Blurred lines: The problem with Facebook’s social sharing model

Sorry, the picture has nothing to do with online social sharing, but it is entertaining, no?

OK, onto business ūüôā

I’m starting to come to the conclusion that with web/mobile products, it is best to have a ¬†simple social sharing model.

Here are the three possibilities that I know of:

  • Private: Email is a great example here. So is SMS, chat, and Facebook Messenger. With private conversations, shared data stays within the few people who are in on the conversation. This isn’t always the case. People can forward email to whoever they would like, but the general expectation is that of privacy.
  • Group privacy:¬†Here, privacy is expected within a group of people. This group may grow or shrink, but at any time, whoever is in a group can see everything shared to the group. This is how Facebook started. Each person and their group of friends was a group. Any posts to a person’s wall was visible by that group. Google circles work in a somewhat similar way where people create explicit groups that bound the limits of sharing.
  • Public:¬†With public sharing, there is no expectation of privacy. Twitter and Pinterest are great examples here. When I share, I expect the data to be in the public domain. There may be followers, but they don’t change my expectations for privacy.

Private and public are the simplest because they require no work. Group privacy is a bit more work because you need to create your groups.¬†But all three of these have something in common. They are pretty simple and clear. You don’t need to think very hard to understand who gets to see what.

As I mentioned above: Facebook’s sharing model started out simple. You only had friends and then a wall. Anyone you connected with as a friend could see your wall, and when you posted on someone’s wall, you were sharing something with them that because visible to their network of friends.

Over the course of years, the social sharing lines began to blur on Facebook.

It began when they started lifting posts off of the wall. They implemented wall-to-wall, which allows you to see conversations with people. Then they added in the feed of recent wall posts. There was nothing wrong with these changes. As far as I could tell, they were just helping me access data that I should have had access to. It was purely convenience.

Once the feed became standard, we gradually began to forget that the posts were limited to a person’s wall (and their social circle). Instead of viewing walls, we learned to interact with Facebook by processing a stream of information.

The Like button is when things began to get fuzzy for me. Once you liked something, it would be shared with your friends. It was as if you could take any of your friend’s data, and they share it with your own social circle. This begged the question: where does it stop? If a post is liked by everyone, do you have any expectation of privacy?

As Facebook grew, people began to like more and more. They also began to like artists, bands, movie stars, businesses, etc. Each of the posts they liked by one of my friends ended up on my news feed. On top of that, they began to serve ads into the news feed.

The news feed eventually became an uncontrollable firehose of information.

To throttle the news feed, Facebook got intelligent with each share and each like. Now, they look at all kinds of information for each post such as who shared it, whether you view their posts, whether you’ve liked their posts, etc. Now, for your convenience, they work to surface the posts that are most relevant to you. The byproduct here is that each of your shares and likes are actually only shown to a small fraction of you friends.

Do you see the problem here?

Now, when I share a post, only a fraction of my friends will see it. If a friend happens to like my share, their friends will see it. And if their friend’s friends like it, it propagates to other random people.

The lines for social sharing are completely blurred now. I can’t guarantee that my friends see my shares, and I can’t guarantee that random strangers won’t see my shares.

There is nothing simple or clear about Facebook anymore.

Perhaps there is more to it. To be honest, I haven’t gone through all of the constantly changing permissions. There may be settings that I don’t know about. But, I am pretty tech-saavy compared to the average American. So if I am confused, I’m fairly sure a lot of others are also.

As far as I can tell, Facebook is a special case on the web. Most products have one of the three social sharing models I listed above. Facebook started with one of them also, and over time, they switched things up on us. I wonder how things would have worked out if they started out by blurring the lines of social sharing. Has there ever been a (reasonably successful) startup that began with blurred lines? I can’t think of one.

How do you feel about it? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Personally, I’ve found myself gravitating towards the two ends of the spectrum. I either use apps like email/messaging where I expect privacy, or apps like Twitter when I expect zero privacy.


P.S. This is post number #56 in a 100 day blogging challenge. See you tomorrow!

Follow me on Twitter @alexshye.

Or, check out my current project Soulmix.

How do I find the best content?

Last week I wrote a post asking: what happens to old content on the web? This post continues from the thought process in that prior post.

When a person searches for information on the web, they only care about one question: how do I find the best content?

Because most of the best content is old content, the question often becomes: how do I find the best old content?

It gets more complicated. What does ‘best’ mean? What is best is often subjective. Suppose I am looking for relationship tips. You can’t really find a best set of tips. It may depend on many factors including my age, sex, cultural background, maturity, outlook on life, etc.

So the question really is, how do I find the best old content for myself?


As of now, search is probably the best option. Search relies on the fact that that over time, the structure of the web points towards the best pieces of content. That is, the best content has the most and best incoming links.

Search looks for the one best set of results across the web. As I said above, for many queries, there is no one best set of results. We are all different people, and the best set of results will differ between people.

This must be one of the big reasons Google cares about social. Personal information enables personalized search.

How good can personalized search get? Who knows. Even if you have a lot of information, as Google does with Gmail and G+, it must be tough to develop the algorithms to automatically determine the best results.

Recommendation engines.

Many startups are working on being the best recommendation engines. Usually, the challenge is the find the most relevant new content to present a user. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. For example, Pandora is great at finding old music that you might like.

I’m not well versed in the recommendation engines that exist, so it may mean that there is no clear winner for general content yet. But, it could be interesting for an intelligent recommendation engine to suggest the best old content.


It is possible to discover great old content via social feeds and social networks. Usually people don’t search for content on social networks though. Instead they stumble across good content. Most of the time, this content is new content. However, people occasionally post great out stuff. And if you were so inclined, you could ask your social network a question and hope for pointers to the best content.

A big problem with finding great content on social is that not all content is shareable. People share what they are proud about, but won’t share what they are more ashamed of. For example, if someone is searching for the best data on sexually-transmitted diseases, or birth control, they most likely wouldn’t broadcast this out on their social networks.


Aside from social, there are great link aggregators/communities that are largely anonymous. The largest that springs to mind is Reddit. Through anonymous aggregators, you could find great content on almost every niche of the web. On Reddit, simply search all of the subreddits and you’ll find communities on all kinds of obscure and dark niches on the Internet.

Similar to social feeds, you tend to stumble across information on these aggregators. And most of the links are new links. But, if there is a social discussion component, things may work out. If one was searching for embarrassing information, the best bet would be to find the right subreddit, and ask. Because you are anonymous, the people won’t know you, but if you ask the right way, you may find the best old content for your query.


Recently, curation sites such as Pinterest have popped up. On these sites, people manually curate their favorite content. A big plus is that if you can find a person with your tastes, you may find the best content on the web specific to your liking. The downside is that you need to find the right set of people to follow. This takes upfront investment.

Also, with curation sites, you aren’t really asking a question. Instead, you follow people and stumble across what they have curated for you. The one X-factor here is that large curation sites provide a great data set for search. For example, I’ve recently started using Pinterest search for finding recipes. It is surprisingly good. Of course, Pinterest search doesn’t cover all verticals, but it is interesting that can be useful as a search solution.

So, how do you find the best personalized old content?

There are many ways to start going about it, and there are a bunch of startups tackling parts of this. Still, as a consumer, I don’t have a great solution.

The opportunity seems large enough that solving a sliver of the problem would make a great startup. And solving more than just a sliver? That would be huge.

If you have some thoughts, I would love to hear them!


(Photo credit: Mark Probst/flickr)

P.S. This is post number #54 in a 100 day blogging challenge. See you tomorrow!

Follow me on Twitter @alexshye.

Or, check out my current project Soulmix, a site for sharing the best of the web.