Sacrificing Trust for Virality 

The Negative Externalities of Spammy Mobile Apps 

Earlier this month, news broke that Path was sending unwanted invites by accessing new users’ address books upon sign up and forcing them to “opt-out” of inviting everyone in their adress book to join the mobile social network. This viral hack grew to prominence on Hacker News when one blogger awkwardly had to explain to his grandparents that they were sadly unable to download Path to their landline. Not surprisingly, during the time this viral hack was introduced, Path saw a record number of downloads, and became one of the most popular apps in the App Store .

It was a cunning move on their part. Though it led to some outraged users from this wanton breach of trust (such as the author of the aforementioned blog post), it allowed founder Dave Morin to create a PR campaign around their perceived “growth”. It’s evident that Path will never regain the trust from those new users whom unknowingly sent invites to everyone they knew. They obviously are not concerned about those people, and are instead more so intrigued by the prospective users lying in others address books. The company made a conscious decision to forego the trust of few to gain viral exposure to many - an action, that in my view should not be taken lightly.

Mobile developers are given access to a number of incredibly personal aspects of one’s life: location, contacts, attention (push notifications), privacy, and one’s social graph. These are privileges that developers should value with tremendous integrity and trust. Unfortunately, when one app breaches this trust (i.e. Path) every single other app developer must slowly rebuild that trust to all prospective users.

The negative externality of spammy mobile apps is a user’s visceral distrust to all other subsequent mobile apps. To that end, the person that truly loses from this type of spamming, is not the user that got spammed (he’ll get over it), nor is it Path. Instead it is other mobile developers that now face the unenviable task of rebuilding user trust. There is a reason why unsophisticated users are hesitant to: “connect with facebook”, enable push notifications, and allow access to location. But the apps that feel the wrath of these scorned users are the subsequent apps that a user downloads (or chooses not to download), not the app that breached that trust in the first place.

Dave Morin adamantly states that “Path does not spam users”, and to an extent he is correct. As seen in the above photo, Path forces the user to “unselect” all the people that the app has pre-selected the user to invite. It’s a dubious statement to suggest that this isn’t spamming. The fact that the user is about to send (in my case) 761 text messages to his closest friends is certainly not made glaringly apparent given the weight of such an action. The ability to “unselect” is hidden for a reason, and was obviously a strategic move by Path in the hopes that most users would not notice the forthcoming invitations.

Yet, I believe that Path shouldn’t be blamed for its notorious role in this paradigm: of an initial perpetrator of spam leading to distrust of all mobile apps. Consumer tech is a cutthroat environment, and with every app vying for the attention of a user, how can any mobile app be blamed for attempting to get as many users as fast as possible? An app’s sole goal is to optimize for its own growth and self preservation, and for that reason, there should not be an expectation for mobile apps to police themselves. The Apps Stores (Apple and Google) and sharing platform (Facebook and Twitter) are the only entities that can save app developers from themselves for the betterment of all users . More stringent requirements to ensure that users are informed whenever any element of their identity are shared are required.

Josh Elman, former product/growth guy at Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter notes in this growth hacker TV podcast that there is a marked distinction between virality and growth. It’s easy for a company to integrate a viral hack through spam and obtrusive sharing that leads to a short term uptick and users. This, in turn, shows that an app is popular in the App Store and to the untrained eye it appears this company is “growing”. It’s unfortunate, but most app developers naively believe that this virality will manifest a perception of growth, and then lead to actual growth. With more stringent controls from the App Stores and sharing platforms, we wouldn’t experience these ambiguities and would it would lead to a stronger indicator of true market demand for apps. It’s my hope that under these conditions, apps that are genuinely growing will rise to the top, and those attempting to engineering their own virality will dissipate into irrelevance.

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