The giant online publisher and aggregator Huffington Post began experimenting with a new content recommendation engine today, powered by Facebook and built by AdaptiveSemantics, the startup the company acquired last June. The feature uses the "Liked" Pages and shared articles of logged-in Facebook users who visit the Post to recommend recent content from across its wide swath of articles.

It looks like a good and relatively simple feature. Surprisingly, HuffPo readers responding in comments on the announcement absolutely hate it!

The feature sounds simple, but is a great example of the power of Facebook: the social network is not just a tool for publishers to push content onto, to increase distribution and pageviews, Facebook Connect is also a form of data portability that allows 3rd party websites to offer personalized content to their visitors. Many sites have exposed content that a Facebook user's friends have shared, but this leveraging of the structured individual interest data is far less common.

Could objections to using this data be rooted in the ongoing lack of clarity around Facebook's privacy settings? Or did the company just shoot itself in the foot so badly 12 months ago when it made drastic privacy policy changes that people still distrust it today?

The Down Side

Reader comments range from confusion about the feature to distrust of anything associated with Facebook ("I don't have one of those," several people have said) to distrust of recommendations to concern about self-reenforcing political perspectives.

"Great," one frustrated comment read, "put your readers to work for you, is it not enough that we have to deal with your advertisements." Unbelievable!

Another: "If it involves Facebook, you can count me out.

"Also, I find it irritating that everything has to be so intensivel­y personaliz­ed and baby-fed. I think I'm capable of navigating my way around a website and clicking on articles that interest me. I don't need someone to pick my articles for me. And, if a friend discovers something they think I might like, they can just email me."

Those are just two comments of many. So far there's not been a single positive one posted! As a technologist, excited about the future of personalized recommendations to assist in discovery, I find this fascinating.

"Great," one frustrated comment read, "put your readers to work for you, is it not enough that we have to deal with your advertisements."
Maybe HuffPo readers consider themselves to be unusually independent thinkers, maybe they find this kind of recommendation invasive or patronizing. Maybe they consider their Facebook profiles to be less true to their real selves than feels appropriate as a basis for recommendations.

Behind the scenes, though - I believe that the Huffington Post has long been a very data-driven editorial organization. ("See Demi Moore in a bikini!") The company has been experimenting, for example, with attention decay algorithms that move content up or down the front page. Maybe those data-centric practices need to be kept in the background, where readers can't see them and are thus less likely to object.

Problems for Publishers

Other than the unhappy reaction the feature has seen from readers, there are other risks to implementing this kind of technology.

The down side of this for a publisher like Huffington is of course further indebtedness to Facebook. Facebook as identity provider, Facebook as user personalization data bank, it's not customary for publishers to feel comfortable allowing a 3rd party to control all the data about their own readers. Facebook puts conditions on the use of that data too, such as prohibiting caching of the data.

The trade-off is that the ease of use means the publisher gets far more data and far more accurate data. Publishers who collect user data in a vacuum provide little incentive for their readers to input information about themselves that's true - in this case the Huffington Post reader data comes from a context where accuracy is incentivized by discoverability by a person's friends.

For users - it looks like a win. Once you opt-in to connecting your Facebook account and your activity on the Huffington Post, the recommendations appear topical and interesting. That's how it strikes me, but other people sure seem unhappy about it.