The end for social reader apps?

Like lots of people, I initially liked the idea of reading and sharing news articles on Facebook.   It seemed like a civilised way to exchange thoughts and see who reads and likes the same kind of media sources.  But the novelty quickly wore off as my newsfeed was bombarded with endless spammy updates and I switched off.

So the news this week via Buzzfeed that social reader apps are taking a nosedive in popularity wasn’t much of a surprise.    The general consensus seems to be that these apps are pretty irritating, and also create ongoing privacy concerns around “frictionless sharing”.

It’s now clear that the reason for the sharp decline isn’t as simple as users getting frustrated, but rather the mighty Facebook moving its goalposts. Facebook introduced a ‘trending articles’ module as a new way of displaying social news articles in users’ feeds.   And publishers are getting their fingers burnt.

Jeff Bercovici at Forbes first reported that  the Washington Post’s app on Facebook has seen its monthly active users drop from 17.4m to 9.2m in the past 30 days. And other publishers had similarly spectacular declines, with The Guardian users dropping from 600,000 to 100,000 in the same period.

As Matthew Ingram points out, handing control over to Facebook is a Faustian bargain – “The lure of these giant platforms is undeniable: they can expose your content to far greater numbers of people than you could ever do on your own. But never forget that they control every aspect of the crucial levers driving that business, not you.”

Google, Facebook and the like can all change the terms of APIs at the drop of a hat, decimating business models in their wake. So is this the end for social readers?   Well no, not for now, but this certainly seems to be a lesson learned that pinning everything on the ever-fickle Facebook might not be the best long term strategy.


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