Frictionless sharing’s dirty little secret

By George Osborn on September 4th, 2012

Here’s a question for you. What do Quora, the Guardian, Spotify and Facebook all have in common? The answer is a commitment to “frictionless sharing”. Yes, Quora, the 2010s answer to Yahoo! Answers, has enforced an open sharing policy on its users. After posting this blog post on their site earlier this month, any questions that you either look at or pitch to Quora users will be logged and noted so that your friends, or just about anybody else, can come and have a look. The data garnered on your actions will then be collated into news feeds and monthly digests to “make the browsing experience more interesting and help contributors gain extra feedback about their reach and audience on Quora”.

Essentially, Quora are claiming that by moving towards frictionless sharing they will be able to create a deeper and more meaningful kind of online interaction that users actually want to engage in. This is straight from the Zuckerberg doctrine that is governing Facebook’s moves toward constant low-end activity being noted down. From listening to a music track to reading a news article, the argument posited by the world’s leading egotistical nerd holds up frictionless sharing as the only true way to represent yourself – and that it’s something we all want to do.

But is it really true that “sharing” in this manner is a way to enhance online socialising in a way that appeals to how users actually interact with one another? From what I’ve read of the concept, I think it would be fair to posit three ideas that lie behind this definition. Sharing, according to Zuckerberg, is ideally live and constant (every action that you make should be logged to allow people to get a picture of who you are), relevant (everything you read or listen to has some kind of relevance that makes sense to yourself and your friends) and constantly curated (you choose to listen to a track or news article because you want people to know that you’ve read it).

Yet, when you step back and think about it, this is a fairly absurd definition of sharing. Consider that you’re sitting in a coffee shop with your friends and you’re flicking through a paper. While certain things may interest you, you don’t announce the completion of every article to your gathered friends. Instead, you may pick out articles, photos or letters that might interest one of your mates particularly or reflect something you’re thinking about. Or you may not.

Why? Because “sharing”, in actual human society, is almost entirely based around careful selection and curation of certain things to fit into certain contexts. This is what a New York Times survey into the online sharing habits of active social media users uncovered. Rather than a desire for constant, unfiltered noise, out of the 2,500 participants, 94 per cent said that they only share information that they consider useful to others.

Furthermore, the other drivers for sharing were almost all about publicising certain aspects of the self. Whether it was about advancing a cause that mattered to them (84 per cent of respondents), building tighter relationships (78 per cent of interviewees) or just for self-fulfilment or self-interest (roughly 68 per cent of the sample), the data pointed in one direction: the decision to share is a highly personal one.

Therefore, almost the entire base of the concept of frictionless sharing is contradictory to what people want. It’s exactly the kind of generic, contextless and boring noise that people are actively trying to filter out of their lives when they share something, either in the real world or on social media.

So the next question is a simple one: why do these companies really want frictionless sharing? The answer is clear from another similarity between the companies I listed at the start of the article: they are all experiencing some form of financial difficulty or pressure requiring them to expand their revenues and readership rapidly.

Facebook, for example, is still reeling from its botched IPO, struggling to stop their share price sliding further than the 25 per cent it’s dropped since May. Spotify, despite increasing revenues to $889 million, recorded a $60 million loss over the last year. The Guardian‘s losses over the last year increased from £31 million to a whopping £44 million, according to their latest results. And Quora has been struggling to live up to an enormous valuation of $400 million and investment of $30-50 million despite the so-far weak reach of the site.

So they’re all on the look-out for new ways to make a big pile of money with as little effort as possible. And it conveniently turns out that frictionless sharing is a great way of forcibly mobilising your user base; of pumping out tasty metrics for data-hungry and cash-rich companies to analyse. Or, it’s a superb way to dangle linkbait ever more juicily in front of end users, making it worthwhile to pump out asinine guff for the sake of consumption.

It’s also designed to take advantage of two target markets other industries are more squeamish about exploiting: the ignorant and the very young or very old. While tech-savvy users learn to switch permissions off or mute Spotify sessions, those who do not have the luxury of spending time researching, or who are too young (or old) to care, will have their private lives sacrificed on an altar of avarice constructed by these rapacious Silicon Valley behemoths.

The result of a full-on move to frictionless sharing would have disastrous consequences for the web. It would act to dampen and even mute curiosity for those wanting to learn or talk about things that aren’t considered kosher. As this Forbes article shows, there are a number of questions that, even with the addition of a context adding “via” feature, you’d never want to look up online.

Even more damagingly, the pursuit of constant noise is even more likely to dampen taste or balanced opinion. Why bother trawling around the nether regions of the web bothering to research, say, the BNP’s political manifesto, as I did prior to one edition of Question Time, if your actions are completely withdrawn from an investigative context? Why bother sharing an interesting link when it’s lost underneath junk from Yahoo about “Hottest Olympians” or the “R-Patz break-up fallout”?

Frictionless sharing is one of the more dishonest commercial trends on the social web. Of course data is one of the primary tools these sites can use to make money, but there are ways to collect it that do not threaten such dire social consequences. LinkedIn, with its premium model allowing access to greater data, has recorded another profit this quarter.

Facebook, Spotify, the Guardian and Quora are hiding behind an absurdly disingenuous bit of marketing spin, lying about what users “want” for commercial gain. The next time you pop over to Quora to ask them a question, you might like to try: “Do you really believe that frictionless sharing is anything other than a translucent cover for data mining?” I wonder whether they’ll be keen to share the answer to that.