Privacy problems and propagation of "virus-like" applications has led to a marked decline in the use of Facebook's developer platform, according to industry analysts Ovum.
According to Ovum analyst David Mitchell, there is ample evidence that the social networking heavyweight is experiencing a decline in popularity.
His comments are based on a blog posted by a former Facebook application developer, Jesse Farmer, which found that posts per day on Facebook's developer forum have halved since January — 461 in January 2008 down to 222 in April 2008 — with sign-ups and active users (one post per month) dropping by one-third, and highly active users (over five posts per month) having dropped by 47 per cent.
"Talking to developers and investors inside the industry it's clear that the excitement over the Facebook platform and its promise have waned," Farmer says in his blog entry.
Ovum's Mitchell sees this as a dangerous trend for Facebook. The key element that differentiated Facebook over its social networking peers was its development platform — allowing developers to launch new applications on Facebook to keep it interesting to users.
It is the same formula, says Mitchell, that worked so well for Microsoft in the early development of Windows — but it's also the same formula that has seen many applications spread through the Facebook network which are of little utility to users — applications Mitchell suggest might well be classified as "viruses".
"The proportion of totally banal applications seems to be on the increase," Mitchell said in a research note. "Most applications are installed for a day or so but are quickly removed as it becomes evident that they are only concerned with self-propagation and the collection of data on your social graph. In a more traditional application world, an application that tries to self-propagate and that takes personal data is usually classified as a virus and is removed as soon as it is detected, before it can cause harm."
Mitchell said that Facebook needs to "dramatically improve the quality and usefulness" of the applications being built for the platform by providing incentives to build "quality applications" and find ways to eliminate those that are deemed an annoyance to users.
Facebook also needs to take privacy more seriously, he said.
"Access to the social graph by Facebook applications is a major issue, and those applications should also be subject to a 'prove you can be trusted with my social graph' test before they are allowed out."
"This may sound draconian but I have had too many poorly behaved applications run amuck and send invites across my whole social network, despite me clicking the 'Don't Invite' buttons," he said. "Without improvements along these lines, I for one am close to the point of seeing insufficient continued utility in Facebook to persevere in using it."
Farmer told ZDNet.com.au that it is misleading to use the numbers he collated to suggest that Facebook is being used any less. He doesn't assume that a decline in the popularity of new Facebook applications necessarily equates to a decline in total use.
"Every application is competing in an ecosystem where there are a finite number of resources," he told ZDNet.com.au. "In this case, the resource is users' attention. We've reached an equilibrium state where it's very hard for new apps to come onto the scene because all the other animals (Slide, RockYou, etc.) have already locked up the resources [the user's attention]."
If developers of new applications aren't getting enough traction on Facebook, Farmer says, they will either "move on to a healthier ecosystem" such as OpenSocial or opt to be acquired by those application developers that already have the eyeballs.
"Even Slide [developer of some of Facebook's most popular applications] knows it's time to move on, having recently announced they're suspending development of new Facebook apps," Farmer said.