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McGeveran’s Law of Friction

William McGeveran [twitter:BillMcGev] has written an article for University of Minnesota Law School that suggests how to make “frictionless sharing” well-behaved. He defines frictionless sharing as “disclosing “individuals’ activities automatically, rather than waiting for them to authorize a particular disclosure.” For example:

…mainstream news websites, including the Washington Post, offer “social reading” applications (“apps”) in Facebook. After a one- time authorization, these apps send routine messages through Facebook to users’ friends identifying articles the users view.

Bill’s article considers the pros and cons:

Social media confers considerable advantages on individuals, their friends, and, of course, intermediaries like Spotify and Facebook. But many implementations of frictionless architecture have gone too far, potentially invading privacy and drowning useful information in a tide of meaningless spam.

Bill is not trying to build walls. “The key to online disclosures … turns out to be the correct amount of friction, not its elimination.” To assess what constitutes “the correct amount” he offers an heuristic, which I am happy to call McGeveran’s Law of Friction: “It should not be easier to ‘share’ an action online than to do it.” (Bill does not suggest naming the law after him! He is a modest fellow.)

One of the problems with the unintentional sharing of information are “misclosures,” a term he attributes to Kelly Caine.

Frictionless sharing makes misclosures more likely because it removes practical obscurity on which people have implicitly relied when assessing the likely audience that would find out about their activities. In other words, frictionless sharing can wrench individuals’ actions from one context to another, undermining their privacy expectations in the process.

Not only does this reveal, say, that you’ve been watching Yoga for Health: Depression and Gastrointestinal Problems (to use an example from Sen. Franken that Bill cites), it reveals that fact to your most intimate friends and family. (In my case, the relevant example would be The Amazing Race, by far the worst TV I watch, but I only do it when I’m looking for background noise while doing something else. I swear!) Worse, says Bill, “preference falsification” — our desire to have our known preferences support our social image — can alter our tastes, leading to more conformity and less diversity in our media diets.

Bill points to other problems with making social sharing frictionless, including reducing the quality of information that scrolls past us, turning what could be a useful set of recommendations from friends into little more than spam: “…friends who choose to look at an article because I glanced at it for 15 seconds probably do not discover hidden gems as a result.”

Bill’s aim is to protect the value of intentionally shared information; he is not a hoarder. McGeveran’s Law thus tries to add in enough friction that sharing is intentional, but not so much that it gets in the way of that intention. For example, he asks us to imagine Netflix presenting the user with two buttons: “Play” and “Play and Share.” Sharing thus would require exactly as much work as playing, thus satisfying McGeveran’s Law. But having only a “Play” button that then automatically shares the fact that you just watched Dumb and Dumberer distinctly fails the Law because it does not “secure genuine consent.” As Bill points out, his Law of Friction is tied to the technology in use, and thus is flexible enough to be useful even as the technology and its user interfaces change.

I like it.

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