancer? Does she have a friend with cancer? Perhaps a colleague was quoted in the article. Maybe she accidentally clicked on the wrong link.

Facebook is presenting this information with no context. In the absence of context, people make assumptions.

Can anyone in the new Facebook world read about personal health, relationship advice, personal finance or gay rights without their acquaintances speculating why? In other cases readers could be embarrassed by clicking on a Kim Kardashian photo gallery, a list of crude jokes, or anything else that some people may find distasteful.

That leads to the next problem...

The ‘chilling effect’

Because of this, news organizations that employ the Facebook activity feed may end up hurting themselves by making readers stop and think, “Do I really want to read this, knowing my friends will see that I did?”

That could be bad for news publishers and for society, said Rebecca Jeschke, spokeswoman for the digital privacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“Are we not going to read about things and look at things and learn about things, because we’re scared about what someone might think about us?” Jeschke said. “That chilling effect is really concerning.”

In the long run the majority of Facebook users are not likely to willingly embrace frictionless sharing, she predicted.

“We’re sort of in a position right now where people are experimenting about how comfortable they are sharing this or sharing that, and I would be really surprised if the end result is we share everything all the time,” Jeschke said. “Clearly that’s what marketers want, and clearly that’s what companies want, but it’s really important for consumers to think about what they want.”

That’s an important point for news organizations to consider. Ask yourself: Why exactly are you doing this -- for your benefit, or for the readers? Pumping Facebook full of links to your site so you can benefit from a bump in referral traffic seems good, but you risk alienating users and eroding their trust. The last thing a news organization wants is for people to think twice before they click.

The choice facing news organizations

So, where to go from here? One option is to just keep doing what you were doing -- ask your users to share articles and videos they like with the people they think will like them. That’s actually been working pretty well for most websites. That’s what The New York Times decided, former developer Michael Donohoe writes on his blog:

Earlier this year when I was still at the Times we talked to Facebook about a news app. Facebook had a whole set of new features in the pipeline (presumably just launched) and this passive reading action was one of them and they were pushing hard for us to use it. It came up in conference calls and on-site meetings. I believe Facebook is very eager to catch-up or even displace Twitter as a go-to place for news, and this is how they think they can do that.

To their credit the newsroom shelved the idea. The consensus was that this was intrusive and potentially an invasion of privacy.

If you are going to build a Facebook app using frictionless sharing, you should at least be extremely clear about exactly how the users’ activity will be shared and what friends will see. Go out of your way to help them understand how to control the Facebook privacy settings, and how to opt out later if they change their minds.

It’s quite possible that a reader will sign up for a news sharing app like Yahoo News’, then come back a month later to read a story and forget that it will be shared. Or maybe he knows about the sharing and is prepared to self-censor his reading, but he clicks on a blog post link to a Yahoo story and suddenly he has “read” it on Facebook without making that choice.

“You may not even remember that’s activated ... and I’m not comfortable with that,” said John Duncan, co-founder of Hearsay, a news-sharing site driven by the same sort of frictionless sharing of all reading activity. He’s a believer in frictionless sharing, but says it must be unambiguous.

“When I click on something, is this definitely being shared with everybody? Where is it going to appear? Who will see it? It’s not entirely clear because Facebook does so many things,” Duncan told me.

It is important for news organizations to experiment, so I don’t fault any for trying this new opportunity. And perhaps five years from now frictionless sharing could be common and uncontroversial. But if not, you want to be sure readers can back out of this experiment without misgivings about the way your organization handled it.

Correction: The original post wrongly included The Wall Street Journal's WSJ Social app among those that share reading activity. It only shares the fact a person is using the app, not what is read.

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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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