UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Should Higher Education Welcome Frictionless Sharing?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 16 Jan 2012

Frictionless Sharing and The Guardian Facebook App

I recently described developments which suggest the potential for Facebook and Twitter as Infrastructure for Dissemination of Research Papers (and More). The post pointed out that links Facebook and Twitter seem to becoming more embedded within services, such as bibliographic services, in order to make it easier for researchers to share papers of interest across their professional network. Recently Martin Belam (@currybet) tweeted “Frictionless sharing – exploring the changes to Facebook” – a piece I’ve written for FUMSI magazine and his article explored other developments we are seeing which can make sharing of resources even easier than clicking on a Like or Tweet button. Martin is the Lead User Experience & Information Architect for the Guardian Web site and blogs about UX/IA, digital media & journalism on He is also a contributing editor for the FUMSI online magazine. His opening paragraph, in an article aimed at information professionals, suggests that he feels that Facebook can bring benefits to this sector:

As 2012 begins, Facebook remains one of the amazing growth stories of the internet. Some argue that an eventual flotation will mark the high tide of a second internet bubble, whilst others are awe of the fact that a website that started in a college dorm has grown to have nearly one billion members

The main focus of his article are the recent technical developments which make sharing of resources transparent:

One of the biggest changes for content providers is “frictionless sharing”. In the past, users had to actively share content by pressing a “Like” button on a website, or “Like”-ing a Facebook page, or including a URL in their status update. Facebook is changing this. They have opened up what they call their “Open Graph”, which allows apps and publishers to automatically insert “actions” into a user’s Facebook timeline. And, in plain English, that means that for some sites or apps, simply listening to a song or reading an article is enough to see it posted to your Facebook activity stream without you lifting so much as a mouse-finger.

At the time of writing only a handful of applications have been launched which take advantage of the feature, including those by Yahoo!, Spotify, the Guardian, Independent and the Washington Post’s “Social Reader” app. That is sure to change in 2012, but the roll-out of further apps seems tied into Facebook launching “Timeline” – a new way for users to view their profile pages.

As an example of what is meant by frictionless sharing a screenshot of my Facebook news updates showing the Guardian articles I read using the Guardian’s Facebook app is shown. As can be seen the articles I read included ones on “Sherlock: BBC will no remove nude scenes” and “A Thatcher state funeral would be bound to lead to protests“. Note that the links I have provided go directly to the Guardian Web site so you can follow the links in the knowledge that your interest in nudity and right wing politicians will not be disclosed to your liberal colleagues :-)

This provides an interesting example of the risks of sharing the articles you read, without having to manually select an article of interest and consciously share it, whether on Twitter, Facebook, Delicious or whatever, across your network. And this is a reason why some people, including people in my network whose opinions I respect, have concerns over this development. On the other hand, the Guardian Facebook app does seem to be popular. It seems I was not alone in reading the article on how “Footage of nude dominatrix shown before 9pm watershed have prompted more than 100 complaints” and the hypocrisy of the Daily Mail in expressing their outrage whilst including the ‘shocking’ images in their web site.

But the 8,995 people who viewed the article shortly after it had been published was beaten by the 11,686 people who read the article on how Pale octopus, hairy-chested yeti crab and other new species found (warning the first link is to the Guardian Facebook app).

So how popular is the Guardian Facebook app? A post which suggested that We Can’t Ignore Facebook described how the Guardian Facebook app was launched on 22 September 2011. Statistics for a number of the Guardian sections collated on 14 January 2012, just over three months after the app’s launch, are given below.

Section Like this Talking about this
Main 242,326 13,593
Society 13,451      862
Technology 16,662   1,053
Data 3,486      100
Football 14,820      888
Sport 905       68
Culture 38,261   3,699

These figures seem to suggest the popularity of the Guardian Facebook app although, as ever, care must be taken in interpretting figures. In particular I do not know if these figures may include use of a pre-frictionless sharing app. In addition this single set of figures doesn’t provide any comparisons with views of the Guardian Web site or shown trends.

But returning to the recent FUMSI article Martin Belam provided some suggestions aimed at information professionals

Think again about Facebook metadata
Facebook’s Open Graph is a metadata standard for marking up your web content. It sits quietly in the HEAD of your HTML, and replicates many fields that you might be familiar with from metadata standards like Dublin Core. The fact that anyone can access it via a web request allows Facebook to say the standard is “open”, although they tightly control the spec themselves. To take advantage of the new frictionless sharing, even if you don’t build an app yourself, making that metadata available is going to be a requirement to have your content display properly within the many social reading experiences that are sure to be developed.

Think again about audit trails
“Frictionless sharing” changes the nature of our digital audit trails on Facebook. From a competitive intelligence point of view, it is great news, because potentially seeing what someone from a particular company is reading about and watching can give you clues as to where their work may be heading. It also means being careful not to leave audit trails yourself if you want the research you are doing to be kept “under the radar”.


The ‘Frictionless Sharing’ Term

Martin Belam’s article generated some interesting Twitter debate on the day it was published. I spotted the initial tweet from @currybet and shortly afterwards read @ppetej’s comment that:

Much as I loathe the whole ghastly “frictionless sharing” thing, some useful thoughts/pointers by

and @mweller’s response:

@ppetej frictionless sharing is interesting I think for academics – it certainly shaped the way I wrote my last book

I curated the discussion on Storify since I felt it raised several interesting issues, in particular in taking the discussion about frictionless sharing beyond one particular instance (Facebook, which tends to focus concerns on other aspects of Facebook’s activities) into the more general issues of frictionless sharing in an educational context. Indeed, as Pete Johnston pointed out, a post on Martin Weller’s The Ed Techie blog published back in 2008 described The cost of sharing in which Martin made the point that “The ‘cost’ of sharing has collapsed, but institutions don’t know this“. Martin went on to point out that:

Clay Shirky argues that the cost of organisation has disappeared, and I believe this is because sharing is easy, frictionless. If I come across something I share it via Google shared items, Twitter, my blog, etc. If I want to share I stick it up on Slideshare, my blog, YouTube. There is a small cost in terms of effort to me to do the sharing, and zero cost in anyone wanting to know what I share. Sharing is just an RSS feed away.

Hmm, so back in November 2008 Martin Weller stated that “sharing is easy, frictionless“. Can anyone find an early reference to use of this term in this context? In a post on Sharing Learning Resources: shifting perspectives on process and product Amber Thomas used the term to describe activities taking place in the 1990s: “For example, the late 90s to early 2000s emphasised the benefits of collaborative resource development. Later on, some advocates of Open Educational Resources (OER) brought to the fore the concept of content as by-product, exhaust, frictionless sharing” but was not using the term at the time. I wonder if the Sharing article in Wikipedia should include a reference to ‘frictionless sharing’ and whether Martins’ blog post would be an appropriate reference for an early citing of the term in the context of sharing resources on social networking services?

Whenever the term first originated (and on Twitter Martin Weller suggested that “around the time of the dot com bubble ppl talked about the frictionless economy“) by December 2011 the ReadWriteWeb was predicting a Top Trends of 2011: Frictionless Sharing. This article illustrated frictionless sharing initially by Facebook are doing but also sharing music and news items.

But what of the potential for frictionless sharing in higher education?

Martin Weller feels that such approaches are already becoming embedded in some of his working practices, in particular: “frictionless sharing is interesting I think for academics – it certainly shaped the way I wrote my last book“. In My Predictions for 2012 I suggested that we will see an increase in the amount and types of ‘open practices’ including not only the well-established areas of open access and open educational resources, but also open approaches to being recorded and videoed. But such areas are still related to the creation of content. Frictionless sharing is interesting as it relates to openness in a more passive content: openness about what you may be reading (and as well as Faceboook, apps such as GoodReads allow one to share information on what you are reading).

Tony Hirst explored these ideas in a post published in October 2010 entitled in which he asked Could Librarians Be Influential Friends? And Who Owns Your Search Persona? when he asked “: if librarians become Facebook friends of their patrons, and start “Liking” high quality resources they find on the web, might they start influencing the results that are presented to their patrons on particular searches?“. Tony referred to this post last week when he revisited the potential role of librarians in supporting sharing of resources in a post in which he asked Invisible Library Support – Now You Can’t Afford Not to be Socials? His comment that:

The idea here was that you could start to make invisible frictionless recommendations by influencing the search engine results returned to your patrons (the results aren’t invisible because your profile picture may appear by the result showing that you recommend it. They’re frictionless in the sense that having made the original recommendation, you no longer have to do any work in trying to bring it to the attention of your patron – the search engines take care of that for you (okay, I know that’s a simplistic view;-). [Hmm.. how about referring to it as recommendation mode support?]

was particularly interesting in that Tony seems to have changed from using ‘invisible’ to ‘frictionless’ during the course of writing the post.

The Challenges

In some respects pragmatic advice regarding privacy issues and uncertainties as to how such data could subsequently be used would suggest that you should avoid the risks associated with frictionless sharing. Indeed, I made this point in a post in which I asked Is Smartr Getting Smarter or Am I Getting Dumber? following the Smartr app’s unannounced release of frictionless sharing for reading Twitter links read by members of one’s Smartr network.

But as the evidence of the Guardian app seems to suggest, people may be willing to share their interests in a passive fashion, and benefit from ways in which members of their networks reciprocate.

I guess the questions to be answered are:

  • What other types of frictionless sharing are there?
  • What benefits can frictionless sharing provide?
  • What are the risks in frictionless sharing?
  • Will the benefits outweigh the risks?

But before we can start to discuss these questions we perhaps need to define the terms. So what is ‘frictionless sharing‘? On this occasion Google currently seems to suggest that the term relates primarily to a recent Facebook developments, but I’m interested in the generic meaning of this term.  And perhaps we can use the Wikipedia entry for Frictionless sharing to agree on a definition.

12 Responses to “Should Higher Education Welcome Frictionless Sharing?”

  1. Tony Hirst said

    @Brian I put the line through invisible because ‘invisible’ was the phrase I had used in previous post, and I felt that the term folk would use now would probably be ‘frictionless’… So I was trying to use a stylistic device to suggest that change in labeling.
    Owen Stephens also posted some thoughts on friction in context of data sharing last year, in a comment to which I started trying to work out how the differing notions of static vs dynamic friction might apply:

  2. Tony Hirst said

    @Brian – also note that I am not using frictionless in the sense you are… I’m using it in sense of making recommendation from Librarian to patron without additional apparent effort from the Librarian (“dynamically frictionless” sharing, maybe?); that is, having liked the resource, the librarian’s effort is done. If the patron searches for something relevant, the Librarian’s recommendation then appears in the patron’s results, unbeknownst to the librarian who originally shared it. This compares with the frictionless mode you are describing, where by virtue of doing one thing (visiting a page), another action occurs (the sharing of the fact that the page has been visited).

  3. […] Should Higher Education Welcome Frictionless Sharing? « UK Web Focus […]

  4. @Tony Thanks for the comments.

    I did wonder if you were making a deliberate point when he struck out invisible and replaced it with ‘frictionless’. Your stylistic device succeeded in drawing my attention to a change in terminology.

    I also suspect that there will be several shades of frictionless activities. as @mweller suggested in his original post. That’s a reason why I’d like to see an agreed definition.

  5. PeteJ said


    I think it’s important to note that, in my Twitter exchange with Martin Weller, certainly in that initial exchange you highlight, he and I were using the term “frictionless sharing” in slightly different ways, and we recognised this at the end of our exchange:!/ppetej/status/154874637568843776!/ppetej/status/154874712885960704!/ppetej/status/154875586299445250

    I was referring to the recent approach exemplified by Facebook (but not, I don’t think, exclusive to Facebook), which was the primary focus of Martin Belam’s piece. Here data about your activity (reading a page, playing a track, etc) is posted/aggregated without explicit action on the reader’s/player’s part – at least without action at the level of the individual “share”. The reader/player action is in the form of some initial “opt-in”, the consequences of which, at least in some cases, may not be entirely clear to the individual at the time.

    On the other hand, Martin (Weller – too many Martins in this story!), in his 2008 post which you point to, was referring to “the bottom-up social sharing that happens every day in the blogosphere, via Twitter, YouTube, Slideshare, etc”, where the effort required may be low (and tools like the Fb Like button and Tumblr have perhaps lowered it further), but there nevertheless remains an active choice by the sharer to select and share some particular piece of information.

    The difference between the former and the latter is, I think, more than a matter of sharing being “easier” or “cheaper”: it’s a qualitative shift in the nature of the act of sharing. And it also changes the way a consumer evaluates the shared information: is this Guardian article one which the person actively chose to highlight? Or is it one of several which they happened to browse on the train (perhaps accidentally when a fellow passenger accidentally nudged their elbow while they were reading on their phone!)?

  6. ajcann said

    To me, one of the reasons Facebook’s Open Graph has attracted so much attention is a (perceived?) loss of user control. Hence I equate the term “frictionless” with a (difficult to evaluate) element of threat.
    Frictionless already needs a makeover.

  7. @Petej Many thanks for your comment.

    I agree with you that there are a number of different ways in which the term ‘frictionless sharing’ can be interpretted – hence my suggestion on the need to formulate a definition.

    It strikes me that there seem to be two dimensions from the use described by Martin Weller (which is really about low-effort approaches to sharing which are still the result of conscious action) and transparent sharing, as a feature of the service being used. The problem with Facebook’s developments was that they have changed the way apps such as the Guardian app, work. This is unlike a music-sharing app in which frictionless-sharing is a clearly understood feature.

    I think there is a need to acknowledge such differences in the term, even if, as you say, there is “a qualitative shift in the nature of the act of sharing“. After all words such as “openness” and “democracy” are also interpretted in difference ways.

  8. […] There is a bit of a debate going on about ‘frictionless sharing’ – see (Martin Weller and Brian Kelly). […]

  9. Look at the words though….

    This article has been read? How weak is that verb? It has practically been taken outside and shot. Has it been read? Or just “loaded into a browser”

    Apparently asking me to evaluate something as “liked”, and choosing to share is too much of an action. So instead, merely visiting the page is a “read”.

    When I drive from Oxford to Leicester, I go through Banbury. I don’t like Banbury, I don’t want to share Banbury, but obviously this is because it’s not because Banbury has nothing to offer the world, it’s because I find clicking on a button is just too much like hard work. Why shouldn’t the world want to see me sharing Banbury? So then it’s not friction, because noise doesn’t have friction. Everyone on the internet basically becomes each other’s tinnitus. Best you can hope for is harmonious tinnitus, like some deranged barber shop quartet.

    Imagine everytime we met we’d have to list every book we’d read or every tv show we’d watched.

    That’s not frictionless, it’s redundant.

    I think it’s really contextless sharing, which is effectively fly tipping your data.

  10. So, with frictionless sharing, has resistance really become futile? (Sorry.)

    Why do we call it “sharing” and not “discovery”? The line “share their interests in a passive fashion” made me wonder about the subject or actor who is doing the “sharing”. Is it me and you, or is it Facebook? Which is another way of saying I wonder about editorial control. Without curation, it seems to me there’s a cost-benefit formula in here somewhere where too much exposure (exporting notifications) or noise (importing notifications) becomes too much bother – or, at least, a lot less efficient.

  11. This is a feature designed for marketers, not users. To the average person, a constant stream of all your friends’ media consumption just amounts to noise. That’s why sharing was a selective act in the first place – everyone realizes not everything they read/listen/watch is interesting to all their friends, all the time.

    BUT to social media marketers and market researchers, that kind of super-detailed, longitudinal data about individual consumers’ media habits is friggin’ GOLD. This makes Facebook way more useful to advertisers and media producers, but for the average Facebooker, it seems to present more risk than reward.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      I a post entitled Frictionless or not, on Facebook or not, people love to share on the web Martin Belam (who works for the Guardian and was involved in the development of the app) pointed out that “way from the app, in the space of 24 hours, over 1,000 people have voluntarily clicked the “Recommend” button on the article when viewed on, sharing Charlie’s woes about over-sharing with their friends. And nearly four hundred people have shared their feeling in the comments about it.” and went on to point out that “installing [frictionless apps] is an act of choice itself“.

      I would agree with you that such apps “makes Facebook way more useful to advertisers and media producers” – especially it users find that they benefit from such apps. And the popularity of Trending topics on Twitter, to give just one example, suggest that many people do like to find out about things which interest others.

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