Facebook's Terrible Plan To Make Us Share Everything We Do Online

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Sept. 22 2011 6:34 PM

Not Sharing Is Caring

Facebook's terrible plan to get us to share everything we do on the Web.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers a keynote during the Facebook f8 Developer Conference. Click image to expand.
Mark Zuckerberg delivering the keynote during the Facebook f8 conference

Mark Zuckerberg wants you to share. He doesn't much care if you want to share. Sharing, in Zuckerberg's view, has morphed from an affirmative act— that video was hilarious, I think I'll Like it!—to something more like an unconscious state of being. I watched that video, and therefore it will be shared.

The technical changes that Zuckerberg announced at Facebook's developer conference on Thursday sound relatively straightforward. Facebook is giving you a much more well-designed profile (it's called Timeline, and it's beautiful), and it's allowing sites to build "social" apps within Facebook. (Slate's parent company the Washington Post, for instance, is launching a social news reader). But behind these changes lies a grander vision of the Web, and if Zuckerberg's vision takes hold, our digital lives will change forever. If Facebook's CEO has his way, everything you do online will be shared by default. You read, you watch, you listen, you buy—and everyone you know will hear all about it on Facebook.

Consider the new Facebook app from the music service Spotify, which automatically tells your friends what songs you're listening to. Look to the right side of your Facebook page, in a new box called the Ticker, and you'll see a message: Farhad is listening to the Spice Girls on Spotify. Puzzled by my choice, you click on my link—and now, whoa, Facebook begins to play the song for you.

Zuckerberg calls this "frictionless" sharing. What he means is that I don't have to bother with the "friction" of choosing to tell you that I like something. On Facebook, now, merely experiencing something is enough to trigger sharing. Once I sign up for Spotify's Facebook app, my consent is assumed: When I listen, I share. The same goes for the many other apps that Facebook's partners are launching. When I watch something on Netflix or Hulu, when I read something on the Daily, or when I play a game like Words With Friends, Facebook will tell my friends. Everyone I know on Facebook will now have a running log of my life. 

This is a nightmare, but not for the reasons you might suspect. I don't hate this new model because of its lack of "privacy," or due to Facebook's clear financial interest in collecting my personal information. Zuckerberg stressed that these apps require users' consent to start auto-sharing; for me, that's enough privacy protection. And I don't begrudge Facebook making tons of money from what people do on its site—if people enjoy Facebook enough to keep coming back, the site should be free to make as much money as it can get.

My problem with "frictionless sharing" is much more basic: Facebook is killing taste.

Three years ago, Zuckerberg noted an astonishing statistic about the Internet—every year, people share twice as much online than they did the year before. If you Liked 100 news stories last year, you'll Like 200 this year, and 400 next year. People have come to call this Zuckerberg's Law, and it's obvious that Facebook sees "sharing" as the cornerstone of its future endeavors. The more that people share through Facebook, the more reasons people will have to keep coming back to Facebook, and the more central Facebook becomes in our lives. So far, this seems to be working: On a single day recently, Zuckerberg said, 500 million people logged in to Facebook.

For as much as he's invested in sharing, though, Zuckerberg seems clueless about the motivation behind the act. Why do you share a story, video, or photo? Because you want your friends to see it. And why do you want your friends to see it? Because you think they'll get a kick out of it. I know this sounds obvious, but it's somehow eluded Zuckerberg that sharing is fundamentally about choosing. You experience a huge number of things every day, but you choose to tell your friends about only a fraction of them, because most of what you do isn't worth mentioning.

Now Zuckerberg wants to lower the bar. "One thing that we've heard over and over again is that people have things that they want to share, but they don't want to annoy their friends by putting boring stuff in their news feeds," he said during his keynote. To me, this doesn't sound like a problem that needs solving. If Facebook users aren't sharing stuff because they worry it will bore their friends, good! Thank you, people of Facebook, for your restraint in choosing not to bore me.

But Zuckerberg couldn't let this undersharing stand. "Our solution was to create a new place that's lighter-weight where you can see lighter-weight stuff—that's how we came up with Ticker." If you translate "lighter-weight" to boring, you'll understand what Zuckerberg is saying: Facebook now has a place on its site reserved especially for boring updates.

Zuckerberg is right that the Web is better when everyone shares more. I love that I can discover new music, movies, and articles from Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, following the blizzard of recommendations that pour in from those sites has become the main way that I navigate the media.

That's why I welcome any method that makes it easier for people to share stuff. If you like this article, you should Like this article. And even if you hate this article, you should Like this article (add a comment telling your friends why I'm a moron). But if you're just reading this article—if you have no strong feelings about it either way, and if you suspect that your friends will consider it just another bit of noise in their already noisy world—please, do everyone a favor and don't say anything about it all.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.