in Projects, Programming, Technology

Why Facebook Apps Force You to Invite Your Friends

Facebook offers a different view of the internet, a view filtered by your friends. In general, this lens has significant benefit. All the information that you encounter will generally be interesting or relevant because a friend discovered it first. On the wilds of the internet, Google and your email spam filter protect you from stuff you don’t want to see. On Facebook, your friends do it.

This filter comes at a price – you and your friends have to keep consuming and forwarding to keep it interesting. More importantly, you are now the gate keeper that everyone with information (or an App) to push through this filter will lean on as hard as they can to get their ideas to spread.

You can bet they are going lean, grovel, and trick you. I was spurred to write this by Hillel Cooperman’s post “How to Piss off your Users” last night:

“The real offensive aspect of many of these apps is their up front and never-ending demands for more users in order to reveal their functionality. I won’t contribute to the debate on what all those users are worth as it doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this post. After all, the key thing is that the app creators think that having tons of users is important to the value of their business. And for many of them they will stop at no end to crank up those numbers.”

Of course having tons of users is critical to the value of their business. Slide, the company that makes Super Wall, builds parasitic apps on top of larger Web sites in order to siphon off users to show ads to. Their cheapest path to new viewers is through those viewer’s friends. For small application developers (or those not buying advertising) your friends are the only path.

The effect of forced invites on the number of daily active users for the Toy Chest application. The application was live 4 months before the window shown here, so the flat line extends 4 months to the right.

The effect of forced invites on the number of daily active users for
the Toy Chest application. The application was live 4 months before the
window shown here, so the flat line extends 4 months to the right.


I don’t want to excuse this practice, I just want to emphasize how hard it is to build an app (or compose information) that is both interesting, and inherently spreadable. A Good Facebook App is one that has magic mix of quality, collaboration, and either fun or usefulness*. I think these are two good examples:

These apps succeed in spreading because they demonstrate a high level of quality, fun, and inherent virality (Fluff Friends is mostly just quality and fun). Jackson Fish Market’s They’re Beautiful would make a fantastic Facebook App. 99% of apps that don’t reach this bar will languish in obscurity no matter how large the brand behind it. Some examples:

I highly doubt the New York times covers its expenses with the News Quiz App. The point is, when you don’t have the magic – iterative re-invention is required, but very difficult. So difficult, that most app developers resort to pissing off their users. I am optimistic that in the long term Facebook’s user and app filtering will muffle the amount of spam you get from your friends. I think most apps monetized by advertising will continue to force you to forward where ever possible.

*PS: I would like to add some note about understanding the demographic here. Send Hotness was clearly a hit. It was low quality, and not really fun, but optimized the “virality” by understanding what would fly with the target audience.

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