There Will Be Good Days and Bad Days in Social Reader Land

Earlier this week Forbes reported a massive drop Washington Post readers who accessed the site via Facebook’s Social Reader tool — from 17.4 million average monthly users in April to 9.2 million in May.

Debobrah Petersen, social media editor at the San Jose Mercury News, speculated on the reason for the drop. The idea of alerting Facebook friends to every news article you read “makes me obsess about whether I look smart enough, and it threatens to strip me of my guilty pleasures. Worse yet, I could appear un-cool or downright boring.”

I do think she’s on to something, especially the comment about guilty pleasures. When my Newsfeed is flooded with Washington Post and Yahoo News articles that my friends are reading, I’m generally annoyed by the spamminess of it all. Except when one of those friends is reading an article about tantric sex tips or something else that hits my feed like an intriguing, if accidental, confession. (My 60-something relative turned off her Social Reader shortly after the above incident.)

But from John Herrman’s analysis at Buzzfeed, it sounds like the usage collapse at WashPo — and similar ones at The Gaurdian, DailyMotion, Scribd and others — isn’t mainly the result of embarrassed, over-sharing readers calling it quits. Rather its because Facebook tweaked the algorithm that controls how often articles read via Social Readers are presented to other Facebook members. “Facebook giveth and Facebook taketh away,” as GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram put it; it’s “very much a Faustian bargain.”

True enough. Sort of like the Faustian bargain every publisher with an iPad app makes with Apple, or any web publisher or online retailer makes with Google (even if they don’t realize, until traffic plummets, that they made a deal with the PageRank algorithm). Then again, this isn’t entirely different from the deal made by a TV programmer with the network that distributes its show, right? You can fill up your mom’s basement with reels of your awesome new police drama, or you can cut a deal with a network to put them in front of an audience.

I’m sure last week was a miserable one in the PR department at Washington Post. But after losing 8 million monthly readers, they still have 9 million that they didn’t have before launching the Social Reader.

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