Katharine Graham must be spinning in her grave as her once-illustrious Washington Post pushes the boundaries of seediness with its Social Reader application on Facebook.
Graham, the one-time housewife who took over the Post in 1963 after her husband's suicide, became one of the great newspaper publishers, especially during the Watergate period by standing behind her young investigative reporters Woodward and Bernstein.
Her ideals -- and those espoused by the Post -- were to root out and expose corruption for the greater good of the public. Unquestionably, the Washington Post was pivotal in the resignation of U.S. president Richard "Tricky Dick" Nixon almost 40 years ago.
But today, a decade after her passing, the Washington Post's popular Social Reader app is one of the seediest apparatuses for infringing of people's online privacy -- and spamming their friends. There are other so-called "frictionless sharing" tools on Facebook (where things you read/listen to are automatically posted to your profile), but the Post's Social Reader is one of the most popular with upwards of 10 million users signing up for it. It is worth highlighting it because of the history of that newspaper.
Frictionless sharing tools allow users to pump out to their Facebook friends' things they are reading or other media they are consuming, like videos and movies. The poster child for frictionless sharing has been Zygna with their FarmVille and other games. How many of us have seen a post on our Facebook wall about someone "looking for a home for an abandoned goat."
Mostly -- we don't care. Sharing, on the surface, sounds like a good idea and encouraging sharing through easy applications sounds like an even better idea. But hold on. It's worth looking deeper. The problem is the automatic nature of this sharing. It is one thing to tell a friend you read or saw something cool, but it is quite another thing to open up your personal diary detailing what you did and what you thought today to all your Facebook friends. And that is effectively what these frictionless sharing tools do.
It is the decision to share that makes things meaningful. Something goes viral like the campaign to identify and track down Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony because friends actively share the information, deeming it important and worthy.
Without this decision to share it is spam, and that is what the Post's Social Reader can become. As Macbeth said, "it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Or, even more sinister, sending out digital footsteps automatically to all your friends can signify too much -- possibly creating incorrect assumptions about you.
Imagine for a moment that I click on a story about prostate cancer by mistake and all my friends are told I am reading this article. Do they assume I have prostate cancer? What if I clicked on it because a friend emailed me the link because he was quoted in the article? Like the old saying says: when you assume you can make an "ASS out of U and ME."
Even if you are rightfully reading these articles, do you really want all your friends to know? What if you're reading about financial advice or sexual advice?I know what you're thinking: "Well, I don't need to sign up for Social Reader or any other frictionless sharing tool. Problem solved."
That may be so. But how many people have signed up already without thinking through all the implications and ramifications and simply accepted the default as we usually do? What about tomorrow? Will we be signing up for these applications without even being aware that our media consumption patterns are going out to all our friends because we didn't read some lengthy online consent form?
When you visit the website to sign up for the WP Social Reader, none of these issues are mentioned. It talks about a new way to read the news from the Washington Post and other news organizations around the world. Blissfully it states: "WP Social Reader makes it simple for friends to connect over news like never before."
It is not my intention to imply all this bad stuff is due to the Washington Post and its Social Reader. But think about it: If a company with a long history of purporting to stand on the side of angels when it comes to the public interest can build applications like this, what about other companies less steeped in protecting our collective rights?