The basic idea is this: It used to be if you wanted to, say, share the song you’re listening to into your Facebook account, you had to click on it and tell the program to “Share.” You had to take action. Frictionless sharing changes that. Now, you can give a music-streaming service like Spotify permission to automatically share everything you’re listening to, in real time, to you Facebook friends. Of course, Facebook gives you a great deal of control over who can actually see it–and you can turn it off on an app-by-app basis at any time.
(For example, I have Spotify setup to share my listening habits, but in such a way that only I can see them. So I get the benefits of the cool pattern recognition and timeline features, without having to tell all the world what songs I dig.)
People are, in general, reacting pretty negatively to this. (Or, at least, the most vocal people are reacting negatively.) However, in doing so, they’re often confusing two distinct criticisms of frictionless sharing. One is that it’s silly. The other is that it’s wrong.
Frictionless sharing is silly.
When I first heard Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announce the feature, that’s exactly what I thought, too. Who is this thing for? I simply don’t care enough about the musical tastes or cooking choices of my friends (let alone my acquaintances) to want to see what they’re listening to or eating in real time.
Parents used to complain about how much their teenagers were always on the phone. Now it’s texting. But the underlying social urge is the same: Teens can’t get enough of each other. They’re all, “OMG! Did you hear what so-and-so did? I know, right?” Ubiquitous social content is the bread and butter of 13 year old girls.
Still, most of Facebook’s users are adults–and adults are content to get all the juicy details about their friends rather less often.
So it’s not immediately clear who this feature is for–other than, of course, Facebook and its advertisers. Which makes it appear, from the user’s perspective, downright silly. Except that the user’s mistaken. Frictionless sharing definitely is for Facebook and its advertisers. But it’s also for you.
But is frictionless sharing also wrong?
If frictionless sharing is just silly, then it’s easy to ignore. But if it’s wrong–like in the sense of ethically not-good-at-all–then we have more reason for concern.
So what’s wrong with it? There’s the privacy problems, of course. If you’re broadcasting everything you listen to, then you better be certain you don’t have any guilty pleasures. But this is easily fixed: either only make shared data visible to yourself or don’t allow sharing in the first place. Yes, Facebook’s privacy controls can be confusing, but the recent updates actually allow application developers to make the pop-up permissions request box more clear than it was before.
Your privacy isn’t really the root of the “it’s wrong” concern, however. You have control of that. What you don’t have control over is how Facebook uses the data it does collect about you. Call this the “You’re the product, not the customer!” argument.
To make money (Zuckerberg is in business, after all), Facebook could charge its users. At perhaps $10 a month, even if only 100,000,000 of them stick around, that’s still a billion bucks a month. Not too shabby. But Facebook doesn’t charge. From the user’s perspective, Facebook is free–and will stay that way.
What Facebook does instead is sell advertising, giving over a portion of each page to third-party marketers hawking their wares to Facebook’s enormous user base. And to do this–or, at least, to do it well–they need data. About you.
Advertising’s only annoying when it sucks.
We all claim to hate advertising. Except that we really don’t. What we hate is advertising we’re not interested in. If I pick up a copy of Better Homes and Gardens and flip through it, what I find are pages and pages of awful, annoying ads. Call these “spam.”
Back in middle school, though, when I grabbed a copy of Dragon Magazine, the Dungeons & Dragons periodical, off the shelf in the school library, I didn’t see those adverts as spam. No, they were cool. Informative. They were content.
The difference, obviously, is that Better Homes and Gardens is filled with ads for products I don’t care about. Dragon, on the other hand, featured ads telling me about things I actually wanted.
And that’s where Facebook’s data comes in. Facebook needs to gather data if its advertisers are going to give me Dragon ads (content) instead of Better Homes and Gardens ones (spam). In fact, the more data Facebook has about me, the more likely I am to see the ads as content instead of spam.
This is what frictionless sharing does. It’s also the answer to the “What’s in it for me?” question. Frictionless sharing lets Facebook improve my experience on its site by increasing the quality of the ads it serves to me. This is a win for its advertisers (they’re more likely to get a new customer), a win for Facebook (it can charge more for the ad space), and a win for me (I like learning about new products I actually want and enjoy).
This is why it seems so odd when people get upset at customer data gathering in general. If that data’s being used in a dangerous way, then there’s cause for concern. Obviously. But the reason Facebook wants that data is not to hurt me or you. It’s to make our Facebook experience better.
And, hey, you can always just turn it off.
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