Stop me if I’ve said this too many times already: Facebook’s biggest privacy problem isn’t Facebook, it’s the apps. Or as I like to call them, the craps.
It’s not just those obnoxious Social Reader apps, which I ranted about earlier this week. It’s not even the garish yet inexplicably popular apps like Words With Friends. (I like word games as much as the next guy, but playing WWF is like playing Scrabble inside a clown factory.) And don’t even get me started about the dysfunctional ZyngaVille family.
No, the biggest problem is all the crappy little homemade apps that are designed to suck information and funnel money from users, mostly teenagers, all of which seem to eventually find their way to my daughter’s Facebook wall. Like these:
Many of these slimy apps are operated by allegedly legitimate companies like TapJoy, which make money by selling “coins” that can be used to unlock new parts of games, and also by capturing your personal information and selling it over and over again to lead-generation firms.
So far, Facebook has done a thoroughly crappy job of policing its 500,000+ apps to remove things like this. That may soon change, now that it has introduced the App Center – its answer to Apple’s iTunes Store and Google’s Android Play.
According to the Facebook Developer Blog, the App Center will allow the best apps to rise to the top, while the scummy/spammy/slimey apps get kicked to the curb:
Success through the App Center is tied to the quality of an app. We use a variety of signals, such as user ratings and engagement, to determine if an app is listed in the App Center…. Well-designed apps that people enjoy will be prominently displayed. Apps that receive poor user ratings or don’t meet the quality guidelines won't be listed.
So, problem solved, right? Well, maybe not. Note the wiggle room in the phrase “we use a variety of signals,” including (but not exclusively based on) user ratings.
In other words, Facebook is saying yes, we want the best apps to appear at top of the charts. But it's also implying that if you pay them enough coin (real, not Tapjoy coins) they might consider promoting your crappy app alongside all the ones that earned their spots at the top.
Cynical? Sure. But it’s not like Facebook hasn’t done this before. For example, it was pretty obvious a few months back when Facebook tweaked its EdgeRank algorithm to give favorable treatment to Spotify song lists. Or just this week, when the Washington Post claimed that the massive decline in people using its Social Reader app was caused by a change in how frequently Facebook promoted it. Given Facebook's incredibly tight financial relationship with Zynga, can we really trust them to not promote the latest 'villes,' regardless of what users might actually think about them?
I think a merit-based App Center that promotes the good and punishes the wicked is a great idea. I just don’t trust Facebook to not muck with it to its own advantage. They control the horizontal, they control the vertical, and they have an IPO coming up. Nuff said.
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Now read this: