Facebook Apps and the professional unpleasantness of fun

There’s a general theme going around conversations about Facebook apps – supposedly it was a common theme at Dave McClure’s Graphing Social Patterns – that says “today people are just building apps that do things for fun, but soon we’ll see the apps that are useful.”

The theme sounds good. It makes us adults feel better, because after all we think spreadsheets are cool. Kara Swisher from the WSJ and AllThingsD wrote about how SuperPoke is for toddlers, which prompted much of this conversation.

The theme, though, has nothing to back it up.

Maybe there will be high-value, high-usage utility apps that will take advantage of the social graph and the Facebook environment, but there’s no reason we wouldn’t be seeing them today. It’s not like they must be more complicated or that they have to wait to launch until they get everything just right.

It may be that the Facebook interface doesn’t lend itself to complex interactions, and as that changes the apps might change too. But until then, this is just a case of wishful thinking for the world to look more like the grownups want to see.

We’ve been talking about this at WhitePages.com for a while – after all, our core service is a utility, though a very simple one – and then it came up as part of the Web 2.0 Summit’s Facebook app developers panel.

Keith Rabois from Slide put it neatly, saying that “people are using Facebook apps to do things they can’t do in real life” – have a food fight, send a drink to a friend at any time, etc. Most utility apps cover something you can do in real life, even if it’s a real life online.

Keith also pointed out that the things we used to think about as toys, like blogs, now have become part of the mainstream communication. It’s not impossible to think about SuperWall as a long-term communication method. (OK, a little hard.)

Lance Tokuda from RockYou was snarkier – if he built an app for Kara Swisher, only eight people would use it.

Hadi Partovi from iLike was the closest person on the panel to back up the utilities-are-coming-wait-for-it theory by saying that we should compare the apps that came out for Windows in the first few months with the ones that came out later.

Sounds good, and leads you to believe that maybe those earlier apps on Windows were just for fun until the pros came along. Actually, though, I have no idea if that’s  true. The apps I worked on post-Win3.1 launch were all “utilities” (and all bad), and certainly along with the growth of utility apps has been the growth of entertainment apps/games (with games/multimedia often driving technical requirements that utility apps benefit from). I expect the data here would be at best quite noisy.

Finally – and here’s a shocker – adults like to waste time too! The Wall Street Journal’s article on Scrabulous inside Facebook reads like the articles on meteoric growth of the Graffitis and Superpokes of the world, but guess what – adults play Scrabble too, and they’re doing so inside Facebook.

So let’s not fret if Facebook remains a place to play. If we need new and important utility apps that use the social graph and solve problems we can’t solve in real life, we’ll get them. But a SuperPoke or two never hurt anyone. Me? I’m heading to back to be killed by high school kids in another game of Mafia.

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