Is Facebook to blame for the social reader apps decline?

8 May 2012

Disgruntled users may already be dancing on the grave of social reader apps, but are Facebook’s changes to the format the real cause of their demise?

A post on BuzzFeed earlier today highlighted the declining figures for monthly and daily active users of social reader apps from the Washington Post, The Guardian and others, and blamed this on users’ dislike of ‘frictionless sharing’.

Once installed, these apps – which any frequent Facebooker will recognise – automatically share anything you read with your friends. When a friend without the appropriate reader app then clicks to view articles you’ve read, they aren’t transported directly to the link, but instead they are roadblocked until they accept to install the app themselves.

Mathew Ingram sums up many users’ disgruntled reaction to this kind of forceful engagement very neatly over at The Oatmeal, but, regardless of their off-putting nature, these apps have seen encouraging take-up over the past months.

But now, according to figures from AppData, they are in decline, and hyperbolic headlines such as ‘Facebook social reader usage crashing and burning’ and ‘Facebook’s social reader apps nosedive in popularity’ are surfacing today.

Is over-sharing to blame?

John Herrman, author of the BuzzFeed post, and others attribute this to the fact that a large portion of Facebook users don’t want to share things without curation, and neither do they want to have to sign up for something just to view a link that appears in their own news feed. However, this view ignores a likely factor in the drop-off, which is a drastic change in how content from social readers now appears in Facebook timelines.

Josh Constine at TechCrunch makes the valid argument (backed up by a tweet from Ryan Kellett, engagement producer for the Washington Post) that “the user loss is likely due to the transition to ‘trending articles’, a new way of surfacing recently read articles in the news feed that Facebook is testing.”

Previously, links to articles read by friends on social readers were shared as a ‘Recently read articles’ list, alongside thumbnails of friends’ profile images, so you knew at a glance who had read what and what was popular among friends. But, in mid-April, Facebook began trialling a single-post format displaying only one article with a larger thumbnail image and friends’ activity demoted to a byline.

Facebook: a powerful editor-in-chief

Though Herrman’s BuzzFeed post features a slew of comments collated from Twitter and Facebook celebrating the demise of social reader apps, such a sharp decline, as indicated by the AppData figures, can’t be attributed to users’ virulence alone, and is more likely a symptom of this new format for social reader posts, which may have drawn less clicks or appeared less frequently in feeds where the trial was run.

Either way, what’s clear from the plight of the social reader app is that Facebook weilds a lot of power over an app’s traffic and popularity. “The fact is that Facebook controls the news feed like an editor-in-chief controls a newspaper’s front page. It decides what kinds of content its users see,” says Constine in his report.

While the jury is still out on how social reader apps will fare after this point, the debate on frictionless sharing will go on.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.