The Problem With Facebook's New 'Frictionless' Sharing

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Humans are social animals. We want to share little bits of our lives with our friends. But we don't want to share every single thing.

sharing-body.jpgPhoto albums have been around as long as photographs. In 1991, they became virtual. One of the first websites, Digital Picture Archive on the 17th Floor, was a digital photo library at Delft University of Technology which became enormously popular. In 1994, the site attracted 664,000 unique visitors, prompting the administrator to throttle access. Two years before the release of the first mainstream browser, the Digital Picture Archive had already brought sharing to the web.

Sharing is human. We are social. We communicate. We learn from each other. Our first conversations with people we don't know are anecdote competitions. If in the 15th century everyone had owned a printing press, Europe would have been littered with personal missives and opinions. Cameras were one of the first mass-market story-telling devices, and stories were told. Then: curated, bundled, and shared.

The genius of Facebook has always been its facilitation of sharing. Its pivotal innovation -- the one that inspired its first rash of furious remonstrations -- was the automatic sharing of news feeds between friends. In the Friendster/MySpace world, users could visit their friends' feeds, but they did not receive them passively. Facebook's decision to push these feeds out to users' contacts led to howls about privacy -- and that's what made the service a sensation.

Facebook's role in our world is to lead us where we're headed. We like to share who we are and what we like. We're consumers who pay more for things stamped with particular logos, after all; we shouldn't be taken aback when someone tries to spread that idea. Facebook has been there for almost a decade, guiding us toward a place where displays of what we're doing and where we are become the simple documentations of the life of an average Joe.

The company's biggest struggle has been figuring out how to make money from it. An early effort, Beacon, was a flop. People are happy to share information -- photos, stories, links, videos -- but only information they have carefully selected. Beacon took it upon itself to share information about online purchases and transactions -- and people revolted. It was Facebook's most notable failure, and it stemmed from sharing that didn't derive from the user.

Tech 2020 Last year's launch of Open Graph began an exploration of how to work around that. It combined two innovations: the global Like button and the ability of some sites to pull information from Facebook without your agreeing to it. Beacon lite. This met with outcry -- I'm losing control over my information! -- which quickly subsided as it became apparent that the intrusion was minimal. People weren't interested in your Pandora stations, but Facebook cracked the door toward using your information the way it wanted.

Slate's Farhad Manjoo has perhaps the savviest take on the innovations Facebook announced yesterday. In addition to Timeline -- the elegant, deep presentation of a user's Facebook history -- the company revealed that it sought to make sharing information "frictionless," which is to say, automatic. Watch a movie or listen to a song and it gets shared, without the tedium of your clicking anything.

The problem with that, of course, is that it eliminates the curation aspect of our self-presentations. It would be as though I told everyone that I was wearing blue jeans and a somewhat worse-for-wear t-shirt right now in addition to revealing that earlier today I wore a sharp, tailored suit. Both are accurate, but only one is the impression I'd like to leave with people. (The latter.) Talking about the suit is Facebook. Talking about my scrubby jeans is Beacon.

I used to work at Adobe. One summer, the company brought in a number of well-known artists to work on a project, one of whom was a photographer. Using Photoshop, he cleaned up his photos of the other participants, noting that "a photo is not meant to be a dermatological record." This is extensible: the image we present to the world is not meant to include every single bit of information possible. What we share is selected to be a representation of the ideal we want to project, not a reflection of who we are. Our curation itself is representative; what we don't say says something, too. Facebook moving curation from us to its algorithms means we could lose some of our personality in what we present. It's akin to putting every photo in a photo album, and letting the album worry about what people see.

But this is incidental. Facebook anticipates -- correctly -- that we want easy processes to share more and more about ourselves. Or, at least, that we will soon. We've always wanted simple ways to scrapbook, and Facebook is poised to be one of the simplest.

Where they may have missed the mark is in taking away our ability to decide what we show.

Image: Reuters.

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