Spam your friends to win

27 January, 2008 at 11:29 pm Leave a comment

Any software application which encourages or requires you to pass on messages to your friends is a bad thing.  Facebook is a culprit because it promotes applications which do this.

Applications that do this are a bad thing because while the person using the application is not inconvenienced very much, it will annoy all that person’s friends.  They, unfortunately, had no say in whether they got this piece of advertising sent to them.  Because it came to them via a friend – someone they know – they feel they can’t complain.

It’s something that is pissing me off about Facebook at the moment, but before I go to that I wanted to talk about about viral marketing.

Although based on a pre-existing concept, the buzzword viral marketing comes from pre-2.0 web days, and refers to any marketing which is done by encouraging people to pass a marketing message on to their friends, voluntarily.

The idea that this is voluntary is key here.  Sure, perhaps none of the ‘friends’ solicited this advertising, but the idea is that the person passing on the message truly wants to spread the good word about a product or service.  Let’s say I eat a delicious meal of fish and chips.  If I recommend it to a couple of my friends, I am participating in viral marketing.  In order to put this into motion, the fish and chip shop had to create a product that was so compelling, its customers could not help but to spread the good word to their friends.

The problem worsens slightly when the passing on of such marketing messages is not entirely voluntary: it is influenced in some way. For example, a web application will suggest that the user forward something to their friends, making it easy to do so by providing a special form just for this purpose. This makes the passing on of the message less of a natural, evolutionary process where the best products will generate the most interest, and transforms it into a process where companies offer various gimmicks to encourage people to ‘forward’ messages to their friends.  The messages just start to get annoying.

I’m annoyed when I see that I have a message (email, SMS or some other online message) from a friend, only to open it and find out it is, well, spam.  I’m even more annoyed to suspect I’m not the only one who received the message: that my friend probably spammed a whole bunch of people, and I am only one of many.  It’s a small slap in the face to find that a message from a friend is not a personal message at all but was forwarded.  It’s a much larger slap in the face when it’s an obvious commercial or hoax message with little to no hint of personalisation from the friend – no ‘hey M. I thought you’d be interested in this cos you like horror movies’, just the impersonal forwarded message.

This is what the term viral marketing came to mean on the web.  Claiming on the surface to be a natural, non-intrusive process in which people only pass on messages to friends who they believe will genuinely and personally benefit, it’s grown into a group of industries that seek to exploit people by preying on their gullibility and the carelessness with which they will send on messages to their friends for a trivial reward.

Marketing is not the only motivation behind getting people to forward messages on to their friends.  Some people or companies do it just to get a kick out of seeing how far their message spreads.  This is the case with hoaxes and chain letters, both of which deceive people in order to get them to forward the message on to their friends.  The latter lie about various benefits the user will receive if they forward the message.  These can prey on the superstitious (‘forward this to 20 people or your hair will fall out’), the greedy (‘send a $1 to this person and before long you’ll receive over $300’) or otherwise gullible (‘forward this message to all your friends so that Microsoft don’t shut down your account’).

Email itself can be a problem.  The relative ease with which somebody could forward a received message to their entire address book used to land countless chain letters in my inbox, though people seem to be a lot more educated about the problems of spam these days that it isn’t so much a problem – besides, there are far greater problems with email spam.

Facebook is a bad thing because it allows for applications to be built which require or encourage you to pass on messages to your friends. It is too easy for applications to exploit users into passing messages around the network, because every Facebook user is inherently connected with a network of friends, including friends who share trust, and are interested in communicating with each other.  Facebook users install applications which are written by third parties, with varying motivations for creating them. In many cases it appears that the application developer simply wanted to get a kick out of seeing how quickly their application would travel around the network.  Applications also derive income from advertising, which ties the developer’s bottom line to the number of people using the application.

Some of the fastest spreading Facebook applications are the most annoying. For example, the applications ‘Super Wall’, ‘Fun Wall’, any application which appears to be some sort of IQ or personality test (with the exception of the one actually called ‘IQ Test’), ‘Top Friends’ and more have spread quickly through the network due in part to the fact that in order to participate in them, your friends have to be involved too.  However, these applications exploit people as described below.

‘Super Wall’ and ‘Fun Wall’ lead users to believe that only by installing this application will they be able to send and receive wall posts containing videos, pictures or gifts, but these are all available in the regular built-in wall.  The only unique feature of these applications is the existence of a ‘Forward’ button below every post, which makes it easy for users to forward a message to not just one, but many of their friends at once.  The messages sent through these applications are therefore much less likely to be personal, as they are used to send messages at large to many people.  This has given birth to the phrase ‘click forward see what happens’, a gullibility test in itself which has failed enough people that hoax messages like these litter the entire network, proving to be an annoyance to everyone, not only those that fell for the lie.

A number of times have I installed an application that seems like a relatively fun and silly test – of my personality, for example – and have filled out the entire questionnaire only to find that in order to see any results I have to forward an advertisement to at least 20 of my friends. Presumably, the fact that I invested so much time filling out what I thought was just an amusing little test will outweigh the guilt of annoying a bunch of my friends with a promotional message encouraging them to install a certain application, and I’ll go ahead and spam them in order to get my results.  Not me though.  I will simply get angry and give up on seeing the results, concluding that I have just had ten or twenty minutes of my free time wasted in the name of trying to get me to spam my friends.

Perhaps if Facebook were not such a ubiquitous and otherwise useful medium I wouldn’t be nearly as annoyed.  I have received invitations to do various things in other social networking software and have just turned it down, because it didn’t seem worth using them anyway.  But nearly everyone I know my age has a Facebook account – I can only think of two friends my age who don’t. It’s becoming such a normal way to communicate with people.  Some friends even send out invitations to social events through it.

I guess that Facebook could remove the ability for applications to forward messages to many people at once.  But the entire network stands to benefit so much from the rapid take-up of its applications that I presume they’d be resistant to taking steps to limit this spread.

I maintain, however, that applications, such as Facebook applications, which encourage or require users to pass on messages to friends are a bad thing and should somehow be restricted.  There is no need to remove the ability for someone to tell a friend about an application altogether.  But it shouldn’t be allowed to be forced or encouraged, for if this is done it ceases to promote adoption of applications based on their true merit and becomes a competition in which application developers try to deceive or exploit people.

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Entry filed under: User interfaces. Tags: , .

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