We all use mobile social apps on our mobiles, and while many of us have preferences for one platform or another, most of us aren’t in a position to misuse them in terms of app store policies. However, there has been a growing trend of app developers on the Google Play store, the much larger iPhone App store, and even the relatively tiny app store Windows runs, to abuse social media functions. What’s happening is a relatively obvious problem when you think about it, but few users really consider it. In fact, most people tend to overlook or ignore it. That problem is known as the Tragedy of the Commons. It works like this.
First, an individual App developer creates something; let’s say they create a calculator. Of course, there are literally thousands of calculator apps; so doing something that hasn’t already been done is almost impossible. These are known as ‘me too’ apps, where a developer does something really minor, and then promotes their app as something new – only it really isn’t. It’s just repackaged, or has a different and very minor function that the developer promotes to get noticed. However, because everyone is doing this, the developer still doesn’t get noticed.
So, to promote their app they add in bonuses or features that users can get by sharing the app on a social network. Candy Crush is the biggest such app to be technically in violation of the new policies Apple is currently pushing, but Google is expected to follow suit once the dust settles over in iOS land. The problem isn’t just one App developer doing this though. It’s ten developers, or a hundred, or several thousand, and that is where the Tragedy of the Commons effect comes into play.
We’ll diverge a little from the technical example of that phenomenon, as we’re not discussing grazing sheep in English common pastures or world populations and social welfare, but the idea remains the same. For our purposes in discussing the App store, imagine someone selling vegetables (apps) in a common market. To better compete with other sellers; one seller starts shouting their wares, rather than just putting up signs. This generates more business, and so before long, all of the other sellers are shouting too. After a while, someone decides to get a megaphone, and then begin blasting his or her announcements. Pretty soon, the other sellers do the same thing.
Before too long, the market is so loud that customers can’t even make purchases. Every seller has done what was best for their own sales, not considering the market they were destroying in the process. It’s not until there are no more customers that the sellers realise they’ve created a problem that hurts them more than it helps. That’s what has started to happen with the Apple App store and social media, and what still continues to happen with other competing App stores. The end result is a bunch of apps that really aren’t that great, or simply duplicate the functions of other apps. They all use the same promotional techniques, which then skews the number of app downloads in favor of those abusing the system. This then makes legitimate apps sit on the bottom of the pile, where no one ever sees them.
Of course, the same thing happens in advertising. There was a time where discount cards were a new thing, and only one or two stores had them. Then every store started having their own, all in an effort to artificially inflate their prices, rather than really help consumers get better deals. Now there are so many discount cards out there that one can’t properly shop without being asked if they have the store card. The same can be seen with web site advertisements, where AOL and BBC are perhaps the elephants in the room, requiring people interested in watching their videos to sit through 30 seconds of advertisements. Over time, less and less people watch their videos, because no one wants to sit through a 30 second advertisement to watch 10 seconds of meaningful video.
Of course, not all developers are pleased with Apple’s decisions, but in defense of Apple, they need to protect their App store before the Tragedy of the Commons occurs. With more than a million Apps to choose from, developers claim that there is an unfair advantage held by companies that previously weren’t subjected to these restrictions. Likewise, the question remains whether App store monsters like Candy Crush will be impacted, or if big revenue generators will be allowed to keep generating profits. Some have even speculated that Apple and other app stores will allow developers that reach a certain target audience to continue promoting their apps through social, but at the moment that’s just speculation.
What isn’t speculation is that the abuse of social media to encourage additional downloads is absolutely damaging the app ecosystem. It manipulates legitimate download stats, and pushes down sometimes better and more legitimate developer efforts. As Apple owns the largest market out there, they set the rules – though many Indie developers aren’t happy with these new rules. When the dust settles, it will be interesting to see what new ways developers find to game the system.
By Paul Greenhalgh