Getting people to use Loladex (Part 2)

My previous post was about why you’d want to use Loladex.  This post is about the nitty-gritty of getting people to do so.

Fair warning: If you don’t care about the inner workings of Facebook, this may not fascinate you.

OK, so we have this Loladex product.  Among other things, it allows you to ask your friends for advice on local businesses.  You might need help finding a good electrician, for instance.

Because Loladex delivers advice from your friends, it works best when it’s hooked into a social network.  And among the social networks, we like Facebook best: It’s unmatched in its combination of audience size, integration tools, and viral channels.

So we launched Loladex on Facebook.

And two months later we still like Facebook.  But …

But even on Facebook, our users can’t be fully social.  And therefore they can’t get the full benefit of Loladex.  It’s harder than I’d like, for example, to ask my friends if they know … well, a good electrician.

This isn’t just a problem for us.  It’s Facebook’s problem, too, because real-life applications like Loladex are what Facebook needs in order to build long-term relevance.

So far our biggest issues have been:

  1. Facebook’s lack of clarity about how its own systems work; and
  2. The poisoned atmosphere that’s been created by many Facebook applications.

First, lack of clarity about Facebook’s internal workings.

For sure, this is partly our own fault.  We’re still climbing the Facebook learning curve.  Sometimes we just don’t know where to look for information.

Also, Facebook is a young company, moving quickly and constantly changing its own rules.  It’s just about to launch a big redesign, for example, and we don’t really know how it’ll affect us.  We accept that.

But Facebook makes things worse by being deliberately mysterious about some of its key features.  A classic example is the News Feed that appears on everyone’s Facebook home page.

If you’re a Facebook user, you’re familiar with the News Feed: It shows you what your friends have been doing and saying on Facebook, and sometimes on other sites too.  In an ideal world, Loladex could use it as a reliable communication channel.

The thing is, your News Feed shows only a small slice of your friends’ activity.  Facebook decides which items will (and won’t) be displayed.  It does so the same way Google assembles its search-results pages — via an algorithm that it changes often and will describe only vaguely.

There’s a reason for this, of course.  Like the Google search-results page, the News Feed is valuable real estate.  Publish an exact formula and it’ll be abused by spammers and others.

Still, the secrecy means we must work within an uncertain system.  We follow Facebook’s guidelines, but often it doesn’t help.  So we dive into the many long, geeky Facebook discussions that have flowered across the Web.  Some tips are helpful, others are either outdated or wrong.

Sorting through all this vague and unreliable information is a time drain for Loladex.  Experimenting with different methods, even more so.  But both are necessary, unfortunately.

To complicate mattters, it’s tough to know when we’ve solved a problem.  Unlike Google, where everyone sees the same search-results page (more or less), everyone’s News Feed is different.  Even when something seems to work, it may not be working for everyone.

OK, now for our second big issue: The bad faith of many Facebook applications.

Simply put, Facebook’s utility is being crippled by all the dumb, spammy and downright abusive applications it enables.  See below for a typical example of how such applications spread: 

These black hats make it difficult for Loladex to build a white-hat application, for at least two big reasons:

  1. Rather than making communication easier among its users, Facebook has been making it harder.  It has tried to devise formulas that’ll penalize only “bad” applications, but everyone gets snagged to some degree.
  2. Because of the ongoing torrent of crap, some Facebook users have stopped clicking any buttons that might send a message to their friends.  Many also ignore every single invitation they get.  Or if they add an app, they disable the very communication features that’ll make it work properly. 

The net effect is a big damper on Facebook’s potential, and a tougher task for Loladex.

I remain a fan of Facebook, but I’m not sure it understands the depth of its problem here.  I’m reminded of when AOL was reviled for assaulting its users with pop-up ads.  Eventually management shut them down, but it took too long and there were too many half-measures along the way.  AOL was definitely hurt; arguably, it never recovered.

So what’s to be done?  How do we overcome these issues so that Loladex users can get the most from Facebook?

In the short run, we’re working on our own solutions.  I’ll blog about them as we roll them out in the coming weeks.

In the medium run, though, I believe Facebook must make some changes.

Specifically, Facebook must start discriminating between applications — and not just via its algorithms, a tactic that ultimately punishes its users.  Besides policing bad apps, Facebook should be using human beings to identify and favor applications that can be useful in people’s regular lives, because their growth is in the company’s strategic interest.

Exactly how to favor such apps is up to Facebook.  I would suggest easier access to the News Feed and a more prominent “request” mechanism, achieved via clear procedures that don’t need to be secret because they’re open only to approved applications.

Whatever the method, it’d be refreshing to see Facebook focus once again on making communication easier — not on shutting it down.

In this vein, there have been rumblings lately, apparently false, that the company might add a “preferred developer” or “preferred application” program.  I would welcome such a program, and I’d happily pay to participate.

If I were Facebook, I’d make it work something like this:

•  Applications must fall into categories that are judged to be strategic to Facebook.  The list of categories could start small & be expanded.

•  Applications must have existed for X weeks, and during that period must have met minimum standards for non-spamminess.

•  Applications must follow all of Facebook’s rules and recommended practices.  (Facebook should be documenting more of these rules and practices.)

•  As a token of their seriousness, developers pay an upfront fee to participate.  In return, Facebook gives them an equivalent advertising credit.

•  Developers include a prominent, standardized way for users to complain to Facebook, which hires user advocates to field these complaints.  The process should be human: If developers don’t work in good faith to fix problems, the advocates may yank their privileges.

•  Approved applications are clearly identified as “safe” by Facebook to its users.

The exact mechanics don’t matter, however.  The main thing is, this requires human intervention.  Facebook can’t rely on statistics alone to recognize and promote the applications that will turn it into a fully functioning community.

Which categories and applications should be promoted?  Again, that’s up to Facebook.  I don’t know what they’re aiming for, but I’m pretty sure they can’t be thrilled with the current mix, or the resulting assessments of their platform.

In any rational process, I’m confident that applications such as Loladex will be part of the solution.  As such, they should get more help than, say, Vibrating Hamster — which may be a part of the solution itself, I suppose, but for an entirely different problem.