Facebook brands struck by the frictions of over-sharing

8 May 2012

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Facebook’s frictionless sharing model appears to have hit some speedbumps. One of the miracles of our age is the ability to share information. But how much is too much and is this beginning to bite people and brands on the ass?

The instantaneous speed at which information can fly and proliferate via Twitter or Facebook or Google+ is mesmerising. This offers us a never-before-seen method of communicating and no doubt about it could make the world a better place as we all understand each other better.

In driving his social graph vision forward, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last September presented his vision of frictionless sharing where our friends will know what songs we’re listening to, what videos we’ve been watching, what articles we’ve read and much more.

True to his word, Zuckerberg’s vision has become a reality and in a lot of cases where brands have created Timeline apps and mobile apps the impact on traffic to their websites has been positive.

But there is evidence that over sharing, particularly through social news apps, is beginning to wear thin in users’ minds. According to BuzzFeed, in the past month the Washington Post – the first of the US newspapers to grapple with frictionless sharing – saw its monthly active user base for its social reader app plummet from 14m to less than 5m.

The Guardian is also seeing its social reader traffic plummet from 600,000 daily users to less than 100,000 in the past month. Other social reader brands like Scribd and DailyMotion appear to be seeing similar falloffs in active users of their Facebook apps.

What our reading and viewing habits say about us

It has become apparent in recent weeks, particularly through the explosion in video social sharing apps – think Viddy, Chill or Socialcam – that what you watch will become shared into the news feed whether you like it or not.

Some video choices seem to involve a lot of violence at sports events, I’m sorry to say, and I’m not sure sharing these is exactly the public perception people want to give out. I wonder do they in fact realise this is flooding their friends’ social streams?

For example, I saw something in my news feed from Yahoo! about a court case about a woman in Arkansas in the US whose lottery ticket was inadvertently thrown in a bin and claimed by someone else. Mildly interested, I read it for a minute and moved on. But when I looked at my Timeline it had been shared out that I read that article. The content doesn’t bother me, but what if it had been something else I was reading for a different set of reasons?

On one hand this is a triumph for how information gets shared today. Wonderful. But what if that article had been about racism, sex, violence or a personal health issue? Would I want all my friends to know I was reading up on a sensitive issue? What does that communicate? What do I want it to communicate?

So I think that explains why the social news readers are suddenly losing traffic – people would rather chose to share an item than have it shared for them.

At a recent meeting where I met a young entrepreneur we decided to shoot the breeze discussing prevailing tech trends. The entrepreneur suggested that not today, not next month but sometime after Facebook’s looming IPO there will be a danger that people will decide they are tired of too much information being shared about whether they like it or not. And this could see a plateau effect happen on the social network.

Looks like this has already happened in some respects.

Facebook and the various social app creators may need to go back to the drawing board and come up with some simple solution – a prominent ‘opt in’ button for sharing each and every digital item would be a good start.

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com