Friday, November 23, 2007

Forced Virility and the Degeneration of Social Networks

In May 2007, when Facebook first announced the launch of their development platform, they billed it as a revolution in communication. “Today, together,” CEO Mark Zuckerburg began in his most messianic voice, “we’re going to start a movement.” The promise of that movement was simple. Facebook would give developers the ability to tap into their social network, and in turn, developers would leverage Facebook’s network of “real people with real connections” to spread ideas faster and more efficiently than ever before.

The thought was tantalizing. Real people. Real connections. How could this power be ignored? After all, Facebook’s own photo-sharing and event-planning utilities had become the most popular photo and event utilities on the internet, despite Zuckerberg’s own admission that they lacked some basic features. The key, said Zuckerberg, was the social graph. “The social graph is the reason Facebook works.” [1]

With all the hype surrounding the “social graph,” one might think that Facebook has an interest in protecting it. But recently, I’ve begun to suspect that the integrity of this graph is being tarnished, and that Facebook apps themselves are partly to blame.

Forced Virility

Many of my concerns revolve around what I call “Forced Virility,” or the increasingly aggressive tactics employed by developers to make their apps viral. In particular, many apps require you to forward the app on to a minimum number of friends before you “unlock” some functionality of the app. “Forced-viral apps” (or perhaps more appropriately termed, “faux-viral” apps) insure their success, but only by forcing users to also become marketers.

Many top apps such as SuperPoke! and Naughty Gifts employ forced virility. And why shouldn’t they. Anecdotal evidence shows that it works. It’s not strictly unethical either; although faux-viral apps require users to forward the app, nobody is forced to use the app in the first place.

The problem with forced virility is not that it is underhanded, but that it has hidden costs. [2] It incentivizes people to make fake connections and to dilute the quality of existing connections. From my own experience, most of the app requests I get on Facebook originate from people I hardly know. It’s possible that these people think that I’m interested in their app because I am interested in application development in general. But more likely, they’re just more willing to risk annoying me than risk annoying their close friends. The net effect is that it’s caused me to put less stock in any of the messages I receive or connections I have through Facebook (which were, most likely, tenuous to begin with).

I’ll put it another way. Think of a social network as a series of tubes (what else?). The tubes are carefully connected, so that a fluid material disseminates quickly and effortlessly through them. However the tubes are not fool-proof. Forcing a lot of crap through the tubes will cause them to rupture. The crap will still disseminate quickly, but not necessarily the way it’s supposed to, and the tubes will leak and pollute whatever flows through them in the future.

Like the crap-filled tubes, the value of a social network, at least for purposes of communication, is not characterized by the number of links, but by the structure and quality of the links. The Facebook Platform was billed as a way for developers to market to consumers via real social connections. But instead, it may serve to clutter those real connections with spurious ones, degrading the value of the network as a whole.

The Future

As long as forced virility remains profitable, I expect it to continue, and along with it the possible degeneration of the social network. Facebook may try to discourage it by placing tighter reigns on their platform, but it seems unlikely that they will be able to do so without handicapping other less aggressive apps as well.

So am I arguing that Facebook is doomed to failure? No. Despite a few grumblers, Facebook’s user base is growing as fast as ever. And none of the grumblers are actually deleting their Facebook accounts.

What I am arguing is that Facebook’s goals and business model are not quite what they seem. Despite the rhetoric, Facebook’s bottom line has nothing to do with its value as a "social utility."[3] Their bottom line is determined by their ability to keep people staring at the screen and clicking on ads. It doesn’t matter whether those people are interacting with close friends, or random strangers on a network with only a passing resemblance to reality, as long as it keeps people entertained. Facebook applications are doing just that: entertaining. In this sense, Facebook is starting to resemble a gaming site more than a social utility. In the future, Facebook might fail as a true utility, but still remain the most profitable game in town.

[1] All of Mark Zuckerberg’s quotes in this section are taken from his F8 keynote address available here:

[2] Economists like to call these “externalities.” I am not an economist.

[3] By “utility” here I mean it in the sense that Facebook means it: something that’s actually useful for communication. Economists would probably consider amusement a form of “utility,” but that’s not the type of utility we’re talking about here. Like I said, I’m not an economist.