Social friction and the importance of choice.

With frictionless sharing Facebook is attempting to usher in a new era of the social web but is it realistic to do so?

FrictionThe past couple of years have seen the social web dominated by the meteoric rise of curation. En masse we have been turning away from traditional means of consumption such as using a dedicated RSS reader and relying on curated news from our social circles on Twitter, Facebook et al.

Analysts have been predicting for ages that the next big thing on the web (Web 3.0 if you like) will be the personalisation of our experience - having our time online customized specifically for us based on our likes, needs and usage patterns. With frictionless sharing Facebook is trying to achieve just this.

Resistance to change

There is one thing we can all be sure of: every time Facebook makes a significant change to the service the tech press will be full of opinion and hyperbole, end users will be up in arms and, eventually, everything will settle down and the changes will become the norm - until next time.

Unlike many previous changes to Facebook where the complaints have primarily focused on changes to functionality frictionless sharing changes the whole ball game with regards to what and how we share and, potentially, how we are seen online.

Personalisation

Robert Scoble says that the "freaky line" (that line of acceptability we draw for ourselves) is constantly being redrawn by, as MG Siegler puts it, those who continue to push the envelope.

As technology advances and we become more used to living on the web and in the public eye so the point at which we finally say enough is slowly being pushed further back until we are all starring in our own Truman Shows bearing all for the world to see.

By redrawing this line Scoble argues that services (in this instance Facebook) are better able to personalise our experience and feed us relevant media or advertisements thus making our stay more enjoyable and productive. In order to keep improving the supply services need to know more and more about us so that our consumption patterns become well-known and our behaviour can be second-guessed.

Good for the goose

One of the primary fears with this is that, while the individual will benefit from an enhanced "personal service" the additional sharing may actually serve to degrade the "social experience" with items of interest becoming lost in the noise generated by frictionless sharing.

As I wrote in September the Facebook Ticker seek to reduce the noise by removing a lot of the banality from the News Feed meaning it can be used to concentrate on the more important things but even this has not met with everyone's approval.

We have long had complaints about auto-posting from other sources but now, with the Ticker, the changes have meant users are complaining the other way now - that they can't see items from their friends as they are no longer displaying in the feed - there may need to be some fine tuning. Combine this with the fact that not everyone even has the Ticker and we are left with an inconsistent experience.

Frictionless sharing creates a two tier system: those things that we have given pre-approval against those items we specifically hit a sharing option or paste a URL in to our feed.

With all items from a given source being automatically shared (and most likely ending up in the Ticker as "share trash" are we then forced to share things twice, both automatically and explicitly, in order for them to show in the news feed without having to rely on Facebook's algorithms to possibly bring it to the surface?

Are the fears reasonable?

One of the most commonly mentioned reasons for liking Google+ has been the lack of a write API which means that every item on the site has been explicitly posted by the user. It is felt by some that the intent behind our sharing leads to a better understanding of the person and improves our social experience.

We already have linked accounts auto-posting our actions to other services, such as Foursquare sending tweets when we check in, but frictionless sharing takes this to the nth degree. With Foursquare we still have to explicitly check-in so have the element of control over what is shared but how would we feel if it automatically checked in everywhere we went and shared our location without our intervention? An extreme example but it serves to illustrate some of the concerns raised.

Choice

There is the crux. By choosing what we wish to share we provide others value by filtering out the rubbish and targeting our "friends" with relevant content. We are free to browse far and wide to find that interesting content without having to leave a trail of breadcrumbs. We should not be forced to filter our activity for fear of useless, or potentially embarrassing, content being shared with all.

Scoble says that he is already modifying his behaviour to compensate for frictionless sharing but is this the way we should be going? As one who lives and breathes the web he has no shortage of news sources at his disposal but the more casual user often only comes across that interesting story by chance, browsing 20 stories just to find that hidden gem.

Choice is key and we must be given the choice as to whether we wish to automatically share our behaviour or not; in response to the initial criticism even Spotify - a launch partner for frictionless sharing - gave the option of an incognito mode.

They already know

Facebook already knows far more about us than we realise and this becomes apparent when you enable the Timeline feature but it goes way beyond what is visible on your profile.

Recent controversy regarding the use of cookies by Facebook to track our browsing shows that our behaviour is already well known by the social behemoth so, perhaps, getting us to sign up to frictionless sharing might actually be a cunning way of legitimizing the data collection that has already been occurring by what may be considered underhand means.

A shift too far?

While knowledge of our behaviour makes a degree of sense from the view of personalisation is this a paradigm that we are willing to embrace? I would suggest that the world is not ready but, as is Facebook's way, the mechanism will be tweaked and seemingly diluted until, over time, we are all dragged kicking and screaming into Zuckerberg's reality.

Why not discuss this post at Google+

Image by Katy Tresedder

  1. Mark Dykeman says: #
    Hey Colin, just a note: I used the Twit This link in your Google Reader feed and it automatically entered me into some kind of contest from @shoemoney. I wonder what's up with that?
  2. Colin says: #
    I have killed the FeedFlare at the bottom of posts in my feed. Not happy about that - thanks for pointing it out.

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