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Facebook Apps: Why they’re focused on fun instead of utility

There’s recently been some discussion that Facebook apps are silly and pointless, as proven by the categorization of apps on Facebook. The question is, why is this true?

Ben Rattray from Change.org recently sent me a great e-mail, and I asked for his permission to blog the essay. In it, he discusses the structural issues around Facebook apps, and why they encourage apps focused on communication rather than utility.

[UPDATE: Just to be clear, everything underneath the following line is Ben’s work – one of my readers wanted me to clarify]

Ben writes:

The
reason there are few and little use of utility-based applications is
not because users don’t want to use them or because app developers
don’t want to develop them, or even because Facebook doesn’t want to
encourage them (which they clearly do). It’s because the means of distribution inside Facebook are structurally biased against them.

 

As you know, the reason for this is simple math. The only way for a Facebook app to get any sort of distribution is to have a viral coefficient over 1. This
is an extremely high barrier for any app in which inviting friends is
not an inherent part of using it (or, in your parlance, in which it is
not structured for "viral action").

 

Instead,
what most utility-based apps rely on for distribution is word of mouth,
in which people tell their friends not because there is something built
into the app that naturally causes peer-to-peer transmission but simply
because it’s worth talking about – or, in your parlance "viral
branding." And as you’ve written it is very difficult to achieve a viral coefficient of over 1 through word of mouth. Ironically,
this difficulty is compounded inside Facebook because the proliferation
of viral action apps inundates users with invitations and makes them
less and less likely to accept anything – including invitations to
utility-based applications. So the barrier for going viral increases even further. Given
current invitation conversation rates of 5% or less (at least what I’m
hearing), for an app to go viral, you have to get people to invite an
average of at least 20 friends. How many utility based apps can achieve that? How many inspire so much passion that its users tell 20 friends, on average? Few, even if people find the app incredibly useful.

 

(Of
course, there are other ways that Facebook apps can be distributed
outside of explicit invitations – i.e. the news feed and profile – but
these are not nearly as effective as invitations and it’s very
difficult to go viral on these channels alone. Also, few
people want to highlight their "utility" apps on their profile since,
by definition, these apps are less about self expression, which is
largely the point of the profile.)

 

To
see how singularly biased Facebook’s distribution structure is against
utility-based apps, a comparison with the platform it so often likes to
compare itself to, Windows, is instructive. Many Windows
applications are incredibly useful, but few of them are viral (those
that are, like Word, are only so because the use of it requires that
others have it as well, and because they are increasingly useful as
more people have it – e.g. they have network effects. But this is rare and they take a long time to gain traction). Instead,
the way most Windows-based applications get distribution is through
traditional, boring marketing and distribution deals with big-box
stores like CompUSA.

 

But it’s very hard (and incredibly inefficient) to market apps outside of the walled garden of Facebook. And
nobody has the budget for true Windows application-style marketing
since there is no clear business model yet inside Facebook to justify
this sort of ad-spend.  So the only way apps can get distribution on Facebook is by having a viral coefficient of over 1.

 

(This
is also why there is a wide chasm in the installs between apps – either
an app is viral and has millions of users or its viral coefficient is
less than 1 and has only a few hundred or few thousand users. It’s simply mathematically impossible in a closed system for apps that aren’t viral to get any traction. And
this is not because all apps with a viral coefficient of less than 1
are not found useful by its users – it’s because no more than a few
people will ever find them.)

 

Theoretically Facebook’s "application directory" could serve as the virtual equivalent to CompUSA. But there are so many applications in the directory that it is rendered virtually useless. This is a clear situation where too much choice is paralyzing – e.g. the "paradox of choice." Imagine walking into a CompUSA and having 25,000 choices for different applications. It’s just not possible to decide between so many options. And so your natural reaction would be to just to walk away and never come back. And
that’s how it seems most Facebook users have responded to the
application directory – there are very few installs directly from
there, and I suspect it’s never used much. (And, to the extent that it is used, the largely trivial viral action apps always dominate the front pages.)

 

Anyway, I realize that this is all already stuff you know, but it’s remarkable that nobody seems to be writing about it. Instead what we get the glib analysis that all Facebook users want are trivial apps. And
while it may be true that "just for fun" and communication apps are the
ones users enjoy the most, that is far from the complete story and
overlooks much deeper structural impediments to utility. It is also based on the misguided presumption that apps that are installed the most are those that users like the most. Which is simply not the case.

 

As
a final note, I’m not sure what you think, but it seems almost certain
that Facebook itself didn’t realize when they launched the platform
that they created a system in which it was nearly impossible to achieve
the very thing they claimed to seek – greater utility. They
now seem to understand the problem and are trying to take measures to
improve the situation, but to do so they’re going to have to either
tweak things to make it possible for useful (but not inherently viral)
applications to have a viral coefficient of over 1 (very difficult, I
think), or they’re going to have to implement a much improved directory. They
could also personalize the directory so that users could see all the
applications their friends rated most highly (not just used).

 

Either way, this is a big problem for Facebook, but not the one that most people think. It’s not that users or application developers don’t want to use or build useful apps. It’s that Facebook’s current structure is heavily biased against them.

[Ben sent me the following afterwards, as some extended remarks -Andrew]

Extended remarks:

After
re-reading what I wrote as well as the comments below, I realized I
should have probably also addressed the following two things in my
original email:

First, what do I mean by a utility-based app?
Second, should Facebook aim to be a utility?
 

To
answer the first question: by utility I don’t just mean applications
that are in the "utility" category of apps on Facebook or any sort of
web application that might be considered generally useful. Rather,
I mean it in the particular way I take Zuckerberg to mean it: an app
that leverages the social graph to create greater social and personal
value.

 

Definitions are important here. To
illustrate exactly what I do and don’t mean, I’ll outline what I
consider to be the three broad categories of web applications that
might be considered to have utility:

 

  1. Apps that are inherently social and which let users better coordinate/connect with friends

This
first category includes applications that help people coordinate or
connect with friends or others in ways that are traditionally difficult
but which the social graph makes relatively easy and potentially very
powerful.  (These are distinct from "just for fun" games and
other playful communications in that they generally help people
accomplish something concrete.)  For example, these might be apps that:

 

  • Help people organize local sporting event leagues
  • Share travel schedules with friends (ala Dopplr)
  • Organize carpooling
  • Discuss and coordinate events / gatherings with friends (ala Skobee)
  • Allow
    for the creation of affinity groups that require custom features not
    available in the traditional "groups" feature set (e.g. Alcoholics
    Anonymous groups, as humorously suggested by Max Levchin recently)

Because
of the inherently social nature of these potentially useful apps, many
of which involve inviting friends, some of them may have the potential
to have a viral coefficient of over 1. But they face a
big hurdle in sustaining a viral coefficient of over 1 for many
successive generations because (1) a large percentage of users get
value out of the app without needing to invite further friends, and (2)
although there may be a lot of people interested in the app and in
inviting all their friends, these enthusiasts are not socially
connected tightly enough to allow for the continued transmission of the
app across personal networks. For example, someone might
create a custom carpooling app and invite a lot of friends who are the
type of people who would themselves push it to many other friends they
want to carpool with, but because this social group may be socially and
geographically isolated from other groups of friends passionate about
carpooling, the app’s viral coefficient will fall below 1 as it hits a
population of people less interested in passing it on and its organic
distribution will rapidly exhaust itself before being able to reach
other interested populations – at which point few people will ever be
exposed to the app again.  And this is despite it being considered a very useful app by many people.

 

2(a).  Apps that aren’t inherently social, but which are given enhanced value with the social graph (non-business / work)

 

This
second category includes applications that may not be intrinsically
social or interpersonal (and therefore may exist independent of a
user’s social graph), but are those which gain additional value when
laid on top of the social graph. This includes apps that allow people to:

 

· Share news (e.g. a personalized Digg)

· Share
restaurant / service provider reviews (e.g. a personalized Yelp – so I
don’t just get undifferentiated restaurant reviews, but only those from
people I trust)

· Share bookmarks (e.g. delicious with all my friends)

 

Note that the three examples I’ve given already have canonical applications outside of Facebook. Despite
this, I think that the social graph offered by Facebook has a lot of
value to add in that would allow me to receive the recommendations
generated by these services through the trusted channels of all my
friends.

 

It’s
also noteworthy that all three companies did launch Facebook apps and
that none of them received more than a few thousand installs despite
their huge popularity and the extra value offered by Facebook’s social
graph. This is clear evidence of what I mentioned above about the systematic distribution bias against utility-based apps.

 

2(b). Apps that aren’t inherently social, but which are given enhanced value with the social graph (for business or work)

 

A
subset of this second category are apps that, while given enhanced
value by the social graph, are structured for work and therefore a bit
of an odd cultural fit for Facebook even though strictly they could
benefit from being inside the platform.  Examples include apps that allow for:

 

  • Job seeking / networking
  • Collaboration on work / documents

I
think it’s an outstanding question whether these are appropriate for
Facebook, but I’m skeptical they will ever be (just as I’m skeptical
Facebook will ever replace Linkedin for business networking). Just
because something can fit inside Facebook from a functionality
standpoint doesn’t mean it will fit the site’s culture, and culture on
social sites matters.

 

  1. Apps that are neither inherently social nor benefit from the social graph (but are still "useful")

This
final category are web applications that are useful (like purchasing a
plane ticket, managing your finances, etc) but which don’t at all
benefit from the social graph. It’s clear these types of apps don’t have any business being inside Facebook.

 

So,
in summary, when I say "utility-based apps" I mostly mean apps that fit
in categories #1 and category #2a, but not those in #2b or #3.

 

Given this definition, should Facebook strive to be a social utility? Or should it just focus on what it’s clearly great at – personal communication and play?

 

To answer this question I’m first inclined to ask the more fundamental question, "do people want Facebook to be a utility?"

 

The
problem is that I’m not sure you can give a great answer to this yet,
since the biased nature of app distribution on Facebook means that most
people aren’t being exposed to utility based apps – so we just don’t
know yet how people would respond if these apps had widespread usage.

 

I think it’s possible that Facebook users as a whole just aren’t that interested in utility-based apps. But
I also think that a strong argument can be made that Facebook could be
a compelling utility (as evidenced by some of the examples I gave
above), and that the value of it becoming a true social utility is
great enough to justify aiming for this. From a business
standpoint, if Facebook wants to keep their core audience engaged
beyond college, attract an older audience that has never used Facebook,
and better monetize both groups, they’re going to do more than offer
fun ways to communicate with friends.

 

The
challenge, of course, is to figure out how they can give themselves a
legitimate chance of becoming a social utility with the current app
distribution problems I described above. Frankly, I’m not
sure whether the Facebook platform is the best way to achieve this, and
I personally think they would have been better off focusing on an
improved remote login API that allowed users to pull their social graph
into third-party sites and then pump personal data back into Facebook
ala FriendFeed, and that contrary to all the hype the platform may have
been a strategic mistake. But that is another story entirely…

Ben Rattray is Founder and CEO of Change.org and lives in San Francisco

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