The end of social

When you take the friction out of sharing, you also remove the value.

Listened to listMuch as I’m tempted to talk about Facebook privacy, I’m going to resist. Plenty has been written about Facebook and privacy, Facebook and “forced” sharing, Facebook and sharing by default, Facebook this and Facebook that. And I’m sure much more will be written about it.

Tim O’Reilly has been supportive of Facebook. The company has frequently been clumsy, but it’s also been willing to push the limits of privacy in ways that might be potentially creative and in ways that might potentially create more value for us than we give up.

But none of the many reactions to Facebook get to the core of the problem, which isn’t privacy at all. The real problem becomes visible when you look at it from the other direction. What effect does massive sharing have on the recipients? Let me ask the question in another way. Maybe I care if you see all the music I listen to; maybe I don’t. Maybe I’m embarrassed if you find out that I mostly listen to dignified classical music but occasionally go slumming with Beyonce; maybe I’m not. But turn that around: while I might be interested in what you listen to, I have hundreds of Facebook friends; do I really care to be informed about what everyone is listening to? Do I really care to keep up with everything that they’re reading? A little bit of information (cool, I didn’t know that Bert Bates is a Dead Head) is interesting, but a deluge is The Big Snore.

The other day, I read a perceptive article, “In Defense of Friction,” arguing that “automated trust systems undermine trust by incentivizing cooperation because of the fear of punishment rather than actual trust.” That’s a profound point. 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.

Taking this a couple of steps further, the article points out that, to many people, Facebook’s “frictionless” sharing doesn’t enhance sharing; it makes sharing meaningless. Let’s go back to music: It is meaningful if I tell you that I really like the avant-garde music by Olivier Messiaen. It’s also meaningful to confess that I sometimes relax by listening to Pink Floyd. But if this kind of communication is replaced by a constant pipeline of what’s queued up in Spotify, it all becomes meaningless. There’s no “sharing” at all. Frictionless sharing isn’t better sharing; it’s the absence of sharing. 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.

So, what we’re seeing isn’t the expansion of our social network; it’s the shrinking of what and who we care about. My Facebook feed is full of what friends are listening to, what friends are reading, etc. And frankly, I don’t give a damn. I would care if they told me personally; I’d even care if they used a medium as semi-personal as Twitter. The effort required to tweet tells me that someone thought it was important. And I do care about that. I will care much less if Spotify and Rdio integrate with Twitter. I already don’t care about the blizzard of automated tweets from FourSquare.

Automated sharing is giving Facebook a treasure-trove of data, regardless of whether anyone cares. And Facebook will certainly find ways to monetize that data. But the bigger question is whether, by making sharing the default, we are looking at the end of social networks altogether. If a song is shared on Facebook and nobody listens to it, does it make a sound?


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  • Too much noise is just going to remove credibility from social networking, and create more blindness on the part of users to what is being shared around them. Much like banner advertisements in the early days of the web, click will soon drop on social sharing to the point of hardly being relevant.

  • Insightful post. Sharing everything to everyone is a problem. I would love to be able to control which friends see what updates. I travel a lot and my neighbors keep an eye on my house. I would love it if they could see updates about where I am, without posting it publicly for example.

  • Mike, Definitely agree that the “oversharing” of these services renders them increasingly meaningless. I like your music example… if someone tells me occasionally about some awesome song they listened to, that’s great and may in fact cause me to go try it out.

    But all the constant barrage of “frictionless” music updates does is cause me to block updates from that app in my Facebook news feed! :-)

  • robd

    The way I see it, the real point of all the sharing isn’t so us users can see what our friends are listening to or reading–
    it’s so facebook’s paying clients (advertizers) can mine the data to get a clearer picture than ever of what people are interested in.

  • I agree to an extent on this. I think that *sometimes* the Spotify sharing can be interesting and useful – I’ve occasionally noticed that one of my friends is listening to something I like, that I didn’t realise they’d be into.

    But there is a lot of overshare, and it’s especially clear on Twitter, I find, with automated tweeting. I wrote a blog post on this a year ago, about Foursquare:

    It annoys me to have a feed full of posts (on Twitter) of no value, with no thought put into them. It doesn’t interest me, and makes me feel that the user doesn’t value their own content either. I mind it less on Facebook, strangely, but mostly because it’s relegated to the mini-feed, and doesn’t dominate like it can do on Twitter.

  • On first reading your your article I agreed with everything you say. Then I went on to Facebook….

    My news feed is horrible, worthless junk. I block some of my friends because I get updates about what airport they are etc. But……

    I can can click on to a friend and look at only their updates. Which leads to my conclusion that Facebook is a useful micro blogging site. If I ignore the news feed, I have a list of friends’ micro blogs managed by Facebook.

  • You can prevent Spotify (or any other facebook app) messages from appearing on your wall (for all your friends). That provides a more than necessary relief… :-)

  • I’ve seen lots of complaints about the Spotify/Facebook integration. I would agree it would be a problem if:
    (a) the sharer couldn’t disable the notifications, or
    (b) the recipient couldn’t hide them,

    But both of these are very easy to do. There are many things Facebook are guilty of, but this is not one of them.

    As Clay Shirkey said, there’s no such thing as information overload, only filter failure.

  • Yep. But you know about Edgerank don’t you? That’s FB’s attempt to filter this for you. Whether it will really work or not… I’m not sure

  • Yes. Thank you for so eloquently verbalizing what I’ve been thinking for some time.

    I feel that the whole “frictionless sharing” turns into a vicious cycle of empty digital calories. I often flip through my news feed and leave Facebook wholly unsatisfied.

  • Chris

    I gave up on facebook when I started getting updates about people buying rice cookers and even crossing the damn street. I really liked spotify until it integrated with facebook.

    I keep track of my friends by being friendly with them. That requires more than just a status update on the Internet. Regarding finding music, almost everyone listens to crap music (including me). Want to learn about cool new music? Google-stalk people you think are cool. Trent Reznor, Yo-Yo Ma, whoever.

  • Very nice post.
    The only next step social tools need to focus on now is giving back to the social signals their meaningfulness.
    And only conscious sharing can give a social, human meaning to what is otherwise just a signal.

    “If a song is shared on Facebook and nobody sees I’ve shared it, does it still make it a social signal?”

  • Interesting observations and perspective.

    There are three dynamic and unpredictable problems with your premise.

    Agenda – regardless if it’s Facebook or the user’s individual expression – the agenda is what is at stake. A person’s views, ideas, concepts and “likes” are individual and collective. It’s a choice, not a demand.

    Privacy of data is a matter of perspective. It has nothing to do with “social media” as a publication medium, instead it has everything to do with it’s validity as a point of reference to the data.

    Influence is often perceived as where the balance of power is. Is it collective of the agenda, the data points of facts or the mass adoption of an idea, philosophy or entity.

    Your insights can not answer these questions or perspectives. And that’s okay, you’re not supposed to able to. There’s not a single analytic tool precise enough to build a repeatable conclusion of any data on Facebook or other social media portal. Automate all you want, it’s people that make decisions pertaining to direction, mandate and objectives, not computers. A.I. is pretty good interpreting zeros and one’s, but it’s still only as good as those that programmed it.

    Human behavior in all its forms is one state that can not be ‘factored” or labelled.

    Take the example of Nielsen ratings. It may show how popular a show is, but it can’t interpret the state mind or reasons why some programs are watched more often then others. Extrapolation is a human decision point, not a computer generated one.

    Social media is literately stated. An environment that enables interaction. Facebook is beyond childhood and is here to stay.

  • MIke Homoki

    Then “Noise” that is seen on Facebook is controllable.

    If you have one person that is creating noise on your page you can choose to filter what you see from that person.

    I have the Spotify Sharing Feed turned on and I feel that if people don’t like to see what I’m listening to then they can choose to change their settings.

    That may sound selfish but there are a lot of friends that do want to see this and I like to see this from certain friends.

    Automatic sharing without filters or controls would be bad but automatic sharing with filters and controls is a good thing.

  • To argue that it’s not really automatic sharing because filters are available to stop it is to miss the point. That’s like saying it’s not cold outside because you can wear a coat.

    It is still automatic, and if it is up to each individual to turn it off, the overall effect to the social media environment will be far more automatic sharing than non-automatic sharing. People don’t tend to use these controls as much as they might in theory want to, and obviously Facebook and Spotify are counting on the fact that most people won’t use the filters.

    The article’s overall point remains salient: when friction is by and large removed, the value of the sharing by and large will suffer.

  • Well, I don’t think social media will die in the next few years, I see how people become more and more obsessive so I think this mania will continue to grow bigger and bigger!

  • It seems to me that this frictionless sharing is exactly what Google+ targets with its circles (which have now been imitated by FB). I definitely agree with your points, and I think such a high volume of meaningless information can undermine real relationships and turn much of social interaction into meaningless electronic socializing.

  • Interesting viewpoint. In the end this is just a way they will be able to make more money. Especially after they launch the IPO they will be beholden to do that.

  • Nicely written article with spot-on reasons why online social applications feel even more impersonal today.

    I too believe that relationships are kept alive through sincerity and relevance. It’s one thing to broadcast something you’re excited about as compared to considering which groups of people might actually appreciate this and sending it to them directly.

    As they like to say, not everyone you know wants to watch funny cat videos.

    I made a simple web application that builds on this called Handpick, which helps you be selective about what you share with whom you share.

    You can check it out at:

    I would love to hear what you think about it, Mike.

    Alvin Lai

  • As a person who hates Facebook, I relate almost instantly to your thesis; however, as someone who like the _idea_ of Facebook, I’m inclined to stretch your thesis out from the present and into the future.

    Imagine a feed which intelligently suppresses the noise but utilizes the noise in other applications.

    Imagine a Spotify which aggregates the shared feed from all of one’s friends and then presents new playlitsts: Music You Might Like, Music Might Like, Music that Lots of Your Friends Like, etc.

    Imagine a Yelp which adds contextualized review information based on the input of your friends.

    Imagine a Netflix which even more intelligently recommends movies.

    No one wants to see an endless stream of so-and-so-just-did-this as the output of automated integration systems; but that doesn’t mean the systems can’t be useful–it just means the current implementation sucks.

  • The other problem with frictionless sharing is how it shifts the burden of understanding to the people seeing the updates, if the person sharing doesn’t take the time to explain *why* they’re sharing:

  • Robin

    Nice article about oversharing and i total agree, share every second of the day and you are infarct anonymous , but i think you are missing the point with facebook and spotify.

    The Spotify sharing feed is not fully functional yet, the feed we see to day is not meant to be meaning full, it is just there as a placeholder for the new app api, the real power will come in a later release, when facebook finds patterns and highlights that info to you real feed. eq: five friends have started to listening to a new artist this weak, then facebook give you that news, and that is meaningful!

    and in a year or five when you go back in time, you kan se what songs you liked best back then.

    It is all part of the new facebook app api and the timeline profile

  • Peter Mullins

    That is why I encourage people to take a break from Facebook, but don’t quit entirely, since there are so much of your data and contacts you could loose.

    Instead of quitting, take an extended break, there is an app, Taking a Break, that helps you do just this:

  • I’m sorry but you kind of discovered the warm water… basically, you are saying “when you are overwhelmed by too many information, you don’t really care about any of them”… good point, but old like death and taxes..

  • gregorylent

    “sharing” is a joke, an abused word signifying nothing

    the only sharing on facebook is exactly equivalent to 3 x 5 cards on a super market bulletin board

    let go of the concept

  • Social media involves a lot of write-only sources– people who post, but don’t read. In reality it’s not very “social” at all.

  • Renaud

    This is just incorrect.

    For instance you won’t see songs your friend is listening to in your Newsfeed unless your friend expressly wanted to share that one song and create a comment to there Timeline.

    Passive listens do go by in the Ticker, but the whole point of Ticker is that it’s low engagement.

  • ::m::

    In fact I believe that might be why facebook for example developed that insane right sidebar of less important feed items, which I cannot imagine most people even pay attention to. However I don’t believe their attempt with the “ticker” side feed, got at the heart of the real problem. They created this problem themselves, with the like button and by allowing apps into the feed. There is some balance… some better way, and while google+ may be on to the right idea, I think that facebook is eventually going to need to make the change or kill off social for the general population, as that is where the users are. I think that if google+ has showed us anything at all, it is that people only have room in their lives for so much social. And if facebook has showed us anything it is that social cannot be so complicated. Their UI has turned into some bizarre Rubik’s cube of settings and elements that even the most savvy of us cannot keep up with. I am beginning to believe that their own developers cannot either, with the myriad of issues that regularly present themselves, and outdated documentation.

  • I agree with the premise.

    The irony is many people will discover your idea because of the lack of friction facebook and twitter provides.

    Much like the passive experience adults used to have reading the Sunday (print) paper, skimming and scanning, digging in here or there, social media has stepped in.

    Depth of connection will never be something tools can afford. A pen and paper, hundreds of years old, is all we need to connect and share – it’s not a tools problem, it’s a convenience problem. It will always be ‘inconvenient’ to make connections that matter.