Commentary

To Share Or Auto-Share?

We share.

As humans, it is part of what defines us and what has shaped the development of our societies and ourselves as fundamentally social animals. We share food, shelter and warmth.  We share knowledge and secrets; stories and news.  We share ideas and experiences.  We share sadness and loss, joy and elation.

In fact, when you think about it, there’s not much that isn’t influenced by our proclivity for sharing with our fellow beings.  Even the nature and extent of our communication has been influenced by our desire and need to share.

Of course, the ways in which we share have evolved considerably from the days of face-to-face exchanges. Through a series of advances in communications technology and basic literacy, we have become better able to communicate more widely, more quickly and in different forms.  First it was the written word, then print, then audio and radio technologies, then TV and various video formats until the current iteration of the Web and its many offerings.

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However, until recent months, none of these represented any fundamental differences in what sharing actually was -- they simply facilitated more of the deeply rooted and highly social behavior common to all of us.

But if, like me, you’re a user of Facebook, you will be familiar with those little announcements at the top on the right of your Newsfeed that tell you that Gary has been reading about X in Y via a Social Reader App and that Michele has been listening to A on Spotify.

While this is -- at first glance -- seemingly a kind of sharing most of us enjoy on Facebook every day, it is nothing of the kind.  And in this respect, it is either, depending on your perspective, the first real innovation in sharing in a very long time or simply not sharing at all.

I tend towards the latter view for the following reasons:

  • To share requires a conscious decision on the part of the sharer
  • We decide what and when to share
  • We decide how to share (the medium)
  • We decide who we share with -- ranging from one person to everyone – each time we choose to share  

Facebook is exceptionally good at facilitating the kind of conscious sharing that requires the simple decisions listed above.  Many of us, myself included, share content via Facebook every day. This is what has prompted the impetus for the development of the social reader apps.

However, harvesting data about what I read or listen to and distributing it across my network is not sharing and does not involve me at all. It is something altogether different and somewhat reminiscent of Facebook’s late and-not-remotely-lamented Beacon adventure, which sought to do pretty similar things with data relating to one’s purchases.

True sharing of the type we are familiar with on Facebook represents something of an endorsement.  It says: “Look at this – I think you’ll find it interesting / informative / funny / useful etc.”  And people become known for sharing content of a certain type and quality which ultimately reflects on how we view them.  A good example is George Takei who has emerged as something of a Facebook phenomenon on the basis of the humorous content he shares (check out his Wall photos).

But these endorsements are completely absent from the kind of “auto-sharing” that is resulting from the latest attempts to monetize user behavior on Facebook.  The simple act of reading something does not equate to a conclusion that it is worthy of sharing with others, nor does it even mean that I finished the article.  I may have decided it was uninformative or otherwise not worth my time and closed out the page.  But even if I like a story, this form of automation dumbs down the concept of sharing to an extent where it is almost valueless to either the sharer or “sharee."

Which raises an interesting question: How much more valuable is it to a publication or brand to have a piece of content consciously shared by a consumer versus “auto-shared” by an algorithm?

That’s a question that will require plenty of research to empirically answer, but it’s likely to become increasingly important as the number of these Apps increases.  Thus far, we’ve seen some outstanding research on sharing and word of ,outh (of which this behavior is a category) by Joel Rubinson and the Keller Fay Group among others, but we’re going to need more to crack this particular nut so we understand the value of the proposition and what it can achieve.

 

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