Writing by James

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Scribd – the wrong way to use Facebook personalisation

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Scribd – Where the World Comes to Read

Scribd is the world’s largest social reading and publishing company. We’ve made it easy to share and discover entertaining, informative and original written content across the web and mobile devices. Our vision is to liberate the written word, to connect people with the information and ideas that matter most to them.

Or, alternatively:

Scribd – Where the World Comes to Look at Your Facebook Data.

Just a few weeks ago I wrote a post about how data was the future – and the past – of the internet, and how it could be used to really improve the user experience. Sods law states that just days later I’m faced with an example of how to use it to destroy the user experience.

I read articles every day, everything from white papers to blogs to news stories. It was only a matter of time until the document I wanted to read was hosted on Scribd. I don’t have a problem with that, and initially it all seemed pretty good. Yes, I needed to log in to get hold of the document, but Facebook Connect was available and that should have eased the process. All cool so far.

It was here that things seemed to take a stroll downhill.

First, there was the odd policy of having to upload a document before I could download a document from the site. At this point I didn’t have anything ready to share, so I declined and decided to read the document online instead. A bit like SlideShare. Odd, usually you would give users an opportunity to try a service before deciding to participate in it, but not a problem.

Scribd – I get a few emails

Then came the emails. 9 emails. All telling me that I was being followed by someone. Impressive I thought… for approximately two seconds. My next thought was ‘unlikely’. Unlikely that two of my Facebook friends happened to be online at the same time and had both seen me join the service. My spider-senses were tingling.

An hour later they were deafening. Especially as my wife was following me on Scribd. She is on Facebook, she also writes a blog, but she most definitely wasn’t on Scribd. Being inquisitive, I clicked to view her profile. Apparently she joined in January 2011 – before I did.

Scribd – Julie’s ‘profile’ – note the joining date

So not only is Scribd grabbing my friend’s information from my profile, its also creating accounts ready for them. It’s just plain wrong. That’s their data, not mine, and they haven’t given permission for Scribd to hold their data; I’ve given Scribd permission to hold and use mine. And yes, I do see their name and picture being used in conjunction with an account as being a breach of that trust. They are associating their service with someone who they don’t know and have not had any interactions with.

And at no point have I had the option to opt-out of this happening.

Being kind, very kind, I can see a reason why they might act this way. After all, if you’re a Facebook Partner for the Personalisation product, you want things to look good. But if your service only has a small user base then the chance of a group of people you know stumbling across your account  – or even more unlikely, a group of people you don’t know stumbling across your account – and choosing to follow you, is very small. I can imagine the product brainstorming meeting that morning: “Hey, I’ve got a great idea, let’s just create a load of accounts every time someone logs in using Facebook! Brilliant! That’s thinking out of the box!”. Unfortunately, yes, it is out of the box, and for all the wrong reasons.

I’m not the only one who has had a similar reaction to this behaviour. Rohit Mishra made similar points in his blog post in February; although he found out what was happening in a different way. They’ve also got called out in Wired last September. You would have thought that they had learned their lesson by now, but obviously not.

Data sharing – executed correctly – has the ability to create immersive and rewarding social experiences. I think we should all take a look at Scribd so we know exactly how not to do it.

**** UPDATE 29th September 2011 ****

It was brought to my attention by a tweet from Laurence Buchanan (below) that Scribd isn’t the only site in Facebook’s Instant Personalisation program. Rotten Tomatoes also takes the same approach. You can find out more at Techcrunch about the initial partnership.

To check the veracity of the claims, I visited the Rotten Tomatoes site. Without logging in or creating an account (this will become important in a moment) I did see my friends movie likes and dislikes. Imagine my surprise when, upon visiting the application settings page in Facebook, I was greeted with the following.

Rotten Tomatoes application setting in Facebook

I really don’t remember giving them permission to do anything…

If you want to read more about this, I’ve looked further into Facebook Instant Personalisation here.

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Author: James Gardner

I'm a digital technology strategist working in the pharmaceutical industry in the UK. This blog contains my views and opinion on technology, innovation and marketing, and do not necessarily represent the views of my employers.

18 thoughts on “Scribd – the wrong way to use Facebook personalisation

  1. Unfortunately, Scribd has become the poster-boy of how to abuse Facebook data. Creating accounts for people who would have never even heard of Scribd is the most weird thing I have come across. I wonder why Facebook hasn’t intervened with Scribd (considering it was one of its launch partners for instant personalization). If Scribd doesn’t get its act right, it will scare people away from Instant Personalization and give it a bad name.

    • Absolutely right. I’d been ‘lucky’ enough not to have had to deal with it before. I found the whole experience incredibly disappointing.

      A wasted opportunity and a hindrance to those who want to go about things in the correct way.

    • but now whats the solution?? haw i get rid of my account?

      • Hi Shilan, thanks for your comment. Elaine Hall (above) also had a similar question. You should be able to remove Scribd by going to the list of ‘approved’ (I use that term loosely) applications in Facebook, editing it, and selecting to remove it. Hope that helps. I will be writing an article on the subject in the next few weeks, so if you are still having issues removing your account, please check back here shortly.

        Regards,
        James

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  4. I remove all my friends from my facebook account months ago, and in last week I add new one like.. 10 people (different from the “old” ones) so.. all good until today when I search my facebook profile name on google and find out that I have a “account” on SCRIBD and they say “join us… your firends is here and listed my old friends from facebook, that I erase months ago..” and I say WTF ??? how is this possible …. this is a major privacy abuse

  5. Thanks for writing this.
    I came across Scribd when I was doing a periodical audit of my apps on fb. Couldn’t recall ever signing up. I know you give up privacy once you get on social media but I really wasn’t pleased.
    Maybe it’s promise of phenomenal growth to investors had something to do with it http://gigaom.com/2007/04/25/scribd/

    • Thanks for commenting. I think you’re right. Once there’s money to be made, ethics are usually the first thing out of the door.

      Social Media platforms need to take privacy very seriously over the next couple of years – otherwise there will be a backlash. Although the majority will put up with a lot, not everyone likes the direction in which things are going.

  6. Thanks for writing about this…I just happened to be googeling my name and lo and behold I have an account with Scribd! I never even heard of them yet it has my facebook info and freinds as “followers”. WFT! Is there any way of deleting this so called account? Thanks again.

    • Antonio, thanks for your comment. I’m glad you found the article useful. You can delete your account by logging in to Scribd and then going to the settings page: it’s the very last option available to you. Whether this will stop an account being created again in future, I’m afraid I don’t know, but if you find out please let me know.

      Thanks,
      James

  7. Never heard of Scribd until I saw it under my FB apps today!
    Thanks for the article, it was very useful. Just did a test with Rotten Tomatoes, first with Instant Personalisation off, no problems; then switched it back on and lo and behold Rotten Tomatoes was added to my apps! The Rotten Tomatoes website displayed my FB ID and suggested several of my friends were also fans (or whatever) – but cheekily didn’t allow me to check which friends.
    Not impressed with the privacy aspects of this!

    • Join the club Si. Hopefully companies are seeing the issues with this. A lot of Facebook’s launch partners for Instant Personalization have now stopped using it. Fingers crossed the rest will follow.

      On a slightly unrelated subject, I’m also not happy with the implementation of ‘Frictionless Sharing’ on Facebook, whereby it publishes the articles you are reading on partners sites – all a bit too much information I think.

  8. I realize this is an older article but if anybody is out there could u help pls. Was just going over my FB apps and saw scribd. I believe there is an option to remove app. I have no idea why I would need scribd. I deff didn’t sign up for it. Will it effect my FB “experience” if I remove the app. Thanx for any input.

    • Elaine, as far as I am aware, you can remove Scribd without any issue. You should be able to remove Scribd by going to the list of ‘approved’ (I use that term loosely) applications, editing it, and selecting to remove it. Hope that helps.

      James

  9. I just signed up for an account at Sribd and I was wierded out on how a paper that I wrote for my composition class in 2010 was already uploaded and it says that I was the one who uploaded it in 2011 even though I have never used (or heard of) Scribd.

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