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.┬áThis 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.