Facebook's 'Quiz' App: When horrible spam is backed by the FbFund

I’ve been getting into using Facebook a lot more in the last week, spurred on by the need to prepare for my presentation during CeBIT’s Webciety event about what enterprise software can learn from Facebook’s incredible level of user adoption and engagement.

With its recent relaunch the “news feed” is now the most important part of the site. Reading through the feeds lately, I’ve seen a massive, massive amount of these crap quiz applications. Each of the quiz’es is a little different, but after setting a couple of dozen over a day or two, I started to see a trend and did a little digging.

Common thread: all these apps are running back to quiz.applatform.com

While the Apps all have different names, and none of them have an “about” page to tell you who’s actually behind them, there’s a common thread; they make the user click through via the quiz.applatform.com web address to track your visit, before they then send you back to Facebook and the request to allow the application to access your account details.

Trying to go to www.applatform.com didn’t get my anywhere, and going to quiz.applatform.com without the tracking ID’s just redirects me to Facebook’s homepage. Looked pretty dodgy to me…

Naturally, I then had a look at the domain’s WHOIS records, and these guys have gone to some extra effort and cost to obscure who’s really behind it.

Application Developers and many users are up in arms

After getting no love there, I did a simple Google search, and the results were damning: in the developer forums, people are up in arms. Some of them are clearly biased because these pernicious quiz applications are flooding the news feeds and using up all the “oxygen”, and are pointing out repeatedly – with interaction from Facebook staff – that these applications are breaking the rules.

I’m no expert on Facebook’s rules, so I’ll leave them to duke it out.

These app’s are user-generated applications

One of the interesting things about these applications and the crap that spews from them is that they’re user-created applications. The tool allows you to create your own Facebook quiz, chosing your own images, questions and answers.

As a result, every application is different, none of them have any checking by anyone, a situation that recently got one of the applications into trouble, in this case with the over sensitive Jewish lobby. (Side note: I wonder if there will be a powerful Palestinian lobby in 50 years since they’ve been the next people’s subject to a holocaust).

… but Facebook is protecting them; because they’re funding them?

One thing that came out in the Developer forums is who’s really running these horrible apps: HotBerry Entertainment Inc. Another more interesting revelation is that HotBerry is a Facebook Fund (FbFund) recipient, meaning Facebook liked what they were doing enough to issue grants to promising Application Developers. You can see the reference to funding HotBerry in the first round of funding back in July 2008.

With so many up in arms, the business/people behind the applications going to a lot of lengths to hide their true identies, you’ve got to wonder why Facebook isn’t disabling the tool that keeps spewing these things out. Is there a conflict of interest because they’re a FbFund recipient, or don’t they realize the damage these things are doing to the experience of users on the platform?

Do Apps have a future in Facebook?

In my opinion, one of the key benefits of Facebook over MySpace is the increased usability of Facebook’s cleaner interface. With MySpace, every page you went to (last time I looked) would start shouting some song at you as soon as the page loaded. Beyond this, the pages were almost impossible to read after users ‘decorated’ them.

Unfortunately, in most cases, the Apps developed for Facebook have detracted from this benefit of easy of use and lack of clutter, and have instead deliberately tried to get your attention and clutter your experience.

Then there’s the spam. Even more reputable applications like the TripAdvisor one where you list the Cities you’ve been to sent out two spam invitations yesterday to people I would regard as acquaintences, completely without my permission. These Quiz applications are nuts, jaming up news feeds and

What’s missing: the ability to stop Apps from ever appearing in the News feed

While Facebook has tried to deal with apps behaving badly through their changes to policies around invitations, the real answer is to give users the power to never ever see an application appear in their news feed, and to provide an option when the user clicks on the X to hide the message in the feed to be able to choose to block all apps; currently you can only block feeds from users or from a particular application; this new trend of having thousands of user generated applications makes this later preference ineffective.

So, Facebook, when are you going to make it possible for me to scrub every application notification from my user experience? I come to Facebook to interact with my friends, and applications have NEVER added value to that experience for me: can you please just give me an option to cut them out completely?

Embracing stalking with Latitude's public feed

Well, I’m not really embracing stalking, but as a user of Google Maps on my mobile, I’ve been pretty intrigued by the concept of Latitude. One of my biggest frustrations when it first came out was they the only way to use it – through iGoogle – was pretty poor.

In addition, while restricting the list to your friends list via Google Talk made sense if all your friends are GTalkers, most of my friends aren’t (I certainly don’t use it much).

Now, however, Google has announced that they are supporting the display of your location through Google Latitude to the public. You can choose how much detail to display (ie, not enough detail for someone to really stalk you, since this info is available to every anonymous freak who visits this blog, all 4 of you), and if you are that way inclined, you can use more programmy ways like a JSON feed to get this information out in ways that you can do something with it (I’m thinking of all the startup camp mashup ideas now…)

I’ve embedded my status on the right. What do you think? Is this going too far, or a really useful tool that’s just scratching the surface of what the social web, combined with geography, can do for us to make our lives more enriched?

Research: what makes Facebook so engaging?

I’m writing a talk for the Enterprise conference at CeBIT, which tries to unpack what makes people spend hours and hours a week interacting with and updating Facebook, and what enterprise applications – particularly those that benefit from collaboration and which are often “higher level” tools rather than lower level tools necessary for a narrow job function – can learn from them.

I’ll be sure to share my thesis for what companies and enterprise applications can take away from Facebook – and the things they should make sure they leave behind – back here on my blog, but until then I’d really love to hear from you: what do you think makes Facebook so very compelling that keeps users “hooked” on it? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Facebook's domination of Christmas Day

Uncharacteristically short post this time: Dan Whitworth has an article at BBC’s Newsbeat site about Facebook being so popular it accounted for almost 5% of all page views on Christmas Day.

I’ve got three theories for why this might be:

  • The Facebook generation have enough of their families early in the day, and want to catch up with what their friends got up to on Christmas Eve more than if they weren’t hanging out with the folks
  • There just isn’t anything else going on on Christmas Day. News papers shut down. People trying to make news don’t say anything cause they think no-one is watching, or if they are, there’s no working journalists or outlets to report and publish it anyway
  • With the cost of SMS messages – the most recent way to wish your friends a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year – coming in at around $1,000,000 per GB, Facebook just plain makes sense.

Either way, Facebook is a phenomenon. When my mum starts asking about it, and my mate’s mum asks to be my friend, its gone as mainstream as you can possibly imagine. And for an advertising based business, mainstream = $$$.

If YouTube's struggling, what hope's anyone else got?

Was just reading a post from Mark Cuban, Blog Maverick, about what he percieves as desperation on the part of Google when it comes to monetising all that User Generated Content on their site.

Frankly, I don’t have the time to be a big YouTube watcher, so I’ll take Mark’s comments about changes and user experience at face value. Regardless though, I’ve long been a skeptic of the “we’ll build a loss making business with lots of eyeballs, and work out how to make a buck from it later” approach used by so many Web 2.0 consumer web plays.

And if Google can’t seem to make this work, you’ve got to ask yourself: “what hope does anyone else have”?

As remarked by Mike Cannon-Brooks in a SiliconBeachAustralia podcast, the sheer volume of eyeballs required to generate a sustainable business, assuming generous CPM’s, is amazing. If you want to have a $10m revenue business, you need to make close to $1m/month. If you manage to get $10 CPM, then you need 100 million page views per month – this is pretty massive scale, all for a business that could afford to employ, at most 50 staff, and that’s assuming you’re generating all of your own content (no licencing costs), and that your server and bandwidth costs aren’t too high.

Of course, this doesn’t mean is isn’t possible (divide all numbers by 10 if you and a few mates want to make it as a small crew), but unless you’re able to drive up your CPM by having content close to a transaction, in the current economy, its going to be an uphill battle.

revenge is sweetest when it is inevidable

there’s been a lot of talk in the press over recent weeks about the changes in australian cross-media ownership rules. considering that most places in the world don’t have laws like this to start with, much less reform, a bit of background is probably helpful.
as i’ve travelled, people from europe and the usa are routinely surprised to find that australia only has a population of around 20 million people. considering the economy of new south wales is roughly the same size as the whole of indonesia, the 4th most populous nation in the world, it is easy to see how we tend to punch about our weight as a country.
given the power of the 4th estate in any democratic nation the government decided a while ago to limit the amount of inflence any one media mogul could have in a given market, defined at the time to be a capital city. this level of government interaction was fairly justified, as the small australian market still managed to breed a number of media powerhouses, most notably rupert murdoch’s news corporation.
while ownership in the print media is quite concentrated, the behaviour of the television networks over the last 10 years or so has robbed australians of the services many other western nations take for granted.

around the year 2000, australia was deciding between competing standards for digital television. the government had announced the release of spectrum suitable for digital television, and it was up to the government, industry and consumer groups to decide which standard would be adopted. with only three commercial tv networks – and thus very oligopolistic control over the television advertising market – the incumbents had a significant incentive to stop others from joining the tv broadcasting club. through a mixture of successful lobbying, weak politics and the timing of a pending election (as well as the incumbents convincing the govt that they’d need to spend an absolute fortune on their broadcasting equipment to move to digital, so they needed to be protected to make it worth their while), the government announced australia would get the hdtv standard, or high definition television.

the promise of hdtv was that you’d be able to get crystal clear picture with 5.1 surround sound. unfortunately, however, very very few programmes were recorded in a quality that could suppoort hdtv, so the best a viewer would get from this new standard was a widescreen format of picture. honestly, i don’t think a lot of people would have cared too much anyway – who really wants to see who wants to be a millionare in 5.1 surround sound?

the reality – and certainly the intention – of hdtv is that it is very, very hungry for bandwidth. one channel of hdtv uses around 10 times more spectrum than a regular digital widescreen channel. this meant that the networks ensured that there wouldn’t be room for new digital services – including interactive tv and the delivery of a news channel or other content more closely resembling the internet, also known as datacasting – to compete with the incumbents. just in case there was a bit of room – and there still is – the government passed laws forbidding datacasting from looking at all like a tv service; ie, no full motion video for more than a certain length of time.

so, basically, australian consumers got screwed, particularly when you compare it to what the british got from their digital tv service (40+ channels free to air, interactive for things like polling and voting; essentially the innovation you’re never going to get from 3 fairly comfortable players in a market).
fast forward to 2006. a federal government enquiry in late 2005 found that digital tv takeup had been woeful – blind freddy could have told you this, since there isn’t much improvement at all between analogue and digital, with no new services from commercial networks. even the promise of perfect picture quality is false in most experiences, since the picture isn’t crystal clear without improving the infrastructure (read aerial) in their homes. the planned 2007 shut off of the analogue network will now be pushed back to 2012 – no surprise there; it would be a brave politician that took away tv from the masses in a country with compulsory voting – and the incumbents have had their monopoly extended too. thankfully, though, this is all becoming a little academic – the incumbents are in for a big change that the government can’t legislate out of the equation, because this time the media competition is international, it isn’t using broadcast spectrum the government regulates, and its fully interactive with almost millions of channels to choose from.

the answer is the internet.

at the turn of the centry, almost everyone was still connecting to the internet via a 56k modem, at least at home. now most houses in australia can get online 25 times faster. in some parts of the country where adsl 2+ has been rolled out, the speeds are more than 150 times faster than an old fashioned modem. these speeds are enabling full screen video to be sent straight to the home via the internet. and products like google video, and their deal with cbs to allow cheap paid downloads of programmes further drives this trend. in australia, where we get the top shows from the usa 3-6 months after their first air in the states, this model of paid subscription further errodes the australian media outlets, in this case channel nine, with their strong relationship with cbs for content. determined fans of csi will simply set aside $2/week to watch the show 3-6 months ahead of when channel nine gives it – and commercials – to them.
so after being loosing the battle for the best by the incumbents in collusion with the government, the australian consumer is standing to win the war, thanks to the internet. the convergence of tv, internet and telecommunications is going to change a lot of things, but it is hard to see the traditional commercial media business doing well in any scenario that doesn’t involve a time machine. as a consumer who’s missed out for so long, the desire for revenge is palpable – the sweetest thing about this revenge is that it is coming from the world at large, and it completely inevidable.
of course, this isn’t the only battle facing the commercial television sector – personal video recorders, or pvr units, are creating a similarly herculean challenge to the models the sector has been using for the last 50 years. but more on that another time…

the maiden post

welcome to the maiden post of my blog. this blog has been a while coming, and this first post comes to you from the heart of the blogging revolution, the crunchhouse in silicon valley. my business partner on omnidrive – a seminal web 2.0 startup – has just been named one of australia’s top bloggers. and one of my friends in the usa and occassional housemate, gabe rivera, is the brains behind one of the best bits of glue tying the whole blogging thing together, memeorandum.
i’m going to attempt to make the content in this blog global, from an australian perspective. what the hell does that mean? basically, i’m going to take an international perspective to discussing things that are in my field of concern (and possibly inflence) yet try and retain an australian character and a closer concern for the australian consequences of things that interest me than i the consequences they have on outer mongolia.

so, at the end of this first post, with nothing more than an introduction to claim, i’d like to finish with a welcome, and the hope that you enjoy the show. of course, comments are welcome at all times, and you can catch me via email at info@geoffmcqueen.com – just remember to confirm your message by replying to the challenge if it is the first time you’ve got in touch.