May 7, 2012

Something strange is happening in the world of Facebook’s frictionless sharing apps.

News apps that automatically share a user’s reading activity with their friends lost huge amounts of active users in April, according to tracking.

Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici first reported the trend for The Washington Post’s Social Reader, whose monthly active users fell to 9.2 million from 17.4 million in the past 30 days. It’s daily active users (second chart below) tanked even harder.

But it doesn’t end there. Similar apps from The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Mashable and also lost users. And all of these appear to have suffered an unusual shock on or around April 10. (All except Social Reader and the Guardian app are seeing a rebound in May.)

But something seems off about these numbers when you look more closely. In the case of Social Reader and The Guardian (charts below), April 10 cause a simultaneously huge increase in monthly users and a decrease in daily users. How is that possible? I’m not sure.

What happened on April 10? Well that was just after Facebook announced it was buying Instagram for $1 billion, but it’s hard to see how that could be related. It could be a statistical error, but other apps like The Onion‘s and The Daily Show‘s were not similarly affected.

Reader Scott Smith points out there was some blog chatter at the time instructing people how to opt-out of these types of social reading programs:

But even instructions from the mighty Lifehacker probably couldn’t cause this big a change on its own.

I asked, Facebook and The Washington Post for comment on whether these numbers are accurate.

AppData spokeswoman Bonnie Ho responded by email early this evening:

The data from AppData comes directly from Facebook. The data is accurate; no methodology/implementation change from AppData that would cause the change.

Facebook is constantly testing how social readers/open-graph-enabled apps appear and how much distribution they get in the news feed. This may impact the active user counts for all social reading apps. For example, it recently started grouping social reader stories in a “Trending Articles” aggregation.

Despite the testing, we have no exact indication of the impact it had on the data. It’s possible that many Facebook users are still learning about social reading apps, deciding whether they want to use them or not, and whether they want to share activity with their friends. The peak growth of the Washington Post Social Reader may have come from users trying it out, and since then has come back down.”

Here are charts for the other apps:

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Jeff Sonderman ( is the Digital Media Fellow at The Poynter Institute. He focuses on innovations and strategies for mobile platforms and social media in…
Jeff Sonderman

More News

Back to News


Comments are closed.