So sorry -- didn’t mean to spam you

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

WHILE playing around recently with Facebook’s most popular application, Super Wall -- essentially a virtual blackboard that allows users to post text, audio, videos and even original “graffiti” on one another’s profile pages -- I apparently sent an image of two half-dressed women kissing while perched atop a pair of beer kegs -- to seventy-six of my friends. The caption read, “COLLEGE: The only place where . . . like this happens!”

By " . . . like this,” do they mean spamming your boss, co-workers, cousins, friends and business contacts with semi-pornographic (and worse: unfunny) junk mail?

I say “I apparently sent,” because I have no memory of transmitting any such inane “greeting card” to anyone, let alone everyone.

The episode was a textbook example of what’s been happening to Facebook lately. (I have a pair of examples, really: I’m also credited with mass-forwarding a photo of a crying baby captioned -- hold on to your sides -- “Please mommy, no more peas.”)

Until recently, Facebook has provided a largely spam-free environment. It’s difficult for spammers to operate, since there are no e-mail addresses. Likewise, installing apps is an exclusively “opt-in” process. You can never be inundated with messages or solicitations because you get only what you sign up for.

But with apps like Super Wall and FunWall, two of the top five most popular Facebook mini-programs, frivolous mass-messaging has become the rule. It’s true they’ve evolved Facebook’s original Wall by allowing users to post more kinds of media, which has allowed certain online videos to gain popularity even faster than before. But the new Walls have devolved too -- not just by making it easy to spam dozens of your friends with one errant click -- but by making it hard not to.

No doubt I clicked the wrong button at some point, failing to realize that the application, lying in wait for me to do just that, had automatically selected dozens of my friends as recipients for this “accidental” mega-spam.

Checking out my own Super Wall, and those of friends, it’s clear that I’m not the first to take this new form of bait. Super Walls everywhere are plastered with chain letters, annoying images and even clever trick-spam: If you don’t think a message titled “click forward to see what happens” is clever enough to fool you, look around: You may be in the minority. I was.

Indeed, Facebook groups like “I HATE SUPERWALL/FUNWALL” and “A MORT LE SUPERWALL !!!!” have thousands of irate members. The anti-spam backlash was severe enough that a little more than a week ago, Facebook tightened the reins. You will no longer see News Feed stories -- little headlines telling your friends what you’ve been up to -- that report actions you yourself didn’t initiate. The idea being, your friends shouldn’t have to hear that you “received” a Super Wall post. (Imagine if every time your friend received a piece of junk mail, that you received a piece of junk mail notifying you your friend had received it.)

Jia Shen, chief technical officer of RockYou, the application design start-up that created Super Wall, has also tweaked his app so that incidents like my mass spam are less likely to happen by accident, at least. (Sending a Super Wall message to all your friends is no longer the default.)

Shen admitted that his team has in the past “exploited viral channels” -- that is, found soft spots in Facebook’s platform that allowed them to aggressively propagate their apps.

But so did all the most successful applications, Shen said, adding that he welcomes the new rules.

“If it’s really easy to spam the crap out of the Facebook population,” he said, “in the end you’re going to poison the pond.”

Part of the problem has been the hyperconnected structure of Facebook itself. The essence of the site can be stated in one question: “What are your friends doing?” And Facebook makes darned sure, with its flood of photos, notifications and activity updates, that the question is constantly, endlessly being answered.

Developers have rightly seen the Feeds as user-generated advertising -- if the name of your app appears in someone’s Feed, that’s a de facto endorsement. With more endorsements come more users and more potential for ad revenue. It’s no wonder then that the central design goal of most apps is not user enjoyment or utility but “Gremlins"-like proliferation. With 14,000-plus applications developed since Facebook opened its platform in May, to be competitive, you must go viral.

But with all this promiscuous app-passing, much of which is fueled by new Facebook users who can’t yet tell a good app from a bad one, could the popularity of the most viral apps -- Super Wall and FunWall included -- be inflated, a sort of sub-prime app bubble? Despite the top apps’ huge user bases, if Facebookers come to associate them with junk, fakery and annoyance, then users will be turned off, and the whole Facebook economy will suffer.

Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society recently uninstalled Super Wall. Facebook, he said, is bound by a rule that has affected other open online platforms that empower users to create their own applications -- like the Web itself.

“The more open it is, the more successful it is,” said Zittrain. “The more successful it is, the more vulnerable it is, which makes it less successful.”

Zittrain said there’s a common challenge facing these open systems -- Super Wall, FunWall and Facebook itself: “Can you survive your own success?”

Click forward to see what happens!