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Looking forward to seeing Facebook apps drop their pointless mystery

Consider the following hypothetical computer experience: 

One day a friend of yours sends you a one line email saying, "Hey, check out FooBar!" That’s all the message says. "Okay", you’re wondering, "What the heck is FooBar?" You follow the link to the FooBar site, and all you can see is a EULA check box and a "Sign Up" button. You have no idea what FooBar does, so you’re reluctant to entrust any information to this site. Before leaving, you notice a tiny link that says, "Learn more about FooBar". You click it, and are presented with the FooBar logo and a short paragraph that says that FooBar is pretty cool. You’re still confused about what it does because you can’t actually get inside and see it for yourself. Finally, overcome with curiosity about why your friend would recommend the site, you give in and click the Sign Up button. 

Once inside the site, you realize the site is stupid, and wish you’d never signed up. You later discover that all your friends have just received a one line email from you saying "Hey, check out FooBar!"

This, in a nutshell, seems to be the experience of trying the typical Facebook app. Granted, in Facebook, the above experience would generally take place entirely within the world of Facebook (with its own messaging system, etc.), but I think the story captures the basic pointless mystery of it all.

I’ve been watching with interest how Facebook’s application model will pan out, particularly the user experience of engaging with an application: discovering it, learning about it, adding it to one’s profile, and using it. A while back I noted how many companies were busily removing hurdles at a site’s entrance so people could experience a product’s value (or at least a taste of the product’s value) before committing to the product. Facebook, in contrast, seems to be confidently bucking this trend with the apps that live on top of its platform.

On the one hand, Facebook users can quickly add a new app to their profile because they don’t have to reenter personal information for each app. However, in my opinion, this advantage is overwhelmed by the de facto requirement that a user add a Facebook app to their profile before they can derive any meaningful value from it—or even understand what it does.

The first point of contact you may have with an app may be when it tries to catch your attention in your feed:

Many apps are deliberately coy about what they do before you install them. Many (or sometimes all) of the links in the feed entry will require that you first add the app to your profile:

If the anecdotal accounts of my friends are anything to go by, at this point most people just go ahead and click the big Add button. A curious user can read the laconic and non-descriptive Developer’s Description. An especially cautious user can click the tiny "More information about <application>" link to view an About page:

If you do add the application, unless you’re careful to uncheck "Publish stories in my News Feed and Mini-Feed", you’ll end up telling all your friends that you’ve just added the app to your profile (in the manner of the original news feed entry shown above). The app has enlisted your unwitting help in perpetuating its pointless mystery.

That mystery would, in fact, seem to be the basis for the viral distribution model of many Facebook apps. I have trouble with this approach, being founded on a disregard for a user’s intelligence and precious time.This model relies entirely on mystery to entice you add the application—and then banks on the fact that, once you add an application to your profile, you’ll just leave it there rather than remove it. This is fundamentally deceptive.

(The deception is compounded in cases like the one above, in which the app developer has deliberately incorporated a huge amount of white space into their description. Below the app’s description, Facebook displays commentary from friends and other users of the app about the app itself. The obvious purpose of incorporating lots of white space into the description is to push all the commentary far below the fold, the better to leave the app’s potential users uninformed.)

That a Facebook app would hide information about itself suggests the app offers no persistent, real value. If it were actually valuable, the app would employ all the means at the disposal of a normal web site to balance the amount of value they provide to user with the degree of commitment they require from the user. For example, a normal site might let a curious potential customer: start a process but not finish it; read content but not write content; do something a fixed number of times; use the site for a trial period; perform certain basic operations but not other, more interesting ones; etc. Even the most brain-dead web site at least presents information about itself first, before making you sign up for the site. The first generation of Facebook apps generally forego all these techniques in favor of an all-or-nothing requirement that you add the app to your profile.

Remove a Facebook app you don’t like is not hard, requiring a simple click on the little "X" in the app’s profile box. Still, it’s a tiny bit of work, and the work adds up with every app you try. I have to believe that most people will eventually tire of removing applications, and therefore tire of adding them. That in turn means the Facebook world is biased in favor of the first set of Facebook apps a user comes into contact with (i.e., all the apps used by their initial Facebook friends), and impairs the ability of later apps to succeed.

One could argue that it’s in the interests of Facebook and an app’s developer to force a user to agree to an app’s terms of use before they can use it. And yet somehow the rest of the Internet doesn’t have this problem. In the normal web, users implicitly agree to a "browse wrap" agreement whenever they visit the site, conferring a degree of legal protection to the site. Presumably this same level of protection extends to browsing Facebook apps, so it’s unclear why Facebook would be more concerned about this than sites on the open web.

I also find it hard to stomach the presumption that, when you add an app on Facebook, by default the platform and app presume to advertise that the app is now part of your identity. That’s absurd. You haven’t even seen what the app does. What else in the world works this way? When you pick up a book in a bookstore to consider buying it, are you really prepared to declare to everyone you know that you’ve picked up the book? The news feed entries about adding applications seem like nothing more than spam. They do, however, also also serve Facebook’s ulterior goal of giving every user the illusion of social activity, regardless of how many friends they have or how active those friends are.

All the behavior described here appears to stem from a combination of deliberate platform limitations, unintentional platform limitations, de facto conventions that arose around the plaform’s first apps, and plain bad design. A newer generation of apps do let you see a tiny bit of their functionality before you the add the application to your profile, but what you can see is generally still a very limited subset of what the app does.

Regardless of their intent, it’s fascinating to see Facebook facilitate such a closed app adoption model—and still create a successful and vibrant application platform. Clearly there are a huge number of people who don’t mind (yet) adding unknown applications to their profile, nor do they mind (yet) advertising that fact to the world. What’s odd is that those same users don’t tolerate the same experience on every other web site. I’m hopeful those users will eventually turn away from Facebook’s unnecessarily mysterious apps, and eventually force those apps to open their front doors as wide as the rest of the web.