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: