March 07, 2008

Trashing Our Social Relationships (with Porn) to Get Your Numbers Up

Ok, there's a lot in that title. Let me explain (though I did blog about this earlier).

First, yesterday at the Supernova / Wharton event, in Jerry Michalski's session on business and social media (can't remember exact title) we spent much of the time talking privacy, online communication, games and social networks (er, social graphs but i really hate the fad where we make up a new word for something that is already working just so we can dink around with a new set of conferences, etc. but I digress. Though I would point out that one friend who attended SGP said the women at the event all seemed to get it, and then men all wanted to run calculations on our "social graphs" entirely missing the point. Oh well.)

At the end, Jeff Clavier, who apparently was at the Social Graphing conf/camp in San Diego earlier this week, gave a wrapping up of what happened. He mixed in a little of his perspective due to his investing in apps on Facebook, and threw in some perspective on the Stanford class that did some experiments on Facebook apps and their results. One example Jeff gave was about an app maker from the class had gotten 5 million people to click into his app (though they all immediately disappeared just after) in 5 weeks (correction, not 5 days -- as Jeff said to me later, correcting this, "damned French accent" because many of us heard "5 days").

I had to wonder, why would five million people do that? What's the benefit to them? Apparently the app maker, some young guy, is thrilled (and it sounded like Jeff might want to work with him or even invest). His experiment (with all of us, the greater Facebook community, as guinea pigs) worked for him, though I'd guess it wasted 5 million people's time, for a couple of minutes each.

I commented about the aspects of Facebook applications inadvertently trashing our relationships, at times, in order to get their numbers up, and using deceptive practices and features to do it, and said it thought it was really uncool. But there wasn't time to explain what I really thought, or the background of why I think this, and so, here we go:

Ok, imagine you get some sort of email message from a friend in Facebook. This is a real friend, someone you do business with and/or socialize with and maybe have known for a long time (as in, a lot longer than Mark Zuckerberg has been out of his teens and been (on paper) counted as a billionaire). Or maybe it's someone you work with (note that there's a lot of caselaw around sexual harassment.. so accidentally sending porn spam to people you work with or work for you, or you work for, doesn't seem like the greatest thing you would want to do either).

The message asks you to click into Facebook, at which point, you are asked to "install an app" (and, why? Just to read a message do I have to install an App? Oh yeah, this is about getting the applications numbers up ... so you do it, because you want to see your "real" friend's message). Then, once installed, you are taken to Slide's Fun Wall App, which shows you some porn, and says, "Click Foward to see what happen."

See this screen shot of the first round of porn spam I got (NSFW btw so be careful opening it).

I almost clicked "forward", but scrolled around past the fold. Turns out, if i'd clicked the "forward" button, Slide would have forwarded that spam to EVERYONE I KNOW in Facebook. All 500+ of them.

Now, let me explain who everyone is. Yes, of my 500 or so contacts, maybe 300 are in the tech community (and as such, expect early-adoptor screw ups and experimentation). But 200 are not. About 10 of these people are people I grew up with (we've been together as friends since nursery school). They don't know what the "tech community" is, much less care. Some of these people are religious and I would venture have never seen porn before or it's very rare in their lives. They aren't early adoptors. They expect that any communications are going to be real, and not some tech community experiment to figure out some thing that later promotes some business/VC investment, in order to see how the world of advertising can advance.

Or, take all the people I do business with, or the people who I work with, or work for me, or I work for. It would be just great to send them some porn spam. Or my brother and sister. They would luv to get porn spam from me. Not. Or how about my extended relatives in Europe? I think they are ripe for a little porn spam. No?

So.. I unchecked all 500+ contacts that Slide had checked, and wasn't able to view the message further (what was going to come next after I was asked to hit the "forward" button). So I figured out one profile I could link to who was a friend, and then forwarded the message there, " see what happen."

Well, guess what? Nothing "happen." Except that the message was forwarded to the one person I left checked. In other words. It's trick porn spam, features courtesy of Facebook and Slide.

So I sent in complaints to both companies (neither have contacted me back after a month -- guys, it's a social network, you know how to reach me.. give it a try!!)

After a while, I called people in each company that I knew through the tech comany. And was appalled at the responses I got. Now, these are people I know socially, and they gave me the real answers, but with the expectation that I would not attribute to them. However, I am confident that their answers reflect the culture and real value sets within these companies.

Facebook pointed the finger at Slide (the app maker in this case), and said, "There is nothing we can do. We have no control over the apps people make or the stuff they send." Oh, and if I wanted Facebook to change the rules for apps makers? I'd have to get say, 80k of my closest Facebook friends to sign on a petition or group, and then they might look at the way they have allowed porn spam to trick people into forwarding, but until then, there would be no feature review.

Slide said that they thought Facebook was the problem, because as the "governing" body, Facebook makes the rules and "Slide wouldn't be competitive if they changed what they do, and their competitors weren't forced to as well." In other words, Slides competitors use the same features to get more users (or trick more users as the case may be) and Slide didn't want to lose out on getting more users with similar features, regardless of the effect the features have on us and our relationships.

Also both companies told me that blogging doesn't affect them, because they don't read blogs. The only thing they pay attention to are Facebook groups. Because they don't look at problems that a single person discovers.

So in other words, a person with a legitimate complaint needs to have massive agreement and numbers in a Facebook group before these companies will even discuss a problem.

And, Slide and Facebook are willing to trash our relationships (real relationships) in order to get more numbers.

Now, note that many of the folks who sent the various porn spam (not just the ones in the photos above) sent very apologetic notes, because they were mortified that they had send their contacts porn spam.

Think about that. Your social networking / application software tricks you into doing something terribly socially embarrassing and you have to apologize? Wo. That's really messed up.

In other words, your social networking software / applications are, gasp, anti-social.

One guy in the Supernova / Wharton session yesterday asked how many people were in my Facebook list, and when I said 500, implied that most regular people have say, 50-100, and therefore it's not a bad problem. Well, I'd say each relationship is probably pretty important and this is an appalling justification for these applications and social network's feature sets and behaviors.

So I have to ask, if these young boys (Zuckerberg, the app makers in the class at Stanford, etc) are so clueless about relationships and social protocols, that they would build apps and a system that promotes bad behavior like this, where are their mentors? Where are their funders (who presumably have some input and sway into what's going on)? Why aren't Peter Thiel and Dave McClure or even Jeff Clavier (who sounded like he was trying to or has invested in some of the guys from the apps class at Stanford) advising these people that while they are experimenting, that these are real established relationships, and Facebook is now mainstream, and therefore the apps can't do this to people? I mean, it seems logical (and has happened in cultures around the world for millennia) that older, wiser men would advise young, clueless hormone driven boys how to act in the community. And what of Max Levechin? I mean, he's kind of in the middle, age wise, but shouldn't he know better than this?

Is the desperation for fame and money so great, that people would simply eschew social concerns in favor of ratings which then equal higher company valuations, and more billions on paper? Or do you want your claim to fame to be: "At least 15 million minutes wasted" from your experiments on Facebook (as I would imagine the Stanford student described above could claim)?

I guess the answer is yes, and so my response is, I can't trust Slide, or Facebook. Nor do I have respect for their founders if this is the way they handle themselves and their companies.

And where are the advertisers who might put pressure? The ones on the page I show above (not all the porn spam trickery I got, but the first batch) are Toyota and Gartner?

I deleted all my Slide apps after my last blog post, a month ago, and since heard from maybe 20 people in person that after reading my post, they'd done the same. But I guess we don't count, since we only have a few people concerned.

I hope the folks who attended the session yesterday at Wharton have a better idea as to why I find this upsetting, and upon hearing that more "experiments" with Facebook apps are happening, why I might get worried and distrust the process, the results and the motivations behind them.

Note: I am aware that Facebook did recently force apps makers to default turn "off" the checked names in forward (as far as I can tell from my own analysis of Facebook and via other blogs explanations). But I have yet to receive replies to my original support notes to these companies, and feel confused about an unspoken, barely there response. It's as though after barely changing one thing aspect of a feature, in order to mitigate the problem, they want to sweep it all under the rug. But I don't feel confident that these companies either care about the spam problem, the porn problem or the social abuse problems they are allowing.

For now, the answer for me is to use Facebook minimally and Slide not at all. Interestingly, at recent social gatherings I've mentioned these issues. At almost every one, people have said they are getting off Facebook and not going back, for precisely the reasons I mention above.

I guess that's the only way to make an impression on Facebook and Slide. Shut down your own use.

Posted by Mary Hodder at March 7, 2008 07:20 AM | TrackBack

Thanks for sending a link to your post.

You seem to be putting in the same bucket Slide's applications, with which you have had some of the issues you are listing, and some of the applications that were developed by students of the Stanford course. Some of the applications that were developed there might be dubbed trivial, but for most the goals were to put in place some of the viral distribution theory that they learnt through the course, and not any specific retention. So calling these guys "clueless" is unjustified and excessive IMHO. Especially given the fact that the few I had the pleasure to meet socially in a few occasions were actually pretty smart.

As to the social abuse, Facebook and the other players are putting in place some limitations following the feedback of their users. I see the space maturing to a point where "worst offenders" will be duly penalized and useful applications will still be able to benefit from the opportunity of a truly viral distribution. Because of their usefulness, not by tricking people.

Posted by: Jeff Clavier at March 7, 2008 04:39 PM

Hi Jeff,
You are right that the stanford guys are different than the slide guys. Of course. But I was trying to get across why I thought the description from you of what they did worried me: 5 million app installs in 5 days is astounding. But also worrisome in light of what's been going on.

I agree with iterative development generally.. especially in pull-situations where a user goes to a site and "gets info." But when users share all their friends, and the iteration is with their relationships, developers have to be super careful.

Maybe, it's a lab that's needed so that all these different features, with large sets of people in various configs, is what's needed.

I don't see testing on us and our relationships as a great thing, considering how obtuse the tests on us have already been.


Posted by: mary hodder at March 7, 2008 05:01 PM

I thought that Mary's comments and example were insightful at the Supernova / Wharton event, and this writeup elaborates nicely.

People, including me, got so excited at how fast an "application" can gain traction and spread on Facebook. For someone whose origins are in the embedded software world, with its two year+ cycle from product development to shipping product, it seemed like utopia had arrived.

However, when you look more closely, this turns out to be more like the excitement over the ability to reach large numbers of people via email. Remember the excitement of your first email account, and the ability to send mail to your whole circle of friends and family at once? Then we got chain letters, and the concomitant accelerated speed of the spread of urban legends, followed by the I Love you virus, ending with the deluge of spam that we endure daily. In an un-regulated environment where the recipients of spam bear the cost of the spam, Gresham's Law rules and the bad drives out the good. Facebook seems like it is headed the same way, and the people who know better are helping them kill the golden goose. To finish out the Malapropisms, when you have too many viruses in the herd, the herd either dies out or evolves an immunity to the virus. I'm recovering from my Facebook virus.

I'm sure there is money to be made in spam, but I would think that those smart folks could figure out better ways to make money that leave them able to look at themselves in the mirror in the morning.

Posted by: Tim at March 7, 2008 10:53 PM