Facebook Application Gating and Gifting Features Shift to Fit Changing Platform Policies

[Editor’s note: This article was co-authored by Eric Eldon.]

When Facebook began enforcing new policy changes in mid December, it was called a “philosophical approach to platform governance.” As we covered on Inside Facebook, “instead of trying to spell out all the rules in detail, it is laying out more general principles and reserving the right to make policy enforcements when its policy team deems doing so to be necessary.”

Looking at what has and hasn’t been enforced since the changes were implemented helps provide some insight into the policy team’s thinking thus far.

When is Gifting Okay?

The policy: “You must not prompt users to send invitations, requests, generate notifications, or use other Facebook communication channels immediately after a user allows access or returns to your application.”

Just about every game launched prior to the changes in December had gifts — where users send gifts to friends, in most cases to users not already playing the game — first and foremost in their viral marketing strategy. This is still still evident by the number of games where the first menu tab is “Free Gifts” or “Send Gifts.” In reviewing 98 game applications with over 100,000 daily active users (DAU), only about 20% of them did NOT have a gifts component at the start of the game (the largest was Popcap’s Bejeweled Blitz with 2.8 million DAU).

We’ve been tracking this story over the past week. When we first looked, only four games with more than 100,000 DAU four appeared to be directing users to gift prior to playing the game: Happy Farm (940,000 DAU), Farkle, (840,000 DAU), Garden World (260,000 DAU) and Las Vegas Slots (210,000 DAU).

Facebook tells us that the policy “is not at all meant to stop gifting or virality — it’s meant to prevent users from being prompted to use Facebook communication channels before engaging with the application.” The company wants “users to initiate communications and not be asked to send them right after authorization or every time the user returns to the application.”

“Our expectation is that developers are required to comply with our Principles and Policies,” it says, “and if we come across violations, developers are going to be held accountable.” As many developers have been discovering lately, Facebook won’t punish apps by blocking them completely but rather shutting down some communication channels into fixes are implemented.

Out of the four games mentioned above, three have updated their interfaces to not require gifting, and are in compliance. Garden World still directs users to gift first, but we’re not sure for how long.

Let’s look at some more examples. Titles from Playdom, like Sorority Life and Mobsters 2, are taking users to a gifts screen when you click the Jobs and Missions tabs respectively. So while not the first thing users see when they come to the application, users still must skip the gifts screen (or send items to their friends) before they can actually engage in the game. This interface is okay, Facebook says, because the gift page isn’t what users see first when they add or return to the apps.

While gifts have often been considered social spam (with some developers specifically not including gifts because they feel they are too spammy), the feature has become a very powerful way to get users to interact around a game. Still, one can imagine a gifting mechanism that is a more natural extension of the game’s social aspects.

Café World by Zynga has a Free Gifts tab positioned first among menu items and was one of the first to add a “present” icon as an overlay to the playing screen; the app recently added a “Gift of the Day” section to your friends leaderboard across the bottom — you can send gifts to earn points. This interface is not just okay but a best practice, Facebook says.