Facebook Applications Trends Report #1
Last Friday I stumbled upon this fantastic facebook analytics site – Adonomics (previously Appaholic), which provides figures on all 8648 facebook applications. It’s similar to what you can view on facebook (i.e. most popular, % of daily activity) but with additional data such as estimate of the net value of each application as well as new and returning users.
The data immediately felt like a goldmine and prompted my curiosity to dig into the chart and to carry out a systematic analysis of the 100 most popular applications – those that have at least 1million users – in an attempt to get a better grasp on favoured activities that take place in this global playground. In a sense it is similar to my Youtube trends reports, only here instead of analysing what people are watching, I want to take a a look at what people are doing.
It is important to note that this represents only a slice of the social activity that takes place on facebook. It doesn’t say anything about what people say when they chat, what kind of groups they join, or what kind of videos and pictures they share). What I hope this report will do is to shed some light on the social meanings of these applications.
I wanted to go beyond the existing categories (i.e. just for fun, alerts, messaging, games etc) and to study the communication functions that are enabled by these popular applications. I looked for meaningful themes and patterns regarding the social needs as well as the social-communicative roles that take effect with these applications. In short – through anaysing the communicative nature of these applications I want to learn what actually happen when we hang-out on facebook?
How these social technologies weave into our offline social lives? What does it mean to poke someone? What social need is fulfilled by installing the Define Me application? Are there any common denominators between the most popular applications? Is it just life-mimicking or are these apps actually distort our social systems and generate new behaviors? These questions bugged my brain as I dived into the chart and I really hope to be able to provide some nuggets of interestingness that will help us better understand this highly addictive hype monster in general, and what makes a successful facebook application, in particular. I hope it would be interesting for users, for developers and marketers that are looking for ways to engage with facebook users.
Right, let’s start with some figures at the top and bottom of the 100 most popular apps. Leading the table is Top Friends with 22,285,000 installs and 8% daily active users. Closing this table at the time I write this report #100 is Games with 1,015,500 installs, yet only 1% of them are daily active users.
Looking at these 100 most popular applications a very interesting picture revealed. There are overall 3 categories that these applications can be organised into:
Identity formation – 43%
Phatic Communication – 37%
Other – 20%
Identity Formation – 42%
Smarter people already noted that large part of social networking activity is for the sake of working, tweaking and exercising our identities. Our facebook profiles are both extension of self and a public platform where we actively search and reflect both who we are, and who we want to be perceived as.
Within this overall category, we can find some interesting themes:
18% are self-presentation tools. From the results of a personality test presented on my profile, through applications like Hotlist (Are you Hollister or American Eagle? Heroes or 24? Canada or USA?), Live it Up! (create entries about things you want do), Cities I’ve Visited (life-streaming), My Heritage, the popular shared interests apps like Movies and ilike, to moods and emotics (ambient-intimacy/Twitter-like tools), these applications enable the users in different ways to dynamically present a rich picture of who they are. Installing common folk-mystic applications such as Horoscope, Tarot or magic 8 ball are another way of revealing parts of our selves, helping us to shape how we perceive ourselves and how we want to be perceived by others. Even the silly Your Stripper Name and Sexual Name are mini identity games of which popularity derive from allowing us a humorous flirt with things that define our culture and moral boundaries.
Thinking of these applications in terms of Goffman’s theory (that self-presentation strategy depends on context and audience) and his dramaturgical metaphor for ‘presentation of self in everyday life’ which includes the idea of “frontstage” (public, to all) and “backstage” (private, to “insiders”), we clearly see the blurring of boundaries between public and private as different context and different audiences intertwine.
The second sub-category (24%) and the more fascinating to my view are what you can call ‘through others’ or, collective identity formation - those are the applications where the user invites others, his/her friends to take part in his/her identity formation. Mead wrote extensively on how our knowledge of ourselves depends upon what (and that) others know about us. Or, in other words, we find ourselves when and how others find us.
These application enable exactly that. Define Me is the classic case in point: “Define Me allows others to anonymously list words that define you. The words are then displayed on your profile in a cloud, with the most common words appearing larger to offer an honest look at how others really view you”. Or the approval-seeking-friends-poling My Questions that allow your friends to comment on everything from your new haircut to your new boyfriend to the dress you bought. Additionally some popular applications like Are You Interested or Hot or Not serve a particular need for flirtatious interactions. They invite others to give us straightforward feedback on our look and on how attractive we are.
I spotted an interesting pattern in this group of applications, which might actually deserve a separate category. While some of them are straightforward and mundane, there is quite a few applications that meant to be more ‘dangerous’ and hence more exciting… This is where the “we are reality TV” element of facebook is reflected in it’s most popular applicatons. Like Honesty Box that “lets users send each other anonymous messages, removing any inhibitions and letting people be completely honest with you” or the postasecret-likeSocialMoth (“Socialmoth is a group confessional. See which confessions came from friends, but not which friend made the confession) and Purity Test(“How pure do your friends really think you are? Do they think you’re pure like an angel or naughty like the devil?”) these applications fulfill our desires for secrets, gossip and flirtation, as well as excitement of the unknown (what people REALLY think about us). In other words, we invite and are invited to participate in these big-brother-like interactions, expecting to be both participants and viewers of our own show. It is a perfect double-edge social sword that has the potential to increase as well as relief our social anxieties, and we find it very appealing!
Phatic Communication – 38%
The second largest category is a group of applications that best defined as Phatic Communication. This refer to all the apps used for establishing an atmosphere or maintaining social contact rather than exchanging of ideas, or, in other words, apps used to communicate sociability more than information.
Grant previously put it neatly: “The phatic messages “stack” nicely, each message presupposing and building on its predecessor. These messages are:
1. I exist.
2. I’m ok.
3. You exist.
4. You’re ok.
5. The channel is open.
6. The network exists.
7. The network is active.
8. The network is flowing.
So the sole purpose of this huge group of applications is to keep the network (and us) alive by keeping the communication flow. Now, since we are sophisticated social animals we’ve developed on facebook thousands of different ways to exercise points 1-8 above. These have evolved in form and content and we can now see 4 types (generations?) of phatic apps:
1. The pokes – what started as a simple feature built in facebook grew up to enhanced poking like superpoke, x-me, poke pro, etc.
2. The Themes – vampires, zombies, werewolves, slayers, Harry Potter spells and whatnot
3. The gifts – why poke somebody when we can give him/her a pint, hatching egg, a car or a growing plant?. The more interactive are tamaguci-like gifts (from
fluffy animals to snowman to plats) that one can stick on one’s profile and with some phatic interaction can see it grow, eat, breed etc.
4. Contextual/seasonal – mimic life and give your friends x-mass presents, or October-fest pints.
You can rightly argue that once we evolved from the generic unisex poking to a more elaborated themes and gifts-based phatic applications, there is more in these than simply to keep the network alive. After all people will give feathered handcuffs and fluffy bear to different people and that giving someone a flower or a whip can mean very different things so you are right. Same with vampires and zombies – we should ask why these particular cultural myths and symbols are so popular and have been re-coded into contemporary digital culture? I think that some of these applications indeed have some elements of the collective identity formation, or collective culture-making but in essence I believe they belong to the phatic group. Besides, I never promised 100% mutually exclusive categories
Other – 20%
Social Oraganisation – 3% of these applications including #1 are tools for social organisation. Together with Circle of Friends and We’re Related these applications enable users to organise their friends and to some extant to create hierarchy/architecture of relationships. I suspect that as friends list will get longer, and context will interweave, these will grow in popularity as the need for an order and context will only increase.
Communication tools – 9% of the applications are simply enhanced communication tools. Like the popular fun wall and super wall (#2 and #3 most popular applications with just under 15million installs, these platforms do not carry information – they enable/enhance/extend communications between users. Included in this category are the mobile, Instant and SMS messaging applications.
Games – 8%. This is a tricky one as I couldn’t decide if it desrves a separate category or should actually be a sub-category (within the self presentation one, after all these are another decorations to one’s identity). For now I’ll leave it as a separate category. Games like pac-man, the inceasingly popular jetmen, puzzles and poker, some are social games some are solitary all facilitate non-verbal interaction and are just part of what w do when we ‘hang-out’ on facebook.
So is there less to facebook than meets the eye? It’s really your to decide. I think I’d better stop here as this is already too long. One point to think about – there are only 3 branded applications in the top 100 (netflix, ilike and tripadvisor – the latter being bought rather than created) I have a lot to say about that but I’ll do it in other posts.
In the next reports I will take a closer look at differences in daily users activity since although they have millions of users installs they nevertheless have very few percentages of daily active users. In fact, not more than a quarter of the 100 most popular applications have more than 10% daily active users. I think that for the next one I want to sample 200+ of my friends and my friends’ friends to see how representative are their applications in relation to the global chart and for what social needs and functions they are using facebook for? Additionally, perhaps we’ll find that there is far more diversity in the long tail of facebook applications? For that we can look at more middle chunks of the chart with applications that are still big enough (500K users) to be a key player.
I have a feeling that FB profiles are similar to desks – they need tidy up every now and than and so people will delete apps they don’t use and new viral tricks will take the lead. Apart from the social organisation and the communication platforms, I suspect that the majority of the applications should have a fairly short life-cycleand wil wear out in a mater of months – after all how many times you can bite your friends or send them naughty gifts?
That’s it for now. Please send me your feedback on anything you fancy – whether you liked it or not and what do you think will be interesting to do next. Cheers!
UPDATE: 2nd report is out - read it here