Social media sharing links are the job of the web browser

“Can we make it go viral?” a less-informed client once asked me.

It seems this sentiment echoes of a wider problem than just this isolated event, as the whole of the web seems to have reacted to this impossible ask by plastering every social network under the sun alongside its content.

Which of these 339 social networks and services would you like to send this to? Too many options cause user choice paralysis.

A screenshot of the "Add This" social-sharing options.

Design poison

An ill-curated plethora of mostly redundant buttons are poisonous to design. They add to page load time with bloated Javascript dependencies; confuse the user experience with design inconsistency; interrupt user journeys causing user detachment; and the ephemeral nature of these services can quickly date your site. “Share on MySpace,” right?

While there is a recent gentleman’s agreement of a shift towards design consistency across the sharing buttons for the major social networks like Twitter and Facebook, for the most part there are still massive visual and functional inconsistencies across the UX. Add to this confusion caused by the disparities across the web as a whole and it all adds up to a puzzling experience for the user.

Robin Christopherson from AbilityNet illustrates how The Verge‘s sharing bloat caused their content to be almost entirely unusable for screen-readers, as it took his over two minutes read through all social network sharing options before it even got to the article.

The result of these problem is that few users are actually sharing your content and those sharing buttons are not worth the screen real-estate they’re so carelessly dumped in, and in some cases even damage the value of your content.

I strongly believe that, for the most part, sharing links are the job of the browser.

Collective hallucinations

Adding social networking sharing buttons to sites has become a design crutch. The web is what we make of it, and the collective hallucination that every page needs countless sharing icons is damaging.

I’m not suggesting a blanket ban, but instead a zero budgeting policy. Each sharing service should be justified as valuable to the user without damaging the user experience. As designers and developers we should be more thoughtful about the inclusion of sharing functionality to relevant social networks and services and only on useful, valuable content at the part of the user journey that makes sense. This should be part of the content strategy. Only add them if they’re particularly pertinent to the site’s target demographic, and only load the Javascript (if at all) when the user requests it.

Pinterest pins make sense on fashion blog, as do read-later services on newspaper websites, but real humans don’t want to share pasta sauce recipes on their LinkedIn profile. Add these services thoughtfully and let the browser do the rest.

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