Viral Ethics

, Tuesday, August 28th, 2007

In a Web 2.0 world, everyone’s looking for the magic formula to make something go viral. Going viral means hitting that critical mass that makes your petition, news story, video, game or gimmick an internet sensation, the talk of water coolers, instant JibJabmessages and maybe pop culture. It’s hard to pick just one thing as the embodiment of viral, but my personal favorite metric to compare a viral idea against is the infamous Jib-Jab cartoon of the 2004 election. “This Land” was a video that millions of people forwarded for any number of reasons – I know I received it from a host of friends who said either “Check it out – your guy really does have more waffles than a house of pancakes” or “Yep… they’ve got W down pat.”

Naturally occurring viral anything requires a confluence of events – timing, an empty news cycle, a pre-built audience to get you started, and material that’s easy to share. This perfect storm isn’t easy to achieve, so a cottage industry grew in the form of giving your viral anything a little push to help it on its way. Search engine optimization and marketing, paid online ads, people who will pitch your campaign in social networks and the like decrease the risk associated with spending big on material in the hopes that it will go viral. But there’s still nothing that beats the word of mouth friends telling friends can provide. I can ignore a million ads about how cool something might be, but one roommate recommendation and I’m there, particularly if we share interests.

That’s why the new wave of “viral” Facebook apps has me concerned.

In the beginning (all of a few months ago), Facebook apps iLike, Causes and Graffitiwere a meritocracy – the apps that people liked made their way to the top and were used by the most people. That’s how things like iLike (music), Causes (peer to peer fundraising), and other ubiquitous applications became popular. Sure, they let you tell your friends, but most of the viral action happened as a result of the mini-feed and people seeing them on each others’ pages.

The current generation of apps, however, goes beyond organic viral sharing and takes steps to turn users into evangelists with or without their consent. Apps like My Questions, SuperWall, and Compare People are all particularly guilty of this to some extent. Some applications are just useless unless you invite your friends, such as the rash of gift applications that have popped up lately (to be fair, these work on a small scale, letting you only invite so many at a time, and those friends can still see what they were sent without installing). Others make you think that you have to invite your friends in order to move forward with the process, like Flixter’s Movies app‘s compatibility quiz. But the most insidious apps send out a message to all your friends unprompted – as a recent TechCrunch article points out:

There are two ways application developers are breaking the rules to get new users. The first: When a user looks at an application on his/her profile the application can show something different than when other users view the profile. So a user adds an application that looks nice to them. But everyone else sees, say, a big yellow box with an advertisement that says the user wants you to add this application, too.

The second and more devious scheme is being used by many of the largest application developers. They all involve some sort of notification fraud. Generally, you add an application. Then, every one of your contacts is notified that you??ve “written on their wall” or “have asked them a question,” even though you never did. To view the content the contact must add the application. They then find out there is no wall comment, or its a canned question like “is it ok to kiss on the first date?”

The article goes on to discuss ways in which Facebook is fighting back by disallowing some of the coding methods that cause these sorts of things. But as one commenter points out, “Good thing they are stopping others from doing this…after Slide and RockYou got 20 million installs using these tactics.” Because these applications shot to the top by cheating, they’ll remain among the most installed apps while new rules to prevent this sort of thing keep other applications from catching up with them. Seems like a bit of a catch-22. And if you look at the most installed applications, this holds true – the top five (as of right now) are Top Friends, My Questions, Video, iLike, and Graffiti. Video was built by the Facebook Devs, iLike adds music functionality (though, thankfully, no autoplay) and Graffiti lets you draw on others’ profiles – these are all useful apps that people install because they’re cool. But they’re all less popular than two apps that distribute themselves through spam – how can legitimate apps compete?

A notification from My Questions

This brings us to a question of what kind of viral distribution is ethical and what crosses the line. Obviously, an NPO wants their message spread as far as possible, and believes that the net good to society, and their members, of that message might outweigh a little obnoxiousness – if you’re shy about asking things of your constituents, you’ll likely go broke since people won’t just mail you a check on the hunch you need it. But at the same time, I don’t know of a single non-profit that’s bought a CD full of emails and proceeded to message them on the hunch that they should care about that org’s cause. So where does the line fall in Facebook?

For me, it’s a question of user intent. Sure, the user checked off all those boxes when installing the applications, but did they Application Permissionsreally understand what they meant (assuming they even read them)? But when they installed it, did they want to have it message all their friends about a question they didn’t ask (hint: no)? When they click to see the comparisons their friends made, did they want to see comparisons or to install the application, message all their friends, install some more stuff, then see comparisons? And is it really necessary that they add the application to see things or is it just that you want more members? It may be a crazy idea that commercial apps should be driven by what is good for users, but that’s part of what makes the great applications great – they’re genuinely useful, and more concerned with functionality than how to get the next install.

Topping this all off is the fact that for those who really need to get their app out there, there’s a legit way to mass market it to users: it’s called buying an ad. This ad appeared on my Facebook the same day I got a “My Questions” invite:

Facebook Ad

Facebook sells mini-feed ads to anyone who wants them, and more and more these are related to applications for you to install. There are purists who’d say that ads don’t belong in the feed, but I don’t begrudge facebook the right to make a buck (the gerbil in a wheel that powers their servers isn’t cheap!), and, really, would you prefer unobtrusive ads in your feed or this:

MySpace Ad

(on a side note, it took me about 50 refreshes to the an ad that I felt was just right – sorry to everyone who wasted their impressions just now. But that one combines an annoying flashing, a dumb flash game, a fantastic offer to get your horoscope SMSed to you for as low as $5.99/week, and the “word” ur… the paragon of MySpace ads!)

Non-profits in particular should consider how their application is going to spread with more scrutiny than for-profit companies – JibJabwhile the commercial entities might be able to send out an application that forces installs and ends up with a low engagement rate because of it, it can not care because the action it’s asking for is so little that it will still get some hits or ad serves. For a non-profit, the action is often far larger – make a donation, attend an event, sign a petition. And you want them not just for this action, but for all the ones after, on and off Facebook – you can’t afford to slash and burn the way a commercial app does.

In the end, Facebook, and social networks in general, are still the new frontier, and in the wild west of the web, there aren’t hard ethical guidelines yet. It’s a shame that folks who cheat their way to the top can stay there and pull the ladder up after them, but I believe that if you act with the best interest of the users in mind, your app will get the reach and engagement it needs to be a success. Jib-jab did – they’re still ticking away, three years later, with a great new video I’d like to share with you all…

2 Responses to “Viral Ethics”

  1. Beaconfire Wire » Blog Archive » Facebook shuffles the deck Says:

    [...] Home > Blog « Viral Ethics [...]

  2. Beaconfire Wire » Blog Archive » Facebook needs to shear the fluff Says:

    [...] that you can’t modulate the flow of. One, for obvious reasons, is ads, but as I argued in a previous post, these are to be embraced, not shunned. Another type is data from applications – there are some [...]