Is Facebook Stifling the Free Flow of Information?

Struggling to get to sleep last night, I caught this whilst listening to episode 124 of This Week in Google from a few weeks ago (45 mins or so in to the original; I’ve excerpted the relevant bit below):

The first thing that grabbed my attention was that Importing a blog or RSS feed to your personal Facebook account is no longer available. Facebook’s recommendation is to “Use Facebook Notes to customize your blog posts in a rich format that’s compatible for readers on Facebook, [or] [l]ink directly to your blog posts from your status”.

Pretty much the only interaction I have with Facebook is (or rather, was) to automatically syndicate my blog posts via an RSS through my Facebook Notes application. This didn’t generate many views, clickthrus or trackbacks, but it did generate some, and now, it seems, I’m no longer posting blog post links to my Facebook friends. So much for frictionless sharing, huh? I’ve been frictionless sharing content *I* wanted to share through Facebook in frictionless way for years, and now it seems I don’t. And more that, I can’t, easily (at least, not in the same way).

Long time readers will know I’ve been a fan of RSS for years (hands up who remembers the We Ignore RSS at OUr Peril rant?!;-) for a few very simple reasons: firstly, it generally works; secondly, it’s widely adopted; thirdly, it’s a type of wiring that no-one really controls, except through various standardisation processes. So it’s pernicious moves like this one from Facebook that make me think that Facebook may have made a strategic error here, because it represents a separating of the ways from those of us who were happy to use to Facebook as a terminal in our our personal publishing networks via things like RSS but aren’t willing to spend time “doing Facebook”.

Although I’m a fan of RSS/Atom feeds, I fully appreciate the at the orange radar signal icon is meaningless to most people, and that most people don’t know what to do with it. But I also know that folk are happily subscribing to all sorts of feed based streams in a painless way via services like Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, the TWIG piece above raised the issue of dropped support for RSS imports in the context of a new Facebook button for websites that allows folk visiting the site to one-click subscribe to that site’s Facebook page from the website (err, I think?!).

So what I’m pondering is this: why doesn’t Facebook set itself up as an RSS reader, offering a Feedburner like service to feed publishers and making it one click easy for folk to subscribe to those feed proxies in the Facebook context? Which is to say: I’d be reluctant to post a “Subscribe to my Facebook page” button on the blog (mainly because I don’t post any content to Facebook), but I might be willing to put a ‘subscribe to this site in Facebook’ site? (So how might that work? First, I guess I’d have to set up a page for this site in Facebook; then I’d feed it from this site’s feed; then I’d put the ‘subscribe to this site on Facebook’ link on this site. At which point, of course, I’d have lost control of the terminal subscription point for the feed to Facebook, at least for those subscribers. (This differs slightly from my current setup where the WordPress feed goes to through feedburner, then gets published via a URL I control. So the subscription point is under my control and I can control the wiring upstream of that.) Of course, Facebook may offer this route already, and I’m just not aware of it (not least because I don’t tend to keep up with Facebook’s machinations much at all…)

For a related take on other freedom eroding steps currently being taken by consumer tech companies towards their users, see Dave Winer’s The Un-Internet.

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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