Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"Why don't you write a Facebook Application?"

There is a lot of hype surrounding the newly released Facebook application platform. Developers are falling all over themselves to get a product rushed out the door, funding for Facebook apps is flowing in from VCs and you can even take a class in Facebook application development at Stanford. Amid all of this irrational exuberence, I find myself frequently getting asked why I don't write to it. Well, there are a lot of good reasons to stay as far away from the platform as possible. It's proprietary, unpredictable, not a level playing field in the least and crowded with unworthy offerings. My time and effort is much better spent somewhere else.

First of all, even if we assume for the sake of argument that I am interested in developing a Facebook app, the deck is stacked against me. Tim O'Reilly points out that there is a steep drop off in users after the first four or five most popular apps (the graph on O'Reilly's page is instructive). There are a few reasons for this. The first is that the door has largely closed on the willingness of users to add new applications or suggest them to their friends; the fad has come and gone. In other words, "[W]e must acknowledge that ... users have grown accustomed to a small subset of applications available to all users, and the exploratory period has come to an end... Facebook is all about communicating an image of yourself to your peers, and unless someone creates a truly captivating, innovative, or better F8 application, no one is going to adopt it on a whim." The quickest functional and moderately compelling apps to get out the door were the ones that users pounced on. The second reason for the disparity in users parallels the disparity in the finances and professionalism of the makers of the apps. Five of the top six apps right now are made by just two companies: Slide and RockYou!. [A] Making little flash widgets is essentially these companies' entire business and both of them are well financed. Amateur developers do not stand a chance against a small army of VC-backed Flash coders who do this for a living. [B] Any entry into the Facebook app market now is essentially futile.

The survivability of the Facebook platform is another issue. It bears some eerie similarities to "walled garden" initiatives past. Perhaps most illustrative is the case of AOL, whose proprietary platform, of course, nobody uses anymore. Should I really bother developing against a technology predicting that it won't survive 10 years? Perhaps, but I would rather write to a platform that is built on open standards. Jason Kottke explains: [E]
As it happens, we already have a platform on which anyone can communicate and collaborate with anyone else, individuals and companies can develop applications which can interoperate with one another through open and freely available tools, protocols, and interfaces. It's called the internet and it's more compelling than AOL was in 1994 and Facebook in 2007.
The fact that Facebook could change its platform or go out of business at any time is a disincentive to write a Facebook application. I don't like my creations functioning at the whims of Facebook or its investors; it's a better bet to go with an established, open platform.

I ran across a similar post on Facebook app suckiness that raised an additional reason not to develop a Facebook app. If, against all odds, your application is truly innovative and distinguishes itself in the crowd of petty profile pollution, you still are on Facebook's turf; that carries some important consequences. Specifically, Facebook could copy your idea with a feature that they subsequently build in to Facebook itself. It will be accessible to all users, not just the ones that choose to add it as an application, and there will be no use for your app anymore. Facebook could take your idea and reimplement it, thus sucking away all of your users, and there would be nothing you could do about it.

Then there is the embarrassing stigma of being in the company of Facebook application developers. The (many) applications are written by developers who want to jump on the Facebook hype bandwagon. Most of them are amateurs, and it shows. Take the Quizzes application, for instance (ranked 14th in most active users, so a reasonably popular app). It lacks basic functionality that one would expect in such an application: namely, the ability to see the correct answers after you take the quiz. It also creates a quiz that other people can take before you even indicate you are finished adding questions! Furthermore, I couldn't access the application at all today because, presumably, it is choking under the load that Facebook is sending to it (another all-to-frequent problem of these applications). Quizzes, admittedly, might be an application that one might use occasionally. I can not say the same about other applications, most of which can be broken down into four categories:
  • Horoscope
    • What flower are you? -- "Are you rose, lilly, foxglove, daffodil, nigella, sunflower, violet? Find out."
    • Birthstones -- "From the time gemstones were discovered, they were believed to have mystical powers and attributes that could be passed to the wearer. The red of ruby was fiery and passionate; cool blue sapphire was calm and composed. What's yours?"
    • Psychic Breeze - Psychic Readings and Fortune Telling -- "Accurate psychic, psychic medium and clairvoyant readings are available today. Our extraordinary psychics, mediums and clairvoyants use their psychic ability to provide you with guidance in relationships, love, finances, and other life hurdles."
  • Decorative trinkets
    • Snow Globe Gifts -- "Snow Globe Gifts! Send your friends realistic, shakeable, snow globes..."
    • Christmas Music Tree -- "Create your own special Christmas Tree. Decorate your tree with your friends and make them play many famous Christmas songs. It's your Musical Christmas Tree."
    • My Fab Bag -- "Buy and give your friends designer handbags. Choose your favorite to carry and display on your profile."
  • Finding a boyfriend
    • Likeness UNRATED -- "Find out who you're like on mature topics like purity, vices, and the seven deadly sins. Can you find a perfect match?"
    • Will you KISS me? -- "Send kisses to loved ones, lovers, romantics, mistresses and everyone! Ever wanted a friend or crush to kiss youand find that they want to kiss you too What if it happens on a Full moon night? Give and take kisses"
  • Just good ol' pestering people
    • Zombies -- "Bite your friends and make them zombies! Mmmmm... Brains! Also - you can fight Zombies, Vampires and Werewolves now!"
    • Vampires -- "From the makers of Zombies comes Vampires! Kind of like Zombies. Except that the vampires are hot. VERY hot. Also - you can fight Zombies, Vampires and Werewolves now!" [C]
    • X Me -- "Tired of just poking? X me opens up a whole new world of action-based messaging, for example 'Hug Her, Slap Him, Tickle Them!'"
Is this trash what I really want to spend my time developing? Do people actually waste their time using this filth? It's depressing that humans' frontal lobes have not yet developed sufficiently to resist soliciting the advice of fortune-teller applications. [D] Given this kind of crowd, I don't think I could expect anyone to take me seriously if I told him I was developing a Facebook application. I would anticipate him laughing in my face.

That's why I don't develop for the Facebook platform: it's pure hype. Nothing of significance has been produced in the form of a Facebook application, and the only applications that get any views are ones that are made by companies who specialize in them. This environment exists at the whim of Facebook and its investors, and could come crashing to a halt if the business goes belly-up or Mr. Zuckerberg has a change of heart. I'll take my code somewhere else, thank you very much.


[A] Prepare for some awful, awful music and graphics if you go to RockYou!'s page. I had the displeasure of being aurally assaulted by Lil' Mama blowing kisses at me. You have been warned.

[B] To hammer this point into the ground, RockYou!'s CEO discusses here how, in order to prepare for an expected spike in traffic, they ran around filling a 24-ft truck full of servers and hooking them up over a weekend. Does this sound like the kind of thing you could pull off with the change you found under the sofa? I didn't think so.

[C] "From the makers of Zombies..." As if Zombies was a fantastic, useful product to stake their reputation on. They have WereWolves, too. Maybe there's more, I didn't care to look.

[D] And there's a hell of a lot more dumb applications, if you want to take a peek.

[E] He expands on the "Facebook as AOL" theme in this post. Scott Rosenberg also has his thoughts on the subject.

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