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Facebook's New Apps: When A Life Stream Becomes A Life Flood

Facebook Frictionless Apps

Posted: 01/21/2012 1:32 pm

This week, Facebook held a quiet coming-out party for a new class of "frictionless" apps that will automatically share on Facebook any action you take on the app. Every article you read, song you listen to, ticket you buy or run you take can be instantly broadcast on the social networking site through these apps, more than 60 of which have launched from companies such as Yahoo, eBay and Ticketmaster.

The two or three seconds of effort previously required to copy and paste a link, or manually click "share," have been eliminated, and with them, a small but meaningful filter that made us think twice about what we posted for our friends.

These apps mark one of the most important evolutions in Facebook's history: The site has transitioned from curated content to no-holds-barred life-streaming. Sharing has become so seamless -- or frictionless, in Facebook's word -- that we're lulled into forgetting just how much information we're revealing as we go about our daily routines. In the meantime, our Facebook friends' feeds are filled with a flood of information about the most menial activities in our lives, not a single one of which we had to consciously choose to share.

During an hour I spent listening to music on Spotify, I posted 14 updates to Facebook, more than I would typically post in a week, all without ever explicitly asking Facebook or Spotify to do so each time. Clicking around stories on the Washington Post Social Reader app resulted in the posting of another handful of items in a matter of minutes (though I later took a few more moments to delete an article I'd rather people didn't know I'd read).

When users sign up for an app, they may be given only a vague description of what they'll end up sharing with their social circles. An app from USA Today, for example, states, "This app will share articles you read and other activity on Facebook." What's "other activity"? Sounds ... broad.

Sharing on social sites is often a good thing, especially for writers who want to see our stories circulated around the web. But Facebook, notorious for constantly nudging its users to broadcast more, has now overshot the mark by giving us the infinite capacity to share, while our capacity to process that information remains finite.

With Facebook's latest update, people are free to opt out of the apps and keep their listening or reading habits private. They can also choose to limit their posts to a few friends or make them available to the public at large. But the audience for the updates from these apps has no control over the deluge of data they receive once acquaintances decide to broadcast their lives. It's like being confronted with a flasher: You don't have a say over what you see; he's going to show you what he's got whether you like it or not.

I can't think of a single person who feels that what's really missing from her online experience is more information. We've entered a state of shareturation -- a.k.a. sharing saturation -- but Facebook just won't give up. The new feature may risk alienating users, many of whom are already showing signs of social media fatigue. It also runs counter to the trend of broader curation online, which has seen a slew of startups -- including Summify, Percolate, Zite and Know About It -- develop products that sift through sharing on our social networks and aggregate the most important information into a neat summary. As my colleague Jason Gilbert has noted, "At this rate, Facebook will do more to contribute to the next generation's Attention Deficit Disorder than Anime. Word is the next Facebook layout is just going to be an unending sequence of flashing neon lights."

Perhaps even more troubling, however, is that Facebook's move away from curation may threaten the magic and stickiness of the site by undermining our ability to carefully craft our image online. The act of choosing and curating what we share about ourselves is, in and of itself, a very meaningful thing. Yet it becomes more difficult when every action we take manifests itself on our profiles or in our friends' feeds. We can hide evidence of our reading or listening activity at any time, but let's face it: That's about as enticing as filtering through our spam folders.

Facebook claims the frictionless apps will allow you to "enhance your timeline with apps that help you tell your story." But telling a story, as any writer can attest, means knowing which details to leave out. Posts in the age of frictionfull Facebook sharing were revealing not only because of the information they included, but because of what the user left out. Sixteen randomly selected photographs of a person might give us a better sense of her physical appearance, yet the single one she picked for her profile picture can speak volumes about her personality.

Will we really learn more about one another if we post our dinner menu and our latest "Words With Friends" score? Do we care about the runs our friends have taken or grow closer to them because we get a glimpse at their most recent meal? In this case, less may be more.

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