Sites With Social Reading Apps Sacrifice Readers to Facebook

There's wonderful news this week. Facebook's frictionless "social reading" apps have seen a devastating decline in traffic. It was tempting to just blame it on how much they suck, but as Josh Constine rightly pointed out, the real story is that Facebook turned off the traffic hose. The lack of control should be reason enough for publishers to abandon them. But the better reason is that they throw readers under the bus.

Anti-Social Reader Apps

Facebook has been tinkering with the presentation of stories from Open Graph reading apps over the past month or so. The most noticeable change is that they've moved from the ticker in the sidebar to a big, ugly blob in the News Feed called "Trending Articles." Of course, these aren't really the most popular articles on Facebook, just the ones people shared passively through social reader apps.

Here's a typical example of what the Trending Articles box looks like:

Do you think Bill is glad Facebook broadcasted the fact that he clicked on that story?

Facebook Has The Power

In the wake of some easy blog posts about the decline of social reader apps, their defenders (read: the publications who use them) began explaining publicly that this was all due to Facebook's manipulation of its interface. Storify co-founder Burt Herman collected this conversation in an interesting Storify post.

In the mother of all annoying Internet ironies, I learned by clicking on this link from Twitter that Storify had become a social reader app itself.

What a shame! I had given Storify permission to post to my Timeline before, back when I had to share to Facebook intentionally, and it used that permission to share my reading habits automatically.

"Just An Experiment"

Herman tells me that the feature has been there for a while, and it's "just an experiment" to try and draw more attention to the great work of Storify's authors, which, in Storify's case, are its users. But what about the readers? Why should they have to opt out of broadcasting information about themselves, especially on a site like Storify, where people read politically sensitive stories?

The question gives Herman pause. "It's interesting. Do I want everything I read to be broadcasted? To be honest, I'm not sure I always do," Herman says. "Which is why, on Storify at least, I cancel it when it's not something I want to share." Should readers have to be on guard and take that extra step?

And what's the upside of frictionless sharing? Why is this good for readers? "I mean, clearly it's more meaningful when someone decides to actively share something," Herman says. "It would be bad if a share from just happening to read something through Open Graph got the same weight as something that you actually shared."

If that were the case, Facebook would fill News Feeds with passively shared stories as if they were equally important as intentional shares. It is indeed fortunate that Facebook doesn't currently work that way. So should publishers leave that choice up to Facebook and its indifferent algorithms?

In Storify's defense, it's pretty easy to turn off the frictionless sharing, and it's just one part of an otherwise useful set of Facebook integrations. If you're quick, you can even cancel a share from the top nav bar before it goes out to Facebook. But you still have to opt out yourself. It's disappointing to see so many great publishers turn over so much of their user experience to Facebook.

The Attention Paywall

"Social reader" apps are just like paywalls, except instead of money, readers pay with their friends' attention. It's a feature built to benefit Facebook first and publishers second. There's not much left for the user after that.

Instead of a willful act of sharing, which says to your Facebook friends, "This matters to me," frictionless sharing is just a broadcast of your Internet habits. There's no benefit for you except as a kind of vain performance, and there's very little benefit to your friends, since the signal-to-noise ratio goes way up.

In the worst cases, such as the Washington Post's Facebook app, your friends have to install an app, giving the Washington Post access to their News Feeds, before they can even read the article! To call that a "social" app is just a cynical ploy.

These kinds of features are all about Facebook, because Facebook is where the easy eyeballs are. "Facebook has a lot of power," Herman says. "You can't deny that there's hundreds of millions of people on Facebook, right?" When Facebook tweaked the interface for displaying social reader stories, it upended the strategy many publishers had relied on to reach those people with minimal effort. That's not a sustainable way to build an audience.

"Clearly, [Facebook is] doing some tweaking with the algorithm to make it less prominent," Herman says. "I guess they're realizing, you know, maybe these things aren't as engaging as they thought they would be."