Facebook Social Reader Stinks Less Than Previously Thought

After proclaiming in that loud-and-proud BuzzFeed way that Facebook's social reader collapsed because nobody liked product, Buzzfeed's John Herrman still won't take back that assessment, even after TechCrunch's Josh Constine proved him wrong. 

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After proclaiming in that loud-and-proud BuzzFeed way that Facebook's social reader collapsed because nobody liked product, Buzzfeed's John Herrman still won't take back that assessment, even after TechCrunch's Josh Constine proved him wrong.

Yesterday, pulling together some scary all-downhill charts, Herrman pointed out the decline of Facebook's marriage between frictionless sharing and news. This was happening, he reasoned, because the product sucked. "They're annoyed, and they're quitting in droves," Herman wrote.

But, since then, both The Washington Post, one of the media company's with the scary downhill charts, has disproven this "suck thesis." Yet, Herrman's still sticking with his assessment of the product. Sucks! he says. "People hate these things," he writes in a follow-up post. Using the following as his proof: "The response to yesterday's story was a universal cheer. Of the first 50 responses to the story on our Facebook page, one — one! — was positive. The rest ranged from 'THANK GOD' to 'Good Riddance' to 'I hate them,'" he continues. Yes, some people dislike the product. It might very well "suck" under some parameters. But, that still doesn't explain its collapse.

The drop in users, as The Washington Post's Engagement Manager pointed out in a tweet last night, has to do more with Facebook than with user discontent.

During that time, Facebook changed its social reader module from a clickier version to something more subdued, as detailed in Constine's TechCrunch post. The new version only shows one article at a time, rather than a list, and omits Facebook friend photos, which humanized the links. Scrolling through the feed, the new box looks more like an ad than an friend's endorsement for a news article. This change aligns with the "full-on collapse" Herrman discovered. To be fair, Herrman suspected that maybe this might have something to do with the drop. "It's not clear if this is a pure shift in user opinion or the result of new feed management and site behavior on Facebook's part, but this is a full-on collapse," he wrote. But he still reached that same conclusion. "Social Readers always seemed a little too share-y," begins his diatribe against the idea.

Constine points out why exactly that logic doesn't follow:

If it was really user discontent with frictionless sharing of reading activities that was causing a decline, it wouldn’t have happened so quickly and distinctly. Different users starting to use the apps at different times would follow their own curves of discontent. They wouldn’t all flee at once. The decline would have also hit other types of auto-sharing apps. It hasn’t. In fact, non-news reader auto-publishing apps that have the same authorization flow have been doing very well. Few signs of serious discontent there.

The fact is that Facebook controls the news feed like an editor-in-chief controls a newspaper’s front page. It decides what kinds of content its users see. 

To Herrman, that somehow translate into the following headline: "How Backlash Is Fixing Facebook Social Readers." It's still not clear if user outrage had anything to do with this change, as Herrman concedes for one sentence, not before explaining that he still thinks it's because everyone hates social reader. "Whether the decline was caused by Facebook, by the common growth-peak-decline pattern of Open Graph apps or by plain old user disenchantment is tough to quantify," he writes. Constine, who has a more cheery view of the situation, thinks Facebook updated the module to drive better quality journalism, rather than sensationalist headlines. The old module did not show a photo for a given story so, he posits, it may have pushed people to jazzier headlines. "Facebook will continue testing new formats in search of one that sends lots of referral traffic, but to high-quality articles. News reader developers should hold tight, talk to their Facebook reps about how changes are hurting user counts, and hope an optimal version of 'recently read articles' emerges soon," he writes.

That, too, might read too much into the situation. But, there is one true-data point here: like many Facebook products, the social network is hacking its social reader to perfection. The first version did not fit the standard. User outrage, of which we hadn't heard about vis-à-vis social reader until yesterday, may or may not have driven Facebook to that decision. But, since when have some Facebook users not been outraged over a Facebook something? And Facebook often ignores this constant stream of anger.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.