It’s been a while since any given news story caused five different people to spontaneously email me. The latest story to do so is the Techcrunch exposé of scam artists who are working through the popular lead generation services (such as Offerpal) that are used by most major social gaming companies.
The story has already inspired quite a few responses, such as these thoughtful articles by Andrew Chen and Justin Smith, and this entirely predictable response by Mark Pincus, the CEO of Zynga.
My quick two cents: have the lead generation services (and therefore the social gaming companies, and therefore Facebook itself) benefited from the behavior of scam artists? Yes, absolutely. Should the lead generation services immediately do something to address the problem (and if not them, then the social gaming companies or Facebook itself?) Yes, absolutely. Does Facebook “deserve to be sued”, as one of my good friends suggested to me? No, it does not. Does this whole thing prove that social games are a house of cards? I highly doubt it.
Facebook is a popular open ecosystem, and like any other popular open ecosystem, it will be exploited from time to time by unethical people. There is always the argument that Facebook “could be doing more” to police the ecosystem (and in fact, it had already announced a plan to do precisely that as part of larger changes to the platform) but at the end of the day you simply cannot compare Facebook to the Playstation, to Wal-mart, or to any other closed ecosystem. Facebook has an essentially unlimited number of “content partners,” and while it should keep a close eye on the biggest of those partners, it is inevitable that some shadiness will eventually slip past the Facebook Police.
Sony and Wal-mart, on the other hand, have the advantage (and the great burden!) of controlling everything that enters their virtual and/or physical shelves… and they have much smaller shelves. So while I hope that Facebook will indeed do a better job of catching scams in the future, I don’t blame it, and in fact I hope it chooses to emphasize crowdsourcing techniques (i.e. better enabling users to flag and stifle abusive 3rd parties) as much as expanded police squads.
The social gaming companies turned a blind eye to their part in this problem, and now they are catching flack as they deserve. But this will blow over, and lead generation will likely continue to represent a significant percentage of their ongoing revenue. Why? Because at the end of the day, there are legitimate advertisers, content providers, and 3rd party networks with a vested interest in the success of this model. These aren’t all late-night, 1-800-type con-men; these are advertisers like Netflix, FTD, and GAP and product/service providers like Apple, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. The only “house of cards” here is the house that Tattoo Media built.