Opting-in to a relationship

My series of posts related to Facebook and The Washington Post has become very interesting today. Luke provided some insightful feedback on WaPo’s use of an iframe served up to provide a socially-connected experience, and in doing so he raised an interesting point. He said:

The opt-in question is interesting. Since no information is being transferred, it’s not clear that there’s anything to opt into. I think the social plugins work the same as myriad other plugins and ad networks around the internet, with the exception that it’s more obvious to the user what’s happening. If users needed to click a button in order to see personalized stories, then the vast majority wouldn’t get to experience the value that’s created.

For a little clarity here, the opt-in refers to The Washington Post’s Network News feature. If you opt-in (which was the default) you get the Facebook iframe which shows you friend activity with respect to the Post. If you opt-out, your version of www.washingtonpost.com doesn’t include the iframe.

Two points. First, the Washington Post’s decision to opt all of their users in by default is an awful one because it presents an asymmetry of relationship to people not prepared to deal with it. I have a relationship with WaPo. I have a relationship with Facebook. By opting me in, I suddenly see that WaPo and Facebook have a relationship and it seems to center around me. (Now in reality, it isn’t all about me, but from a user’s perspective it is.) This sudden presentation of relationship, even though no data is being passed, lacks a context and explanation that would make it more palatable, if not more desirous, to users.

Second, even though there is no data transfer, there very clearly is something to opt-in to: an N-way relationship. Me, the Washington Post, Facebook, and my friends who also read the Washington Post are all connected in the social graph once I opt-in. I’ll give Luke that no data is transferred, but by forming edges between between up-until-then disconnected nodes something new is created (a relationship) and users ought to have control over that. This is very similar to my Privacy Mirror findings. I have a relationship with my friends. I do not have a relationship with my friends apps, and likely I don’t want one. And yet, it seems that the social graph doesn’t make that distinction: an edge is an edge is an edge.

By revealing asymmetrical relationship and by opting me into a ready-baked relationship without providing choice leads to uncomfortable users to say the least.

In the end, this thread is more an illustration of how the transition to a social web cannot, should not, and must not be made in one bound. Websites like The Washington Post have to better educate their users about the richness of experience connecting to the social graph can bring while respecting user choice.

7 thoughts on “Opting-in to a relationship”

  1. Maybe I’m missing something, but how is “no information … being transferred”? In order to display within the iFrame what my friends are liking on WaPo, wouldn’t the fact that I am on WaPo be data being sent to Facebook. In other words, Facebook finds out that I am reading WaPo, something I had no intention of sharing there (imagine if it was a more polarizing publication, like “Guns and Ammo” or “Huffington Post”).

  2. I’ll let Luke respond more formally. I was only thinking about data flow from FB to WaPo and not the other way around… which is clearly an issue. Everything is a node in the social graph…

  3. Nishant- everywhere you go on the internet, there are myriad ads and tracking services that follow you around and store your data. This is an industry that has grown very quickly recently and is frankly alarming in the amount of information they collect about you. When you visit the Washington Post homepage, you can also see beacons from sites like doubleclick.net (Google), marketwatch.com, specificclick.net, bizo.com, contextweb.com, fimserve.com, adsonar.com, atdmt.com, admeld.com, yieldmanager.com, quantserve.com, scorecardresearch.com, … shall I go on?

    The difference with the social plugins is that they offer a visible iframe that provides direct value to the user. We’ve received tons of positive feedback. When Facebook offers a social experience to users, it’s obvious that it’s happening. We never sell or transfer data to third parties without your knowledge. That’s a marked contrast with the rest of the industry.

    The Wall Street Journal released an investigation recently that backs this up: http://blogs.wsj.com/wtk/. According to their series, Facebook tracks less data about its users than any other site except Wikipedia. Personally, I would rather have experiences where I see what’s happening than all the behind-the-scenese stuff that is par for the course these days.

  4. I had a very strange (and creepy) experience while reading a blog on WaPo a few days ago. I kept seeing “[my husband’s name] liked this.” at the end of each blog post. (He had forgotten to log out of Facebook.)

    The strange thing is that my husband never reads WaPo and hadn’t read that blog, nor did I click on the “Like” button or use any of the social-media plug-ins. I asked my husband to look at his Facebook account to see if those “likes” were on his page, but they were not.

    I don’t know how that happened, but it was weird. Do you have any explanation of what might have happened?

  5. Julie – not sure what happened there. Definitely and odd situation with regards to your husband “liking” things in WaPo but not in FB. Sorry I cannot provide more insight.

  6. I imagine it was just some sort of technical glitch. It has definitely made my husband more careful about logging out of facebook.

  7. Julie- if you send Ian the info (link to your and your husband’s profile, plus the URL of the pages you see this), he can forward to me and I can investigate. I suspect that your husband clicked “Like” at some point on the articles in question.

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