Paul Walk's Web

The selfish application

Some time ago, several of my friends in Facebook installed the ‘MyQuestions’ application: this application allows the user to pose a question and invite answers from their friends. Significantly, in order to answer a question the friend must, in turn, install the application. I was that friend. Since installing the application I haven’t intentionally used it to pose any new questions myself. However, it seems I have posed a question - on installation the application is set to ask a question, any question, in order to be seen by my friends. Anyone looking at my profile will see this question and be invited to answer (after installing the application themselves of course). So my friends will have seen that I had asked a question I never actually would have asked - in fact the teeth-curlingly banal “What is the most romantic place you’ve ever visited?”. I only discovered this when a newly ‘befriended’ friend obliged me by answering it. This kind of marketing and propagation of Facebook applications has been described as ‘viral’. Actually, I would borrow a different idea from biology - the Selfish Gene [1]. I suggest that in Facebook we are seeing something slightly new - the wholesale deployment of applications whose over-riding purpose is to be copied and installed elsewhere. Marketing has always been an aspect of commercial software development, but perhaps these applications show a different balance of priorities. Let’s examine what happened here: An application I installed displayed a message to anyone who viewed my Facebook ‘profile’. Both the application and the underlying Facebook platform colluded to present this message as having come from me. The motivations behind this behaviour are interesting:

  • the application is behaving in an entirely selfish way - it just wants to get replicated by encouraging my friends to install it
  • Facebook itself benefits from the more applications = more users = more page impressions = more advertising revenue calculation.

What I find disconcerting about Facebook is how we, the users, seem prepared to give up so much control so easily. I notice that some users are starting to use Facebook to serve their personal ‘homepage’ on the web. In the course of this it seems to me that they are compromising in the following ways:

  • they have no easy way of knowing how it actually looks to the rest of the world
  • applications they install into this area may well be carrying on with their own agenda
  • they accept that only Facebook users can access it
  • they trust the application developer not to do something naughty on their behalf - asking a very provocative question for example could get more people fired up to respond for which they would need to install the application. Note that I am not suggesting that the developer of this particular application would do, or has done, this - just that the potential is there.

For the curious, the only response to my inadvertently asked question was, “Aaah now that would be telling ;-)”. The MyQuestions application is developed by Slide. Facebook being what it is, there is no useful way of linking to the deployed application, without requiring the viewer to have a Facebook account. _[1] With apologies to Richard Dawkins. Update: Mike Ellis, in a comment below, has pointed to this story on TechCrunch, which explains some steps that Facebook are taking to restrict these sorts of nefarious activities in the part of applications running on their platform.


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