Facebook’s frictionless sharing mistake

It has been a year since Facebook opened the gates for developers to create Open Graph applications with custom verbs and a new way for users to share their app activity through Timeline, Ticker and News Feed.

Since then, thousands of apps have integrated Open Graph and many have experienced significant growth in users and engagement. But hundreds of thousands of other apps don’t incorporate Open Graph, either because developers don’t know what is possible with it or because they doubt its value. Open Graph is core to what Facebook is trying to accomplish with News Feed, Timeline, search and ads, but it is not growing as quickly or being perceived as valuable as it could have been if Facebook hadn’t made a critical misstep: using the word “frictionless.”

At f8 in September 2011, CEO Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly referred to “frictionless experiences” as one of the key components of Open Graph apps. He also talked about the potential for “real-time serendipity” and “finding patterns,” but most people honed in on “frictionless,” and even today auto-sharing is what most people associate with Open Graph. The term has led users, developers, marketers and the media to fundamentally misunderstand what Open Graph apps are and why they should be built and used.

What is Open Graph really?

Open Graph is the way that Facebook organizes the information and connections on its platform. When the social network began, users could only connect with other users. With the introduction of the Open Graph protocol in 2010, users became able to connect with objects on Facebook and around the web by clicking Like. By adding a bit of code to their sites, publishers could turn any webpage into a Facebook object.

In 2011, Facebook expanded Open Graph to allow users to connect to objects with new verbs besides Like. These include read, watch, listen and play. Similar to how developers can create objects, they can now create actions. An Open Graph app is any Facebook canvas app, mobile app or website that has integrated “actions” as a means for users to share their activity back on Facebook.

Although Open Graph apps can publish stories automatically instead of having to continually prompt users to post things to their Timeline, frictionless sharing isn’t the most important aspect of Open Graph. Instagram, Foursquare, Nike, TripAdvisor and Ticketmaster, for example, all require users to take explicit actions before sharing activity back to Facebook, but they use Open Graph rather than the traditional share button because it allows stories from their apps to be properly structured and aggregated in the feed and on Timeline.

It’s this structure that’s most meaningful about Open Graph. Instead of users sharing links and liking things, they can connect to objects through more accurate verbs. This makes for more compelling individual stories as well as interesting aggregations. Because of Open Graph, Facebook can show that five of a user’s friends listened to the same artist or watched the same music video. This activity can be turned into Sponsored Story ad units or used as highly specific targeting criteria. And it’s this type of data that will be included in Graph Search and used to improve News Feed relevancy and power recommendations.

Another unique feature is the monthly and yearly summaries that developers can customize to tell stories about users over time. Users can see which artist they listened to the most in a given month, how many miles they ran over the course of a year, how many books they’ve read or what their highest score was in a game. This aspect of Open Graph would probably be the most interesting to users, but it hasn’t been emphasized by Facebook or developers over the past year.

What went wrong?

Some developers seized the opportunity to auto-publish on behalf of users and quickly went viral. Video apps Socialcam and Viddy rose to the top of the app charts as they filled the feed with clips users watched, but often didn’t mean to share. It’s the same story with social reading applications from Yahoo, The Washington Post and others. Sensational headlines got users to click and share things they were embarrassed by later. Part of the problem was the quality of content from these partners, but another issue was the lack of user education about how Timeline apps worked.

At f8, Zuckerberg revealed a redesigned permissions flow that included screenshots of how an app would post to a user’s Timeline. The design was meant to prevent these sorts of bad surprises, but it never rolled out. Instead, users got a more basic permissions dialog that didn’t appear much different than non-Open Graph apps.

Facebook later tried to make some changes to encourage developers to give users more control over how they shared their activity, and it reduced the visibility of news and video apps. But the damage was done. Many users are now wary of adding any new apps and some developers are hesitant to employ Open Graph because they don’t want to be “spammy.”

How to make it right

The reality is Open Graph apps don’t have to auto-share everything a user does. Developers can offer buttons for users to take explicit actions like “favoriting,” “rating” or marking that they “want” something. They can offer easy ways to toggle between sharing and private mode. Most importantly, developers should think carefully about the type of activity that users want to share and when.

For example, Foodily shares all the recipes users “find,” which is anything they click on. Instead, the app should probably only share when users click “fave it,” “add to list” or “I made it.” Soundcloud shares all the sounds a user listens to, but it does so immediately after a user clicks play rather than after a significant portion of a song or recording has elapsed. These are the types of decisions that have a big impact on how users feel about an app and about Facebook. If Zuckerberg hadn’t emphasized “frictionless experiences,” we might not have seen developers pushing the limits this way.

It seems Facebook initially used the word “frictionless” as a way to win over developers who were hit when the company clamped down on viral channels in the past. Facebook’s conference is, of course, a developer-oriented one, but the event was covered by mainstream outlets that jumped on the phrase as another example of the social network mishandling user information. Facebook hasn’t used the term since September 2011, but clearly it has stuck with others.

If the company wants Open Graph to truly take off, it will need to get journalists, developers and the public to forget about “frictionless” and perhaps start to think about “structured” sharing. Open Graph apps will have a better chance if Facebook can portray the value to users first. It could start by improving the design and discoverability of Timeline aggregations and bringing in more partners to create apps that help users track and share the things they truly want to.