Media Monday: The Washington Post's Social Reader is driving Facebook users crazy

The Washington Post hasn't had much reason to cheer recently, what with the company posting a $6.2 million loss in the third quarter. But you could smell the excitement emanating from 1150 15th Street NW a week ago today, when the paper boasted that its Social Reader news app for Facebook, which launched only two and a half months ago, had already surpassed 3.5 million subscribers. What's more, 83 percent of those people are under 35 years old, while 10 percent live in India, allowing the Post to extend its reach to two increasingly elusive demographics — young and international readers.

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But this success comes at a cost to the Post's reputation. As Liz Gannes wrote on All Things Digital a few weeks ago, in a story titled "Why Is the Washington Post at the Top of My Facebook Feed Yet Again?,"

It seems every time I’ve visited Facebook in recent weeks, I’m greeted front and center with a box of stories that my friends have read on the Washington Post. Occasionally, they’re articles I’m interested in, but often they’re things I’ve already seen — or just the latest Kardashian development.

That's because Social Reader employs "frictionless sharing." The friction, in this case, refers to the process of actively posting a story on Facebook. The Social Reader eliminates this supposed hassle by automatically sharing to a subscriber's news feed — for all to see, even friends who haven't subscribed to Social Reader — whatever stories the subscriber has read. Here's how the Post described it on Sept. 22, when announcing the app's launch:

WP Social Reader provides full access within Facebook to stories from The Post and selected news and entertainment sources and allows instant, one-click sharing of stories. All a person needs to do is read a story in the Facebook app and it will be posted to his or her Facebook profile and to their friends’ News Feeds, giving readers quick access to the stories their friends find interesting.

That's all true, except for the last two words. The app doesn't simply share stories that subscribers find interesting, but rather all stories the subscriber has clicked. Surely the subscriber found some of those articles interesting, while discovering that others didn't live up to the headline's promise. "One problem is that the 'friction' — the act of choosing what to share, with whom, and how — is what makes sharing meaningful," Jeff Sonderman writes on Poynter. "The fact that my friend read an article is not useful without knowing more. Did he like it? Did he think I would like it? Did it make him laugh, cry, gasp or sigh? Did he read it because his boss or his teacher told him to, or because he was genuinely interested?"

The Post wrote in its launch announcement, "Opting out is just as easy as opting in. People can always control who can see their activity on the app or remove the app at any time by going to the applications settings page on Facebook. They can also click the 'Mark item as unread' link at the bottom of each article to delete stories from Facebook." But there's nothing that those who don't subscribe to Social Reader can do to stop the app's updates from appearing in the news feed. "The Facebook newsfeed allows users to hide all updates from a single app," Gannes notes, "but at least for now there’s no way to hide all updates from the aggregated news list." In other words: You can't opt out, even if you never opted in. It's spam, essentially.

The sharing might be frictionless, but the response has not. A Facebook user created a Washington Post Social Reader, Please Don't Install This App page, and there have been articles about how to disable the app. Meanwhile, the number of Social Reader subscribers continues to skyrocket — in large part because whenever a non-subscriber clicks on a Social Reader article that appears in the news feed, he or she is prompted (in a new browser window, no less) to add the app or "cancel"; the latter option leads to the article, but many users, understandably, don't realize as much. "This interface is so counter-intuitive that it essentially tricks people into installing the apps," Jessica Binsch, until last week a Web producer at WJLA, wrote on her blog. (As Tech Crunch reported, developers have created an extension for Google's Chrome browser that bypasses that prompt.)

In its defense of Social Reader, the Post insists users can control what they see by, for instance, downvoting the app's aggregated news box in your feed (you can "unhighlight" or hide a news story). You can also sort your feed by "recent stories" rather than "highlighted stories." But as yet, if any of your Facebook friends use Social Reader, there's no way to avoid it entirely. For me, as a journalist, that's not the end of the world — it's only Facebook we're talking about here, not NSA wiretapping — but there are several reasons the Post should reconsider forcing Social Reader on Facebook users.

As Sonderman and Binsch have pointed out, frictionless sharing means articles appear without context or comment. Does this reader endorse or disapprove? Hell, you can't even tell if the reader liked the article. After being tempted by one too many stories that disappoint, users might stop clicking Post links altogether, which risks "alienating users and eroding their trust," Sonderman writes. "The last thing a news organization wants is for people to think twice before they click." For these reasons, among others, certain major news outlet have chosen not to join the gold rush. "The consensus was that this was intrusive and potentially an invasion of privacy," said a former developer for the New York Times, explaining why the paper chose not to create a social news app for Facebook.

The editor of a major news aggregation site once told me that he doesn't publish photo galleries because "they're like crack": You become addicted to the high of increased pageviews. I can only imagine, then, the heroin rush the Post gets from Social Reader — and the withdrawal it would feel if Facebook allows non-subscribers to banish Social Reader entirely from the news feed. Such an option seems inevitable, and until then, the paper is going to milk this for all it's worth. Only three Post articles were among the 40 most shared on Facebook in 2011 — none in the top 20 — and they'll be damned if they're going to let the Times, which had seven (including the #1 story), whip them again in 2012. The Post's reputation as a national news outlet is at stake, and they're going to stake that reputation on the Social Reader, the tagline for which — "A New Way to Spread News" — is more accurate than perhaps even the paper realizes. The app isn't a new way simply to share news, but rather spread it — like a virus for which there's no vaccine, and one we contract through no fault of our own.

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