Guest Post by Tracy Pizzo, my colleague at Widgetbox:
The Facebook f8 platform is just over one year-old, and yet to some app makers it must feel like it is hitting the "terrible two's" a little early...
Last week, Facebook suspended Slide's Top Friends app - one of the most popular on Facebook - for privacy violations. It then suspended SocialMe, also for privacy violations, and this morning TechCrunch wrote about the shutting off of all viral elements of RockYou's Super Wall (newsfeeds, notifications, invites, etc.). Today, TechCrunch reports that SpeedDate is now no longer working.
From the app maker's side, this has had immediate and detrimental effects, as user numbers have taken a nose dive from where they have been for many many months. This could have long reaching and deleterious effects for companies such as Slide and RockYou that have focused an enormous amount of their development energies on a select few platforms. Take a look at this graph on Super Wall to see exactly how fast apps have been spread by spammy invites and notifications, and how fast the drop off happens without them:
But, there's another way to look at this. I applaud what Facebook is doing here - they are putting their users first, which is exactly what should matter most to them. Even if these apps have driven a lot of growth for Facebook over the last year, I think I can speak for most Facebook users in saying that a lot of the methods these apps use to spread themselves around can be really frustrating. Time.com had a great article in April that outlines some of the struggles Facebook users have when using apps.
Time.com notes that "the increase in "junk" notifications is enough to leave [Facebook users] feeling peeved," to which Facebook responded months ago by allowing their users to shut off app notifications one by one. But what I believe has been more frustrating for users is that they simply don't always know what they are getting themselves into. This same article outlines this experience perfectly,
An even bigger nuisance with using Facebook apps is that it's not always clear how they work. Tina House of Combine, Tex., says she accidentally posted a Valentine's Day greeting that said "I love you," not just to her husband, but to all of her friends, while using the application Super Wall, because she did not realize that the program defaulted to sending the posting to everyone. "I still shudder over that one," she says. And because advertisements are slickly intertwined with the apps — they often use the exact same font and graphics — it's easy to inadvertently click one by mistake.
I know that I was duped by the "Click to forward to see what happens" on Super Wall, and I spend enough time with widgets and apps that I should have known what was happening.
This latest suspension by Facebook illuminates a continual ratcheting down on spammy aspects of apps over the last few months, and I don't expect it to stop until they feel their user experience is protected. A lot of companies like Slide and RockYou took huge risks in focusing on such a small number of domains (I'm counting Facebook as one domain). They really pushed the envelope - albeit in a number of innovative and effective ways - on optimizing viral spread of their apps, and because of their sharp thinking they (and by proxy, Facebook) saw enormous success from very early on. That same growth is now starting to have diminishing returns for Facebook, as there has been a leveling off of site usage in both the US and the UK, slowdowns which first started rearing their heads a few months ago. Once those diminishing returns kicked in, Facebook had to take action in order to stay ahead.
What is clear to me is that the early success many folks saw on comes with a big price tag, and they may now have to pay the very real and painful costs as Facebook, and I'm sure other app platforms soon, come collecting. Assuming that growth between apps and Facebook will always go hand in hand and be mutually beneficial is a dangerous game to play.
This news also highlights what I think of as the bigger picture here, which is users' desire for choice. At Widgetbox, we often use an analogy to the early days of television. When TV first went mainstream, everyone was thrilled with the three channels that were available. Those channels saw such success that the networks themselves believed they could accurately predict what EVERYONE wanted to watch. Today, we can look at the rise of cable and the hundreds and hundreds of channels out there and see how untrue that was. Really what consumers wanted was choice. They wanted more channels with more programming focused on smaller and smaller niches so they could easily find what they were looking for. They didn't want to have to sit through programs and commercials the networks chose, but rather wanted their television delivered on demand. Maybe no individual channel had as much blockbuster success as the first three, but in the aggregate they changed the face of television dramatically. I believe this analogy is true for widgets/apps as well. We're huge believers in choice and access, and clearly users - and the platforms themselves - are starting to throw up their hands with the more one-size fits all approach that has dominated the landscape thus far.
Essentially, what this news screams to me is the need for independence. Domain independence, app independence, and network independence. Pretty fascinating stuff, and it continues to be a wild and dizzying ride, with no stopping anywhere in sight.