Facebook, the age of accidental oversharing
Debate rages over need for a world where we share everything
Hey Silicon Valley, take a giant step back. Yep, one more step back. Now look around. That door over there? Envision a big sign on it saying: "Do Not Trespass."
Behind that door, you'll find a plethora of embarrassing articles I read on Yahoo. You'll also spot the heap of Les Miserables tracks from Spotify that I listened to during a bad month, and the one-too-many episodes of Glee I watched during a particularly unproductive weekend.
Those are all items I accidentally shared on Facebook before changing my privacy settings.
In the tech world, we hear the same buzzwords constantly: disruptive, revolutionary, magical, social/local/mobile. And then there's "frictionless sharing."
It's the phrase Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recited like a mantra during the company's F8 event in September, where developers let loose Facebook's first wave of "social apps." Imagine a world where we share everything, Zuckerberg told the audience -- what we eat, what we read, how far we run, and the music we listen to.
When Facebook gave me the News Feed in 2006, I was adamantly against it, joining online protest groups and complaining loudly ... until, like most people, I got used to the change. I even, dare I say, grew to enjoy it.
This time, nine months and dozens of accidental overshares later, I'm still unconvinced.
Silicon Valley's startup scene can turn into an echo chamber. As the money pours in, there's more noise and less focus on what actual users want. So the question keeps coming up: how much do we really want to share? Where do we draw the line?
Entrepreneur Billy Chasen explored the issue in a recent blog post titled "Facebook's Cognitive Dissonance with Sharing." He's uneasy about how many of his friends' everyday actions are showing up in his Facebook feed.
"It's littered with things people have listened to, watched, read, and bought on other websites," Chasen wrote.
Take video sharing app Socialcam, a company created by former Justin.tv founder Michael Seibel. The startup has attracted millions of users, propelling its app to the top of the Android and iTunes popularity charts.
It got there largely because Socialcam's default Facebook setting broadcasts everything you watch. A recent post on my Facebook page informed me that a friend had just watched a series of semi-nude dance party videos -- a tidbit I'm pretty sure he didn't mean to transmit.
Chasen had the same experience.
"Many of my friends don't realize these are showing up," Chasen wrote. "When I tell them they may not want, 'Young girls dancing on the beach (via socialcam),' showing up, they are thankful and ask me how to delete it and stop it from happening again."
Oliver Cameron, founder of a private social network called Everyme, says most of the responsibility lies with developers.
"The apps that are implementing this could do a better job," he says. "The average Facebook user has no clue what they're sharing."
During the launch last week of Napster co-founders Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning's latest venture, Airtime, I sat in the audience and heard over and over how "frictionless" the experience was. Sign in through Facebook and boom, you're online and sharing -- no need to download anything.
"It is simply the best and fastest way for you to chat with your existing network of friends," Parker told the audience. "If you're a Facebook user, you're an Airtime user."
It's an interesting concept, one I was skeptical about, so I jumped on Airtime the night it launched. (So did my CNN.com colleague John Sutter, who suspects Airtime is doomed. "No one seems to know why people would use it," he wrote.)
Immediately, I was video chatting with the only people who seemed to be testing out the service: bloggers, venture capitalists, and startup folks.
Overall, the experience was decent -- I'd suggest Airtime to any startup looking to randomly meet others in the tech industry. My only complaint came a day later, when a friend asked me about a post on my Facebook wall that said I had become friends with someone on Airtime.
I had no idea it was posted. Most of my friends didn't know what Airtime was, and to my non-tech friends, the message was odd.
That's the problem with frictionless sharing. In the Web's increasingly loud world, all of us want to control our online identity. Oversharing erodes those efforts.
A friend of mine said it best as we rehashed Airtime's launch and debated whether we'd use the service. I said I'd keep testing it out, but would rather it not blast updates to my wall.
He said he couldn't see himself using a Facebook video-chatting app very often.
"A lot of the people highly involved in social really misjudge how much people don't want to share everything," he said.
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