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"Frictionless sharing" - exploring the changes to Facebook
Tuesday, 3rd January 2012
End users of Facebook may well be divided in their opinion of the introduction of frictionless sharing, but Martin Belam’s article will forewarn you about its effect on metadata, audit trails and content publishing, so that you can be forearmed.
As 2012 begins, Facebook remains one of the amazing growth stories of the internet. Some argue that an eventual flotation will mark the high tide of a second internet bubble, whilst others are awe of the fact that a website that started in a college dorm has grown to have nearly one billion members.
At September’s f8 conference, the company announced major changes to the service, and they mean major changes for both end users and the people publishing content into the Facebook ecosystem.
Introducing “frictionless sharing”
One of the biggest changes for content providers is “frictionless sharing”. In the past, users had to actively share content by pressing a “Like” button on a website, or “Like”-ing a Facebook page, or including a URL in their status update. Facebook is changing this. They have opened up what they call their “Open Graph”, which allows apps and publishers to automatically insert “actions” into a user’s Facebook timeline. And, in plain English, that means that for some sites or apps, simply listening to a song or reading an article is enough to see it posted to your Facebook activity stream without you lifting so much as a mouse-finger.
At the time of writing only a handful of applications have been launched which take advantage of the feature, including those by Yahoo!, Spotify, the Guardian, Independent and the Washington Post’s “Social Reader” app. That is sure to change in 2012, but the roll-out of further apps seems tied into Facebook launching “Timeline” – a new way for users to view their profile pages. Sam Biddle described that in a rather gushing review as “the single greatest change that Facebook's ever pushed on us”. Rather than a static profile page, your Facebook presence will be a timeline of what you did and what you shared when. Frictionless sharing is an important part of that.
Noise is the internet’s greatest enemy
Clay Shirky has suggested that “It's Not Information Overload. It's Filter Failure” [Video] that is the problem with the internet. There is a good argument that “frictionless sharing” from Facebook is not helping that equation. Molly Wood argued for cnet that Facebook is “ruining sharing”.
Molly’s argument is that, in pursuit of “frictionless” sharing, the act of installing a brand new app puts a barrier to entry in place, i.e. more friction:
“For every five people who authorise an app, I'd guess five will turn away, and eventually get annoyed enough to stop clicking links at all, and maybe eventually annoyed enough to stop visiting Facebook so often, and go searching for somewhere easier and less invasive to simply post a link and have fun with your friends.”
In a similar piece entitled “Why Facebook’s new reading apps are so darned annoying”, Kevin Anderson wrote:
“I really, really, really hate the new Facebook media apps. Just show me the story I want. I don’t want to have to install an app and then mess around with the damn sharing settings just to read a story”.
If it ain’t broke ...
Facebook’s gamble here is that people will become accustomed to clicking OK on the apps, and that the frictionless sharing will simply become part of the background radiation of the whole Facebook experience. People will increasingly see their friends use the apps, the number of apps will increase, and it will become commonplace. They are quite used to pushing the boundaries of what their users will accept.
In a fascinating piece of web archaeology, in September 2006 Mark Sweney was writing for the Guardian about how Mark Zuckerberg confessed to “messing up” the introduction of the news feed. At the time protest groups described it as “spooky and stalker-esque”. In 2011 it is difficult to imagine what Facebook could possibly have been for if you couldn’t see your friend’s photos and activities being posted in real time. Frictionless sharing takes that to the next level.
So what does that mean for the information professional?
I think there are three major developments here that the information community should be aware of ...
1. Think again about Facebook metadata
Facebook’s Open Graph is a metadata standard for marking up your web content. It sits quietly in the HEAD of your HTML, and replicates many fields that you might be familiar with from metadata standards like Dublin Core. The fact that anyone can access it via a web request allows Facebook to say the standard is “open”, although they tightly control the spec themselves. To take advantage of the new frictionless sharing, even if you don’t build an app yourself, making that metadata available is going to be a requirement to have your content display properly within the many social reading experiences that are sure to be developed.
2. Think again about audit trails
“Frictionless sharing” changes the nature of our digital audit trails on Facebook. From a competitive intelligence point of view, it is great news, because potentially seeing what someone from a particular company is reading about and watching can give you clues as to where their work may be heading. It also means being careful not to leave audit trails yourself if you want the research you are doing to be kept “under the radar”.
3. A change to publishing content in Facebook
As part of these changes, Facebook are discontinuing the automatic import of RSS feeds into personal streams. If you rely on that to make sure you are distributing the latest content from your site or blog into your Facebook presence, you need to have a look at that again.
Is frictionless sharing the future?
The problem for Facebook is not so much how publishers push things into their newly frictionless Open Graph, but how they display them. If you compare it to a Google search results page, most users don’t care whether there are 200, 2000, or 2 million results for a query – they just want the first couple they see to be a good answer. And so it is for Facebook. The average user doesn’t care about Open Graphs or metadata or advertising models – they just want to see, when they open Facebook, interesting things that their friends have done that are relevant to them. Facebook needs to get that algorithm right.
It is risky to bet against Facebook though. Even if there is a widespread revolt amongst users rejecting these types of feature, the inertia of moving social networks from somewhere like Facebook, without an easy export of your friends list and content, to somewhere else, should see them retain a significant user base. But let us not forget the lesson of MySpace. Back in 2007 Rupert Murdoch apparently joked about the prospect of Facebook ever overtaking MySpace. I doubt he finds the punchline particularly funny these days.
By Martin Belam
Martin Belam is Information Architect for guardian.co.uk. Before joining The Guardian, he worked as an Internet Consultant with organisations like the BBC, Sony, Vodafone and the Science Museum.
Martin also blogs about information architecture and the media at currybet.net and can be found on Twitter as @currybet.
Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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