Back Off, Mark Zuckerberg!

KIM-KARDASHIAN-DENIES-NUDE-small.jpg

My wife (who, by the way, is not the woman pictured on the right) spends a certain amount of time explaining to friends that they've just embarrassed themselves online. Only last week she emailed a friend and respected journalist--let's call him John Smith--to tell him that on her Facebook news feed, below the headline "Kim Kardashian Denies Naked Kitchen Photo" (which was accompanied by the photo on the right), it said "John Smith read this article."

An appreciably abashed John Smith struggled to figure out how his reading habits had become public knowledge. After clicking on the Kardashian headline, he hadn't clicked a Facebook 'recommend' button or anything. So why were all his Facebook friends being informed that while perusing the Huffington Post he'd surrendered to primordial yearnings?

Because at some point over the past year he had clicked a button without reading the fine print and thus had entered the world of "frictionless sharing." In this world, if you're on a website that permits frictionless sharing (theatlantic.com doesn't), every time you click on a headline, the site can report this behavior to your Facebook friends.

How exactly had John Smith, and other friends of my wife, stumbled into this world unawares?

There are various ways it can happen, depending on which site you're talking about. Most of the cases my wife spotted involved the Washington Post, which has made a particularly aggressive play in the frictionless sharing space with its "Social Reader" app. Here's how the Social Reader's recruitment process can work: You're on washingtonpost.com, and you're told that a particular Facebook friend has read a particular story. You decide you'd like to read the story, so you click on the headline. Then you're confronted by a menu that offers only one obvious way to get to read the article--by clicking "Okay, Read Article". And you have to scrutinize the surrounding text pretty carefully to realize that if you choose that option you've just agreed to make your Washington Post reading habits an open book. Here's what the menu looks like:

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Other sites, such as the Huffington Post, have similar signup menus (though they may not be reachable via the exact path just described--probably the most common path is one that starts with a headline on Facebook):

HuffPoSocialReader.JPG

No wonder that in the past month my wife has found three friends who, when she emailed them, confirmed that they hadn't realized they were exhibitionist readers. And there are another two friends who seem to be in the same boat--but she doesn't know them quite well enough to feel comfortable breaking the awkward news to them. Given that my wife has only 73 Facebook friends, and most of them probably aren't even signed up for frictionless sharing, this suggests that a whole lot of people have failed to read, or at least understand, the fine print. The Washington Post says its Social Reader app has around 8 million monthly users. I'm guessing that would be news to at least a million of them.

This week there's been a big controversy over whether these social reading programs are or aren't getting radically less popular. I hope they are. For one thing, that would mean that, in my affection for privacy, I'm not as out of touch with the modern world as I was starting to feel.

For another, it would be just deserts for online potentates, from Mark Zuckerberg on down, who treat us with all the respect typically accorded laboratory rats. In commoditizing our mental lives, they get us to surrender chunks of privacy, even dignity, without clearly explaining what's going on. Then if, having finally gotten the picture, we scream loud enough, they back off a bit and immediately set about planning the next round of aggressive experimentation.

If Facebook's much-ballyhooed "frictionless sharing" is indeed encountering major friction only days before the Facebook IPO, that's a story I'd be happy to be seen reading.

[Note: The Atlantic, like a number of other media outlets, shares some content with the Washington Post's Social Reader app, and that content is accessible to people who have signed up for the app. But such content, when it appears in a Facebook news feed, carries the Washington Post's branding, not The Atlantic's (and, anyway, wouldn't lead to frictionless sharing unless you'd signed up for the Post's Social Reader app). No headlines on The Atlantic website can lead to frictionless sharing, and neither can any Atlantic-branded headlines that appear in a Facebook news feed.]

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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