Why Only Some Facebook Developers Will Mimic Spotify’s “Private Listening” Mode

Spotify is rolling out a desktop version of its software that includes a “Private Listening” menu option to allow users to play songs without sharing news of their activity to Facebook. Announced in a tweet by Spotify CEO Daniel Ek and reported by Business Insider, the setting lets users toggle sharing off, listen to songs, and toggle it back on later.

The change comes following privacy complaints, but Private Listening could also be designed to keep users from disabling Facebook sharing permanently or being too afraid to grant the app persistent publishing permissions in the first place.

Now the question is whether other frictionless sharing apps will add a similar private browsing option. Those looking to gain trust and subscribers might implement it while those only focused on user growth might not provide such an option. The other question is whether Facebook gets to retain that data even if it’s not published to Timeline or their friends.

Facebook launched frictionless sharing at f8 last week, allowing apps to ask users for permission to publish all their in-app activity to the social network. Activity stories usually appear in the Ticker, though popular stories can end up in the news feed or profile Timeline.

The social network has since come under some scrutiny for frictionless sharing, with The Hill reporting that the ACLU and Electronic Privacy Information Center have sent a complain letter about it and other changes from f8 to the Federal Trade Commission. Getting users to share their media consumption is in the interest of Facebook’s bottom line, as advertisers will be able to target ads to users based on their activity.

Toggling Off Sharing Indefinitely Could Reduce Virality

While frictionless sharing helps users avoid having to constantly fill out sharing prompts, it also means users only have two options for sharing — always or never. On top of privacy concerns, automatic sharing is the antithesis of curation. Instead of telling friends only about favorite songs or news articles, everything one hears or reads is shared. That’s even if a user was only exploring content and didn’t actually enjoy it.

With Private Listening, Spotify is introducing a “sometimes share” option. If users know they’re about to listen to something embarrassing, controversial, or that they don’t want to endorse, they can toggle on Private Listening first. Ek even describes the option as a way to “temporarily hide your guilty pleasures”.

But will users ever turn sharing back on? The incentive to protect one’s reputation will push users to enter Private Listening mode, but the desire to help friends discover new music might not be powerful enough for them to exit it. A toggle switch hidden in the File menu that indefinitely stops sharing could significantly reduce the Spotify’s virality, which has helped it gain over 1.5 million new Facebook-connected users since f8.

A Private Listening mode is a smart addition to Spotify, but a one-time opt out of sharing could help it protect privacy and maintain virality better than a toggle switch. For example, users could click a button that would turn off sharing of listens to the next song, album, or playlist, but then turn sharing back on. This way the desire to listen to a guilty pleasure or explore new content won’t thwart future sharing of more socially acceptable songs.

Private Browsing Is for Services Built on Trust

Developers of other Open Graph-enabled apps will have to decide whether they want to add a similar private browsing option. Bigger companies with an image to maintain such as media companies like the Washington Post might add an incognito mode to their social app to avoid criticism.

Subscription-based apps and services might also see the option as a way to build trust with users and convert them into customers. The New York Times has chosen not to use Frictionless Sharing to protect the privacy of its readers, but a temporary sharing opt out could work better. More media companies are going to have to make decisions here: Facebook is rolling out a new Recommendations Bar that has an opt-in-once feature, that also starts pushing activity straight to the Ticker without asking permission.

A private browsing option could protect Spotify and other apps from a chilling effect, as Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman explains. Without it, users may self-censor their activity rather than discovering new content because their activity must be shared.

Smaller, scrappier developers that require lots of users to fuel their virtual goods or ads-based business models may be less likely to offer a private browsing option. As apps don’t have to state whether they have an incognito mode during the permissions step, these developers will have little incentive to provide the option after they already secured an install.

Depending on how frictionless sharing impacts the user experience, Facebook may need to consider a solution to the need for private activity on its side. Making developers offer an incognito mode or a private use option would be difficult since Facebook doesn’t require apps to be approved before joining the platform. Plus it isn’t really in Facebook’s interest anyway if the company wants to collect as much data as possible on users without hurting the experience.

Spotify’s “Private Listening” mode could become a best practice for Open Graph apps with something to lose. For now, developers will be closely watching Spotify’s growth to see the impact of the sharing opt-out before choosing what to do for themselves.