Two months ago at Facebook's 2011 f8 developer conference, the company's co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg referred to Facebook's updated Open Graph apps as "rethinking the whole way the news industry works." Yesterday, The Financial Times and our sister site CNET posted two articles looking at the early results. Neither was particularly favorable, and each underlined a major issue.
News is not timeless like music
So what exactly is happening? Well, just like for the media industry (1.5 billion listening activities on Facebook in six weeks
), Facebook is having a big impact on the news industry in terms of traffic. Unfortunately, while it's good to dig up the classics for music, the same results are not so great when it comes to news.
Various publications have created Open Graph apps, including The Independent, The Guardian, Yahoo News, The Huffington Post, and The Washington Post. They're all seeing the effects of "seamless sharing": after a Facebook user installs their Facebook app, a link to every story they read on the site or app appears in the News Feed and/or Ticker.
Unfortunately, many of the "most shared" and "most viewed" stories are older ones with sensational headlines that are no longer relevant. The date seems to be lost as the story goes viral because users are more likely to share, like, and/or recommend a story if their friends read it and it appears in their News Feeds.
"With open graph, the potential for discovery is always there, meaning that every piece of content has the chance to be renewed and recirculated," a Facebook spokesperson sad in a statement. "The resulting traffic only aids in driving awareness of articles of the moment, as well as from the archive."
This is a general problem for online publications that is becoming more evident with Facebook's participation. Once something is posted on the Internet, it's there forever. This is unlike traditional print form factors where you can't as easily (re)discover an older piece of content.
So what can Facebook do to solve this issue for news sites that care? A simple solution is to make the date of articles more prominent on the social network. Alternatively though, the company can work with publications on making the date part of the algorithm used to promote read stories. There will, of course, be news websites who don't care and simply want the traffic. Others will, however, want to focus on making sure their readers are spreading news that is still relevant.
News apps are mandatory for reading
The other major problem is the "recently read" list that sometimes appears at the top of your News Feed to show you what your friends have been reading. Sometimes you see a great headline leading to a story and you really want to read it. Unfortunately, when you click it, you're asked to install the publication's Facebook app. Actually, no, that's incorrect. You're not asked to install the app; you're told you have to in order to read the story.
Both Facebook and the publication want to get you automatically sharing every story you read. There are three parties to blame here: your friends who installed the app, the publication for developing the app, and Facebook for making it mandatory to install the app.
It's fun to blame your Facebook friends because let's face it, some of them are always doing something stupid on the social network. It's also easy to blame the publications since only a handful of them are doing it, and there are always alternatives that you can go to instead.
The majority of the blame should, however, lie with Facebook. Now let me be clear: I have no issue with Facebook trying to get users to share more content. Sharing more is how the company expects to grow and as long as it gives its users choice, I have no problem with a business try to make more money. If it really bothered me that much, I would simply stop using the service. Thankfully, I don't have to use these news apps to use Facebook. Clearly, some of my friends find them great, but I do not.
So what can Facebook do to solve this issue for people like me? The company can add an option to click through to the article without installing the app. Instead of just two buttons (Add to Facebook and Cancel), I'd like to see a third option to "skip and read article anyway." In fact, I would be perfectly okay if this third option was "go to article and post on my Wall that I read it." I could always remove it the article from my Wall, and while this would be still be frustrating, at least I could read it without using the app.
Will Facebook listen?
My short answer to my own short question is "kinda." I think this is a classic example of Facebook deciding what is best for us. The social network will likely tweak some things here and there, but I'm not sure we will see any of the solutions I listed above. Facebook's decision will probably come down to the quantitative data it is no doubt collecting on how the Open Graph is affecting the news industry and the social network.
Unless something changes, I will likely continue ignoring Facebook Open Graph news apps. I started selectively and manually sharing links to interesting articles and pictures on Facebook a few years ago, and I plan to keep doing so without any automatic apps for as long as I can.