Why Facebook Social Reading Apps Don’t Work

Facebook has begun showing some users a “Trending Articles” section right inside their news feeds, whether they want it or not. It’s the most aggressive strategy Facebook has tried yet to push people to use Open Graph reading apps. Could it be that the most annoying feature of Facebook isn’t catching on? Gosh. Who’da thunk?

The new “Trending Articles” tab appears right inside the news feed using a stark gray bar, just like trending items on Google+. But this is specifically for articles shared from Facebook “social reader” apps. A Facebook spokesperson clarifies that this new feature “is designed to promote only articles from social reading apps – not the most popular news articles being shared on Facebook from across the Web.”

Screenshot from Inside Facebook:

When Facebook announced Timeline, it also launched a fundamental change to Facebook’s app platform, which it calls “frictionless sharing.” It was the one truly bad idea announced that day.

Before frictionless sharing, every action on Facebook was either intentional or malicious. You had to post a new story on purpose, unless you clicked on some spammy app and unwittingly gave it permission to post as you.

Now, apps can ask you up front whether you want to share all your activity with your friends. If you say yes, your friends will see every single song you listen to on Spotify or article you read on the Washington Post.

Frictionless sharing is the prime example of a feature that’s only good for Facebook and advertisers, but it’s spun as something fun for users. It takes all the value out of the act of sharing. When you intentionally share the fact that you’re listening to a song, you’re giving a signal. “I love this song.” When your entire Spotify playlist is shared in the background, you’re just spamming.

The news apps are even worse. Not only do they automatically broadcast whatever salacious headline you clicked on, they serve as a sort of paywall. For example, in the Washington Post Social Reader, you “pay” by installing the app, so you have to agree to spam your friends before you can read someone’s spam-post. Isn’t that social?

While Facebook news apps do offer varying levels of control over frictionless sharing, the default behavior is always to make more noise.

Fortunately, Facebook is also testing new social reading features that use an icon to indicate that a news feed story was shared frictionlessly. That’s not much different from putting “sponsored story” on a content ad or a promoted tweet. In other words, it’s an admission that “frictionless sharing” is designed to turn friends into advertisements.

From a user’s standpoint, one intentional click of a share button is about as frictionless as it gets. It takes much more effort to clean up the mess made by automated sharing, unless you don’t care if your friends see you reading “Top 96 Candid Shots of Celebrities Without Makeup.”

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