Face, Meet Post

Reader ire draws changes to WaPo social media effort

On Wednesday afternoon, visitors to The Washington Post’s Web site were greeted with a new feature on the home page. Along with the news of the day was a window prominently displayed in the upper right corner showing a list of readers with public Facebook profiles who had recommended—or “liked,” in Facebook parlance—Post stories to their Facebook friends.

The new feature seemed straightforward enough: a social-media twist on the old “most emailed” list. But by Friday, the Post was facing an insurrection from users concerned that, among other glitches, the service had no easy opt out feature. Editors quickly held an online question and answer session, explaining the feature and pledging quick changes, which were to go into effect today.

For those of you who think of all social media as one big amalgamation called YouFace, here’s a quick explanation of the mechanics of the relevant part of the Facebook experience: Facebook lets its users comment on what their friends post, or simply click a thumbs-up button that says “I Like This.” If you decide to “like” something, your friends then see the item in their News Feeds; if they, in turn, decide to like it, their friends see it, too. (A News Feed is a personalized and continually refreshed list of each user’s friends’ activity, until now only viewable on Facebook.com). As individual Web sites attempt to capitalize on traffic, and thereby ad dollars, from social media sites like Facebook (and Digg and Delicious), little blue Facebook buttons are increasingly popping up at the end of stories and videos and various Web items to make it more convenient for readers to “like,” or recommend, those stories to their Facebook friends.

None of that is news. What is news is that Facebook News Feeds are now showing up on third-party Web sites that are not Facebook. And if you haven’t set up your privacy settings tightly enough, your actions on Facebook, as they pertain to those particular third-party sites, could be broadcast by said third-party sites. Right on the home page. On the upper right hand corner. With your grinning profile photo in all its glory.

This did not go over well with some readers.

An editor’s note from Post managing editor Raju Narisetti explaining the new feature and how to opt out was published the same time the application launched Thursday. The note quickly drew a stream of comments from users, many of whom were worried about violations of their privacy; in addition, Narisetti said, he received more than 200 emails expressing confusion and displeasure with the new feature. (At the same time, he noted in a phone interview Friday, the site had received four million visitors since the module was launched.

Narisetti told CJR that he takes every complaint seriously, but was quick to remind that the site had received four million visitors since the module was launched, and though he acknowledges it takes more effort to write an email than to click a button, pointed out that 336 clicked the “Like” button featured at the end of the note to share it with their friends, proving that some, indeed, were fans of the new feature. (Although it’s possible some of those clicks were meant to spread word, i.e. warn, of the new feature.)

Nevertheless, Narisetti had a bit of a problem on his hands. On Friday, he posted an announcement that the Post would respond to the criticism by providing a full opt-out feature and even giving users the option to block the window from popping up on the site altogether. Then Narisetti and Bret Taylor, a Facebook executive, held an online question and answer session with Post readers to explain the changes and how to navigate the new feature.

Most of the reader pushback came in the form of technical questions that had more to do with how Facebook privacy permissions work than anything else. Seeing strangers’ faces in their Washington Post hosted Facebook feed, many users panicked thinking their information was out there too. Such concerns were largely answered by Taylor, who repeatedly cleared up that the application only publishes “Likes” (not comments you’ve made on Post stories or that you have commented at all or what stories you have simply looked at) and only to your friends, who could see them on Facebook anyway. If you hadn’t limited your activity to only your friends’ eyes and instead allowed your profile to be “public,” then anyone—not just friends—could potentially see your Washington Post-related Likes on the Washington Post’s site; before they only would have only been visible on your Facebook page. If a user Likes something and their profile isn’t public, the WaPo facebook application doesn’t broadcast that approval but does add it to the tally of people who have “liked” something.

No big change.

But in a way it was.

The Post did an excellent job explaining the feature, disclosing that Don Graham, the Post’s Chairman, is on the board of Facebook, and being responsive to its readers concerns with the changes it pledged to roll out over the weekend. But it didn’t do a good job preparing readers for the change. And in doing so, it didn’t really acknowledge that it was a big change to begin with. In one explanation about how the feature works, the Post wrote:

“If you’re not logged into Network News or you don’t have enough friend activity, then we will display profile photos and content from people who have elected to share content publicly.”

But there is something disingenuous about the declaration that those whose information appears in the feed, had elected to participate in it. No one had “elected” to share his or her content publicly via The Washington Post, per se. This wasn’t like other Facebook applications, like silly quizzes to determine which celebrity you are most like or what animal you might have been in a past life, where you always have to explicitly allow access to your Facebook feed. If you’re not logged on already to Facebook when you visit the Post, then yes, you must log in, therein acknowledging that you’re okay with participating in the Facebook/third party experiment. But if you just happen to be logged onto Facebook at the same time you are on the Post site, no login is necessary, and users with public profiles are sharing by default. Either way, your Washington Postfeed was simply tied to whatever privacy settings you have on Facebook, which up until now, have only applied to items posted on Facebook—not third party sites.

Some people may very well not be bothered by this, but clearly many were. Granted, Internet users should make sure to know what their own privacy settings are. But this third party hosting of Facebook feeds is a feature that Facebook has just introduced; it’s brand new. Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would be showing up in more and more third-party sites to much fanfare at a Facebook developers’ conference just one day before the Post rolled out their version. So users are just learning to grapple with how it works. And even if they do know how their Facebook privacy settings work, which many don’t, they couldn’t know for sure how their settings applied to this new thing. By asking users to opt out by changing their privacy settings if they don’t like it, the assumption is that people want to be social by default. That’s still a pretty big assumption to make, despite New York Times trend stories to the contrary. The case is, right now, most people—at least apparently most people who read well-established legacy newspaper websites—don’t feel comfortable sharing private information online. They want to be asked to Opt In if they like an application– rather than be told to Opt Out if they don’t.

As Mashable’s Christina Warren advised:

Public no longer means “public on Facebook,” it means “public in the Facebook ecosystem.” Some companies, like Pandora, are going to go to great lengths to allow users to separate or opt out of linking their Pandora and Facebook accounts together, but users can’t expect all apps and sites to take that approach. My advice to you: Be aware of your privacy settings.

The other complaint readers had when they weren’t asking technical questions was: What, exactly, does this have to do with journalism?

One reader, who called herself samatha3, wrote:

Just read this in an AP article: “Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says the new tools will allow users to see personalized versions of other websites they visit. It’ll be based on the things they have shared on their Facebook profiles, such as their friends, bands they like or news stories they have liked.”

I don’t want personalized news! Part of the problem with some news sources now is pandering to a perspective. This Facebook idea has no place on a serious news site.

Another user, going by the name MissAnnThropy wrote, in part:

This is really a terrible idea. I like to think that the people at the WaPo get the fact that I want solid reporting, not a social experience. I have been proven wrong…

Narisetti said no editorial content creation had been sacrificed in developing the Facebook application, which was handled by the tech side of the paper. But, he pointed out, it is unfair for those who say they want to support serious journalism while visiting a free website to begrudge the Post’s promotion of its own content:

“The flip side is, we remain a free site and we have to be able to fund news generation, news creation, content creation activities, and the healthier we are as a company, on the business side, the more resources we have for a free site to be able to provide the content that we need to,” Narisetti says.

As the economic foundations of journalism has shifted, newspapers increasingly have make the argument that they are relevant and valued by others. And that’s all Narisetti says he is doing.

“I feel like part of journalism is to make sure that Washington Post content goes in front more people, ever more people,” he says. “If this allows me to do that, I feel like this is part of my job as managing editor.”

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.