In the past few days, a couple of headlines from different news organizations caught my attention on Facebook: "Supermodels without Photoshop," read one. "Kate Moss's daughter in Vogue airbrushing blunder," read another.
These have a few things in common: They're the kind of headline that readers are wont to click. They're the kind of headline that you don't necessarily want to publicize clicking. They're all headlines that Facebook automatically announced that friends had clicked in the past few days. And the people who clicked them didn't realize that Facebook had done so.
This is not a bug. In fact, I read that it's the future. Facebook, and websites desperate for a slice of its precious traffic, are pioneering a new world of automatic disclosure in which the things you do anywhere on the Web can be posted straight to your Facebook page. The idea is called "frictionless sharing" – and it's closed on us like a bear trap.
It works like this: All websites need traffic. The more people visit, the more pages they serve up, and the more ads they can show. Traditionally, search engines like Google have been a dominant source of traffic, but social-network sharing, which thrives when users post links to stories and videos they like on their Facebook pages, has been steadily gaining ground.
The wizards at Facebook saw that the idea of social sharing has only one flaw: It requires users to actually decide to share something. Their new system rectifies the niggling problem of voluntary decision making. Instead of requiring users to choose to share articles, publications can simply get users' permission once, and from then on, share everything the users browse. You could call it "frictionless" – a more appropriate title would be "negative-option sharing."
Now, for instance, the Huffington Post is happy to post each individual article you've read to your Facebook timeline. Other AOL and Yahoo properties have jumped on-board as well. Even august papers like The Washington Post and The Guardian are using a slightly dialled-back system that reports on clicks the user makes within Facebook. Nor is it just publications: Everyone from Pinterest to Kobo is itching to publish your activities to Facebook and grab a slice of traffic in return.
This is why Facebook feeds are presently clotting up with reports about what various "friends" have read, seen and done, items that range from the erudite to the junky. Reports suggest that it works: The Guardian has reported that its online traffic has gone through the roof, as its users semi-voluntarily spread the word. But at what cost?
As usual, Facebook is cavalier with users' consent. The pop-up consent box that allows websites to start the automatic-sharing process are hardly crystal clear. The big print says, "Read the news with your friends," while the explanation that your friends will see what you read appears in a jumble of small print. The big blue button that enables the connection says, "Okay, Read Article," not, "Okay, Tell Everyone What I'm Reading From Here On In."
Even though we should be long past the point of trusting Facebook with our best interests, plenty of people still don't stop to read the fine print. Last month, I signed up for Pinterest (in my defence, it's my job), and allowed it to connect to Facebook to search for contacts. In an act of desperation to find something interesting on the site, I clicked on a pile of airplane-related picture boards. The next day, I was genuinely taken aback to discover that this fact had been publicly posted to Facebook.
"Wow," commented a Facebook friend. "You really like airplanes."
I must have unwittingly given consent somewhere. It was a minor miracle I hadn't gone hunting for something even more interesting.
Does anybody actually want this technology, other than Facebook and the media companies that need every click they can get? My polling is informal, but I have yet to encounter a Facebook user between the ages of 13 and 53 who thinks this is a good idea – especially not the people who inadvertently shared their celeb-news reading habits.
With the significant exception of the 2007 advertising debacle, in which Facebook had to abandon a scheme to auto-publish users' purchases, the site has succeeded time and again at moving the goalposts on users' expectations of privacy and discretion. Yet this could prove to be a polarizing issue.
Facebook has become so convoluted, so full of fine print and ever-evolving privacy controls, that it's all but impossible to keep track of what's being shared and how. The site is creating a creeping paranoia that can't serve it well. Now that it shares data with so many different websites, it's getting hard to be sure it won't broadcast something truly embarrassing.
Part of the allure of Facebook has been the ability to project an image of yourself to your peers. The company has long realized that its users aren't worried about privacy in the abstract, but they do care about appearances. "Frictionless sharing" threatens to strip users of that control. Privacy isn't the heart of social networking, but discretion is. And users who find they can't trust Facebook to maintain that discretion will start wondering if there's a social network that can.