The Washington Post was the first publication to experiment with a “frictionless” social reader app, which launched last year. If you use Facebook you’ve probably come across it: it manifests as a clustered list of stories that are almost completely unrelated except for the fact that they all come from the same publication.
If you decide to click on a link it doesn’t take you to the story. Instead, it shunts you over to a signup screen for Social Reader, which you have to accept if you want to make it through to the site. This forceful behavior is how the Post’s reader app gained tens of millions of users in a few short months; it’s also how, as Jeff Bercovici at Forbes pointed out this morning, the Washington Post seems to have worn its readers — or Facebook — out. They’re annoyed, and they’re quitting in droves (Update below):
These are some fairly devastating numbers! And, anecdotally, I suspect the decline in traffic to the WaPo site is even worse as viewers — not users — start voting the Social-Reader-using friends out of their Newsfeeds.
This is a disaster for WaPo, but they were always an odd fit for Facebook autosharing anyway. How’s everyone else doing? Not so well, apparently. This week’s loser list on AppData.com is full of social reader apps:
6. The Guardian’s drop-off has been just as severe:
7. DailyMotion, the video site with a social reading app, doesn’t look so bad…
8. …until you look at daily active users (DAU) instead of monthly (MAU)
It’s not clear if this is a pure shift in user opinion or the result of new feed management and site behavior on Facebook’s part, but this is a full-on collapse.
Social Readers always seemed a little too share-y, even for Facebook; they felt more like the kind of cold, descriptive, invisible and yet mandatory services we’re used to seeing from Google rather than genuinely new and useful tools for spreading information. And they feel, I don’t know, kind of broken right now? My brain already associates those little blocks of auto-fed stories with second-class content. I mean, I know my friends didn’t really mean to show to it to me. Why would I click? And god, why would I sign up for the thing that seems to have tricked its way into my timeline? It’s an app that broadcasts internet illiteracy for everyone to see.
So maybe publishers — and even Facebook’s product people — are having second thoughts about how they were rolled out. Sharing isn’t really sharing if you don’t mean to do it.
UPDATE: The WaPo’s “Engagement Producer” offers an explanation:
Social reader "collapse" is b/c of evolving FB modules. Before: "double-double," 4-5 stories down in a list, w/ friend icon - drove growth.â€” Ryan Y. Kellett (@rkellett) May 7, 2012
In other words, social readers are appearing less prominently in users’ timelines, in part due to the site’s new “Trending Articles” feature, which promotes (and effectively minimizes) social readers stories in one place. So it’s not entirely a matter of fatigue. That said, here’s quick (and representative) Twitter/Facebook survey:
So gratifying to see "social readers" go away. Terrible idea, badly executed. buzzfeed.com/jwherrman/faceâ€¦â€” Peter Kafka (@pkafka) May 7, 2012
So yeah, it’s not just the new Facebook modules, either.