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Morin Tastes Own Medicine

7 May

Last Friday Facebook blocked Path’s “Find Friends” feature over brewing spam complaints. Shortly thereafter Dave Morin, Path’s CEO, proudly stated that “Path does not spam users,” but the tactics he is defending today are the very same practices that he himself cracked down on as “spam” when he was running the Facebook Platform. I watched the crack-down from the front-row at iLike, an early Facebook platform partner.

Compare Morin’s description of Path’s “feature” to the Facebook policy that was put in place while Morin was the head of developer relations for Facebook Platform. The official Facebook policy was that apps were forbidden from doing exactly what Morin now calls “not spam”:

Misleading Notifications To Users Will Be Blocked By Dave Morin - Thursday, August 16, 2007 at 2:31pmOver the last few weeks we have noticed several developers misleading our users into clicking on links, adding applications and taking actions. While the majority of developers are doing the right thing and playing by the rules, a few aren’t – and are creating spam as a result. Going forward, if you are deceptively notifying users or tricking them into taking actions that they wouldn’t have otherwise taken, we will start blocking these notifications. The bottom line is that if the notifications you send are the result of a genuine action by a Facebook user and that action is truthfully reported to the recipient so they can make an informed decision, you should have no problems. If you do find some notifications blocked, it was probably because this wasn’t the case and we will be happy to inform you of some best practices by other developers that have prevented this issue. If you've been blocked by us for deceptive notifications, the error message you will see is - 200 Permissions Error.

Here’s Dave Morin’s opposite opinion of spammy app behavior from Facebook’s 2007 anti-spam policy – pretty much the same policy that’s still in effect and caused Path to lose access:

Specifically, an app with a pre-selected (opt-out) checkbox sending messages to your entire address book if you simply pressed “OK” was what Facebook, under Morin’s oversight, considered to be a punishable violation of the terms of use. Let me say that again: the exact form of invitation interface Path uses was specifically called out and forbidden by Facebook under Morin oversight, in order to preserve the sanctity and user-experience of the Facebook platform ecosystem.

Obviously the tables are turned now that Morin is trying to build his business rather than regulating an ecosystem. The early Facebook Platform was so over-run with user-acquisition spam that it’s easy to understand why Facebook took the measures it took, to crack down on the incredibly aggressive techniques used by ethically challenged companies abusing the system to grow their user-base.

So it really doesn’t surprise me that Path’s access to Facebook friends was blocked, and in fact I’m glad as a user that Facebook is enforcing the rules. It does seem disingenuous at best and genuinely ethically questionable to me to spend your last job regulating such spammy activities and enforcing policy that forbade them, only to turn around and build a company based on just those activities. To then publicly defend your actions as “not spam” is just sarcasm.

Why do I care? I was CTO at iLike, and we were a launch partner on Facebook platform in 2007, at one point acquiring over 10M users in just 2 weeks. It was an amazing roller-coaster ride in engineering, operations, and business development. Although we used Facebook sharing and invites and we A/B-tested our notifications like crazy, we shied away from the extremely spammy tactics of the Slide‘s and RockYou‘s and others of that era, yet Dave Morin’s platform team punished good and bad apps alike. We watched the Facebook platform devolve into a sheep-throwing race to the bottom for users, and a cat-and-mouse game between aggressive apps skirting rules and the inconsistent Facebook enforcement of that time. We always aimed to keep iLike users’ best interest first and so focused our efforts on creating user value around music, concerts, and artists. Our viral user acquisition growth stuttered and suffered, but our artist and user happiness kept growing, just more slowly. Because I think we had a useful app with useful notifications and a company culture of respect for users and their privacy, I personally wish Facebook’s platform team had acted to block-out and shut-down aggressive apps and companies doing bad things rather than creating a treadmill of technical restrictions for all apps which hurt good apps while also punishing the bad. I wish they had early on implemented a simpler set of broad rules and used an active review and harsher enforcement policy more like Apple’s App Store. They’re doing better at this by shutting out Path over this kind of violation.

As for Path, I was skeptical but willing to give them a second chance after the egregious Apple address book issue last year. Now I think their M.O. is clear. It’s hard to imagine ever trusting Path to put users first when the CEO can so completely change the definition of “not spam” from one job to the other, depending on which side of the table he’s sitting on. What exactly do Dave Morin and Path believe is right for users and their product? Whatever works right now? Whatever they can get away with for growth?

Why Facebook Would Buy Atlas

6 Dec

Today Venturebeat, AllThingsD, Business InsiderReadWriteWeb and others are covering the story that Facebook might buy the Atlas ad-serving infrastructure from Microsoft’s aQuantive assets.

I may be a simple caveman, thawed from the ice by your scientists, but as somebody who has built ad-based web-sites with millions of daily impressions, talked with advertisers and agencies, and built a mobile ad-targeting/-network company which sold to Facebook in early 2011, I’ll tell you that this deal is not about a build-versus-buy decision around the “complexity” of web-wide-scale ad-serving. This is a really great move for Facebook, probably the smartest move I’ve seen from them in a while, but not at all for the reasons these early stories are saying.

Nope. I’d say it’s all about (a) the ad-entry, campaign-management, and reporting tools, (b) the relationships, and (c) the cookies & data.

First, the ad-entry and campaign-management/reporting-tools which Atlas has are not only familiar to ad agencies, brands, and advertisers around the world, they are in fact often required. When you create ads, resell ads, or are a publisher making space for ads and you go after big accounts, you are required to use either Microsoft/Atlas or Google/DoubleClick. They just don’t want to mess around with any custom reporting formats and they don’t want to have to train account managers, agencies, or anybody in their business about how to use your custom or weird tool. Even if you have a custom or weird tool, or a custom ad-format, or a custom ad network, you are asked to integrate Atlas or DoubleClick tracking into your ad. The account will glance at your custom snazzy reports, but they are verifying their ad buy with you based on the Atlas or Doubleclick dashboard and reports.

Secondly, the Atlas team has a huge number of relationships with agencies and brands. Facebook would get those relationships and contacts.

Finally, and perhaps more important of all, Atlas’ backend database contain browser cookies and a vast quantity of inferred demographic data which Facebook would be buying to blend in with its own demographic data and cookies. This would round out its cookies and demographic data for ad-targeting across the entire internet.

Serving billions of small bits of HTML, tracking their placement, click-through rates, and collecting additional information about who has viewed and interacted with those bits of HTML — that is not a build vs. buy decision for Facebook. They do this better, cheaper, and faster than anybody else on the web — you’ve heard of the “Like” button, right? And the Facebook commenting API? Right, that’s something that Facebook does just fine. (In fact I will argue here at some point that they probably do it at 1/5th the cost of the second-best player, Google).

Facebook’s ad-campaign, campaign-management, demographic-targeting and reporting infrastructure has only recently gotten beyond self-serve quality — only recently at the level of complexity buyers consider baseline coming from Atlas and Doubleclick. Buying this tool-set and team to jigger the back-end ad-serving and tracking to run on Facebook infrastructure  is such a good idea, as is using the key people on that team to enhance Facebook’s tools and agency relationships.

Hopefully by tomorrow there will be more in-depth reporting about what’s actually interesting about this deal, because it is a big deal, and it is a very smart deal. But the reporting you’re reading today is, I think, stupid.