Buddy Media On Social Software Pitfalls

Chief Product Officer warns against annoying viral tactics that will backfire, API standards that aren't all that standard, and more.

David Carr

July 5, 2012

5 Min Read
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Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it. That's as true in social software as it is in the rest of life.

Patrick Stokes, Chief Product Officer at Buddy Media, gave one of the most interesting presentations on social software design at Enterprise 2.0 Boston last month. It happened to be one of the last sessions on the last day of the conference, so it didn't get the audience it deserved. I didn't have time to write about it at the time, but it's worth following up on.

Buddy Media is the social media management firm currently in the process of being acquired by Salesforce.com. Buddy built its reputation with tools for brands to manage their Facebook presence with a variety of apps, landing pages, page tabs, and monitoring dashboards. It has since branched out to cover other social networks, recently adding management of YouTube channels.

If you want to create a truly successful social app, Stokes said, "The first thing you do is make sure your product doesn't suck." Particularly on Facebook, he said, there are cheap tricks you can use to give your app a viral boost, but they will backfire on you in the end.

[ See our special report: Enterprise 2.0 Boston 2012. ]

Stokes' prime example of this was Socialcam, a Facebook application for posting and sharing videos that has enjoyed a tremendous surge in popularity, partly because it turns every user who signs up into a marketing channel, automatically posting news feed items about their activity within the application. "Facebook calls this frictionless sharing," Stokes said, adding that in his book, "passive sharing is stealing, basically. The annoying part is this has been incredibly, incredibly valuable for Socialcam."

Frictionless sharing was the source of some controversy when it first emerged last fall as part of social reader applications from The Washington Post and others and social music sharing through Spotify. Some users who clicked past the application permissions screen without quite understanding what they were agreeing to were displeased to see all the content they accessed being shared rather than just content they specifically wanted to share with their friends.

"There are good ways to do it and bad ways to do it," Stokes allowed. Facebook originally developed the frictionless sharing feature working with Spotify, which provides free access to its music library to users who help promote the service by turning on frictionless sharing. Spotify is the app in this category that got it right, because "enhancing the user experience with music is all about discovery," Stokes said. "A lot of my friends like Spotify in that regard. Personally, I went into the settings and turned off sharing because I didn't want people seeing all the stupid things I listen to."

In more cases than not, however, these apps have seen mass defections once users realize how much they are over-sharing, according to Stokes. "If you do this, you will get that initial lift, but then it's going to die--whereas if you make the user experience better, you'll be successful."

As a company, Buddy Media has been figuring out what worked as it went along, Stokes said. "We were founded in 2007, at exactly the same time that the Facebook platform launched. We didn't know what the hell we wanted to do, but we figured there were a lot of people on Facebook and there would probably be some way to make money off it," he said. At the time, Facebook didn't have most of the vehicles for brand promotion that it has now, such as business pages. A brand that wanted to participate in Facebook would have to create a personal profile "with first name 'Coca' and last name 'Cola,'" Stokes explained.

Since then Facebook and the entire world of social software has gotten more sophisticated, with standards like OAuth 2.0 for the process of authorizing app access to your profile and other resources in a social network. The problem Stokes sees is those standards often seem to create almost as many problems as they solve.

"The problem with OAuth is, it's a piece of crap," Stokes said. "It's the source of most of my problems--keys expire, all sorts of bad things happen." The idea behind OAuth is to give an application limited access to your social account. Rather than recording your user name and password in the application, you give it a "valet key" associated with a limited set of permissions. In Facebook, the visible part of this process is where you are prompted to either authorize or deny an application you are adding a specific list of permissions, such as the ability to access your email address or create a status post on your behalf. If you decide later to remove that application from your profile, Facebook will revoke access to the OAuth key issued to that application.

However, although OAuth 2.0 was supposed to improve on OAuth 1.0, major players like Twitter haven't gotten around to implementing it because, Stokes said, "They think OAuth 2 is a piece of crap, too." Meanwhile, those networks that have implemented OAuth 2 have also done so inconsistently, undermining what was supposed to be the whole point, he explained.

Obviously, it's possible to create social applications that work despite these obstacles, or Buddy Media wouldn't have a business. The bigger pitfalls are in what you do with the available tools. In addition to the hazards of frictionless sharing, Stokes warns against the temptation to misuse data obtained through the Facebook API. "If you take their data or sell their data to do anything that isn't directly enhancing the experience, you're generally violating the terms of service, and Facebook will track you down," he said.

Does Facebook automatically know if you've imported all the email addresses obtained through your app and sold them to a third party? Not necessarily. "But eventually, they'll probably find out," Stokes warned. "People talk."

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard and facebook.com/thebyard

Every company needs a social networking policy, but don't stifle creativity and productivity with too much formality. Also in the debut, all-digital Social Media For Grownups issue of The BrainYard: The proper tools help in setting social networking policy for your company and ensure that you'll be able to follow through. (Free with registration.)

About the Author(s)

David Carr

Editor, InformationWeek Healthcare and InformationWeek Government (columnist on social business)

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