Why Facebook is (mostly) right about sharing

Facebook’s implementation of what it calls “frictionless sharing” continues to cause controversy: critics complain that the new feature — which automatically shares songs from Spotify or news stories from social-reading apps — is ruining the site, cluttering up their stream and is generally just creepy. As newly-minted venture capitalist MG Siegler has noted, this kind of backlash is par for the course whenever Facebook makes sharing-related changes, so it’s likely this particular storm will also blow over. But what the fuss does highlight is how Facebook still needs better filters to help users cope with the onslaught of social-sharing information.

Molly Wood at CNET seems to have started the latest furore, saying the new changes at Facebook are “ruining sharing,” because they clutter up a user’s feed and try to badger them into signing up for apps like Spotify or the Washington Post app. Wood calls Spotify song sharing “the new Farmville,” and that isn’t meant as a compliment — and she also notes, as many other critics have, that Facebook is driving this behavior because it wants to collect more information about its users and make that available to advertisers. But one of her main complaints seems to be that instead of reducing the friction around sharing, Facebook is actually increasing it:

In search of “frictionless” sharing, Facebook is putting up a barrier to entry on items your friends want you to see–that is, they’re creating friction. Even if it’s just a onetime inconvenience, any barrier to sharing breaks sharing. The barriers will keep popping up as more content publishers create social apps that have to be authorized before you can view their content.

Noisy? Yes, but also a serendipity engine

I can see Wood’s point. My Facebook page has also gotten noisier, and the incessant links to Washington Post articles — which Liz Gannes at All Things Digital has also complained about — and Spotify music-sharing links can be irritating. But at the same time, those links can also be an interesting way to discover content, and a fairly powerful illustration of the “long tail,” as the Financial Times noted in a post about the kinds of stories that newspapers like the Post are finding get a lot of traffic through their apps. In other words, that sharing can produce a kind of serendipity that is very valuable.

Uber-blogger Robert Scoble writes about how Facebook’s sharing is getting closer to the “freaky” line, where it starts to bother people by being intrusive, but I think MG Siegler is right when he says that Facebook has always been pushing this envelope — right from the beginning of its existence, when it encouraged university students to post their photos and relationship status. When the news feed was first introduced, there was a hue and cry about how intrusive it was, and yet it has become the foundation of everything Facebook is, and millions of users are addicted to it.

Does that mean Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is altering our vision of privacy for his own nefarious purposes? I don’t think so. I think he and others like former Facebook president and Spotify investor Sean Parker have simply been more aware than others of the way that privacy is evolving. It used to be a binary thing — you shared certain things with family, friends and neighbors but kept most of that from the outside world. Now, you can choose to share certain things, like the songs you are listening to or the news articles you are reading, and not share others. Is sharing a song an invasion of privacy? It’s hard to see how. Privacy is now a spectrum, not an on-off switch.

We need better filters, not more privacy

Sociologist and Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd has written a lot about how younger users respond to privacy issues around Facebook, and it’s a lot more nuanced than just saying “kids share everything now.” In some cases, younger users are even more concerned with privacy than older users, and they come up with some interesting ways of dealing with that (like deleting their Facebook accounts every evening, and then reinstating them in the morning, since Facebook doesn’t actually delete anything in case you change your mind). But for many things — particularly social experiences like music — they are happy to share, and so frictionless sharing probably makes perfect sense.

For me, what Facebook’s rollout of frictionless sharing highlights more than anything is that we need better filters to cope with the rising tide of information on social networks, and that includes Twitter and Google+ (s goog). Google’s introduction of “circles” and Facebook’s addition of “smart lists” are a step in the right direction, but they are still too cumbersome, and require a lot of ongoing management (which many people likely just won’t do). Idealab founder Bill Gross introduced a “partial follow” model with his new social network Chime.in, where you can follow only certain topics that a person posts about, but that also requires a lot of up-front management.

So I have no problem with Facebook’s approach to sharing, and I think it is probably the future (as I mentioned in an earlier post). But if we are sending more and more content out through our activity streams, we need to find better ways to filter it — and maybe that’s smarter recommendations from apps like Flipboard or services like Summify — or we are all going to be swamped by the mother of all signal-to-noise problems. As Clay Shirky pointed out some time ago, the problem isn’t information overload, it’s filter failure.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Luc Legay