How Facebook Could Make Sharing Meaningless

So-called frictionless sharing risks making Facebook statuses less trustworthy.
Facebook Screenshot
 (Spencer E Holtaway, CC BY-ND 2.0)

If you’ve visited Facebook lately, then you’ve probably seen status updates that say one of your friends just read an article on Yahoo!, that they’ve just listened to a particular song on Spotify, or some other similarly canned message. Statuses like these are the result of Facebook’s new “frictionless sharing,” in which Facebook automatically posts updates of what users are reading, listening to, and doing without those users having to take any direct action (such as clicking a “Like” button).

Not surprisingly, there was some backlash (e.g., “Facebook’s terrible plan to get us to share everything we do on the Web” by Slate’s Farhad Manjoo). People didn’t want their Facebook friends to know that they, for example, had read an article about the latest Kardashian drama or some other celebrity gossip, or that they occasionally rocked out to Nickleback or Limp Bizkit. Now, I certainly understand why Facebook is taking this approach: it’s good for business. The more they can get people to share, frictionlessly or otherwise, the more consumer data they amass, which they can then turn into big marketing and advertising bucks.

It strikes me, though, that the fundamental flaw in “frictionless sharing” is not the privacy concerns that raises (which are certainly worth considering), but that it will eventually reach a point of diminishing returns.

For starters, it runs the risk of simply overwhelming people. It’s already difficult enough to separate the wheat from the chaff online. There’s so much information on the web and it’s becoming increasingly important to learn how to filter to find that which is truly important and relevant for your purposes. By making sharing that much more frequent by making it automatic, there’s so much more stuff to sift through. And just as users no longer pay attention to web advertising because there’s so much of it, so too will people eventually come to treat things that should be important and relevant, e.g., your friends’ status updates.

However, I think it goes deeper than that. When sharing becomes automatic, our trust in sharing is eroded. In an article titled “In Defense of Friction,” Andrés Monroy-Hernández writes:

We found that automatic attribution given by a computer system, does not replace the manual credit given by another human being. Attribution, turns out, is a useful piece of information given by a system, while credit given by a person, is a signal of appreciation, one that is expected and that cannot be automated.

[…]

In many scenarios, automation is quite useful, but with social interactions, removing friction can have a harmful effect on the social bonds established through friction itself.

In other words, friction is good because friction equates to time and effort taken by a real human being, which gives that which is shared more weight — i.e., more trustworthiness — than something an application spit out because some parameters were matched or some triggers were set off. Or, as Mike Loukides writes in “The end of social”:

If we rely on computational systems for a trust framework, we actually lose our instincts and capacity for personal trust; even more, we cease to care about it. And there’s a big difference between trusting someone and relying on a system that says they’re trustworthy.

[…]

There’s something about the friction, the need to work, the one-on-one contact, that makes the sharing real, not just some cyber phenomenon. If you want to tell me what you listen to, I care. But if it’s just a feed in some social application that’s constantly updated without your volition, why do I care? It’s just another form of spam, particularly if I’m also receiving thousands of updates every day from hundreds of other friends.

If I know that you have taken the time to cull and edit your status updates, be they personal updates or links to articles or videos, I’m apt to pay more attention to what you’ve shared and give it more weight because of the time you spent — you obviously cared enough to share it, so I’m more likely to take care to read it. However, if all I see are a stream of canned updates that were obviously spit out by some Facebook-enhanced app or service, then it’s just more spam, albeit spam with your name stamped on it… and there’s nothing less trustworthy than spam.


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