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Facebook, the Timeline, and the difference between consuming and creating

An update to the otherwise great Pixable photo viewing app illustrates that not all Timeline verbs should be streamed into the Timeline.

Oversharing. Thanks for nothing, Pixable. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

I've been meaning to write about Pixable, an excellent mobile app for keeping up with Facebook images on your iPhone or iPad. Unlike Facebook's own mobile app, which I find slow, complicated, and crash-prone, Pixable lets you dive into your social photo stream in a snap, see what friends are posting, and get out fast. There's more to it, too, and it's all good. It's a great app to pull up on that short elevator ride.

At least it was, until today's update of the app, which adds Facebook Timeline integration. Now whenever you view a stream or follow a user, that activity appears in your Facebook timeline.

No, thanks. App vendors need to understand something. There is a big--no, giant--difference between viewing a social stream and contributing to it. When a user tags, likes, or comments on an item on a social network, they are doing it for other people. Or, to be more psychologically accurate, they're doing it for the ego boost that comes from having other people see their activity. It makes sense to post contributions to a timeline.

But just consuming, without contributing? Not necessarily. When a person views a post, a photo, or a stream; or when one listens to music or watches a video, they're not necessarily doing it for anyone's benefit. For my part, when I want someone to know I viewed something, I'm intentional about, by Liking or commenting on it.

This is why I disconnected Spotify from my Timeline (here's how). I don't listen to music to be cool. Or rather, when I do, I'll tell you about it.

Pixable can also do it right: I can elect to not share my hashtagging of this photo with Facebook. Good kitty. Macho the cat, Facebook photo by Leyl Master Black

In the current update, Pixable gets this completely backward. If you use the app, all your photo viewing activity shows up in a timeline. There's no way to turn it off. From within Facebook itself you can block Pixable or delete Timeline items, but that doesn't make Pixable's lack of control OK.

On the other hand, when you go to a specific photo and decide to comment on it or tag it, there's an easy way to toggle on or off your Facebook sharing of that activity.

The on/off switch belongs in both places, but more in the place it's not: In the stream-viewing function. It's coming, I'm told, it's just not here yet.

I still like Pixable, but until the company gets this right, I'm not using it.

I'm hoping that other developers take two lessons away from this, and from the recent privacy upsets from earlier in the week:

1. Transparency is key. If you're going to share what I do on your service, tell me before you do it. How am I supposed to trust you if you don't?

2. Control is just as important. Just because you, Mr. or Ms. developer, think something is cool, it doesn't mean the user will. Especially when it comes to the use of personal or activity data. Let the user decide. If, for some reason, you think you'll lose out by giving users this control (viral growth, revenues, etc.), that is your indicator that you are about to do the wrong thing.

Do the right thing. Ultimately, it will make your product, and your company, more successful.