At a time when print publications are struggling to reach new online readers and translate their offline efforts to the web, The Washington Post is gaining traction with their latest digital effort, a social reader built on Facebook. The Washington Post Social Reader is a free Facebook application that lets users see what their friends are reading, and shows their most recent reads.
The Post calls it a “socially powered newswire of intriguing articles.” The app features Washington Post articles as well as coverage from content partners including the Associated Press, Reuters, Mashable, and a variety of smaller publications. The app was developed by WapoLabs, the Washington Post’s digital development arm responsible for news aggregation service Trove, which powers the Social Reader.
The social reader chooses articles for users based on their interests and likes on Facebook; trending stories; and articles that have been read by people in their network. The application is built on Facebook’s new Open Graph, which was introduced in September 2011 as a way for developers to create apps that share users’ in-app activity in their news ticker and timeline.
The app launched at the f8 Facebook conference in September 2011. If the numbers are any indication, so far Facebook users have embraced the reader, which currently has almost five million users. It surpassed 3.5 million users within two months of launching, and 83% of those readers were under 35 years old. Almost 20% of users are from India, meaning that the app is reaching the highly sought-after youth and international demographics. Marcus Brauchli, executive editor of The Washington Post, says many of these users may not have read the Washington Post otherwise.
But while the numbers may chalk this up as a success for the Post, user sentiment isn’t quite as positive. Articles read by the app’s users are auto-published to their Facebook profile and the news ticker, and the user has to opt-out of this feature either in the app’s settings or by marking an article as unread within the app. Users were also bombarded by Washington Post articles in their newsfeed when the app launched, since it broadcasts articles read by friends. AllThingsD reporter Liz Gannes wrote an article in November 2011 lamenting the constant stream of often-irrelevant articles posted in her newsfeed, while Jeff Sonderman wrote on Poynter about how these apps push the boundaries of online privacy, and provide less relevance than content curated by users. “The act of choosing what to share, with whom, and how is what makes sharing meaningful,” he wrote.
The Washington Post is one of only a few news outlets that are building applications on the new Facebook Open Graph. Since it’s a trial period, there is presently no revenue plan in place for the Social Reader. The app is ad-free, free to use and users aren’t charged for any pay-walled content from the Post. Other outlets with social reading apps include The Guardian, which has 2.2 million monthly users.
The Social Reader and its success thus far represents a change in news consumption. It marks a shift from curated sharing by users to the so-called “frictionless sharing” the Open Graph enables. It brings up questions about whether users want to automatically share everything they consume, along with more traditional questions around revenue. After all the app is taking readers away from WashingtonPost.com, although they haven’t commented on any reductions in traffic or paid subscriptions.