One of the problems you have to overcome when building a social software application is that such applications often depend on network effects to provide value to users. An instant messaging application isn't terribly useful unless your friends use the same application and using Twitter feels kind of empty if you don't follow anyone. On the flip side, once an application crosses a particular tipping point then network effects often push it to near monopoly status in certain social or regional networks. This has happened with eBay, Craigslist, MySpace, Facebook and a ton of other online services depend on network effects. Thus there is a lot of incentive for developers of social software applications to do their best to encourage and harness network effects in their user scenarios.

These observations have led to the notion of Viral Applications, applications which spread like viruses. The problem with a lot of the thinking behind "viral applications" and applications that borrow their techniques is that attempting to spread by any means necessary can be very harmful to the user experience. Here are two examples taken from this week's headlines

From Justine Ezaric, a post entitled The Loopt Debacle where she writes

Loopt is a location based social networking site that uses GPS to determine your exact location and share it with your friends.. and then spam your entire contact list via an SMS invite.

There’s a good chance that if you installed this application you’ve made the same mistake that most people made. While searching for friends who were on the service, apparently a text message was sent out to a large portion of my contact list, along with my phone number and my exact location (you know, since that’s the point of the application). Granted, you would think that if you have someone’s phone number, they’d have yours as well…

Hi, hey.. Over here!! People change their phone number for a reason!! With the ease of syncing contacts on the iPhone, it’s not always guaranteed that everyone in your contact list is a BFF (read: best friend forever). Also, there’s always people you just never want to text.. Like Steve Jobs, or an old boss, or maybe even an ex who would rather push you in front of a bus than get a text message from you?

From Marshal Kirkpatrick, a post entitled Gmail Tries To Be Less Creepy, Fails which states

Gmail, Google's powerful web based email service, announced some changes to its contact management features today. Contact management has for some time been a contentious matter among Google Account holders - the company does strange and mysterious things with your email contacts, including tying them in to some other applications without anyone's permission.

Today's new changes failed to alleviate those concerns, perhaps making the situation even less clear than it was before.

There Are Your Contacts and Then There Are Your Contacts

The post on the official Gmail blog today announced a new policy. There are now two types of contacts in your Gmail contacts list. There are your explicitly added My Contacts and there are your frequently emailed Suggested Contacts. The distinction between the two is unclear enough that I won't even try to summarize it. Read the following closely.

My Contacts contains the contacts you explicitly put in your address book (via manual entry, import or sync) as well as any address you've emailed a lot (we're using five or more times as the threshold for now).

Suggested Contacts is where Gmail puts its auto-created contacts. By default, Suggested Contacts you email frequently are automatically added to My Contacts, but for those of you who prefer tighter control of your address books, you can choose to disable usage-based addition of contacts to My Contacts (see the checkbox in the screenshot above). Once you do this, no matter how many times you email an auto-added email address it won't move to My Contacts.

When you open up Google Reader, the company's RSS reader, you'll find not just the feeds you've subscribed to but also the feeds of shared items from your "friends." Those friendships were defined somehow by Google, according to who you email in Gmail apparently. They can opt-out of having their shared items publicly visible at all, but short of doing that - you are seeing their shared items and someone, presumably, is seeing your shared items too. No one knows for sure.

Both Loopt and Gmail + Google Talk + Google Reader are examples of applications choosing approaches that encourage virality of the application or features of the application at the risk of putting users in socially awkward situations. As Justine mentions in the Loopt example, just because a person's phone number is in the contact list on your phone doesn't mean they would like to receive a text message from you at some random time of the day asking them to try out some social networking application. A phone isn't a social networking site. I have my doctor, my boss, his boss, our childcare provider, co-workers whose numbers I have in case of emergency and a bunch of other folks in my phone's contact list. These aren't the people I want to send spammy invites to try out some social networking application which probably doesn't even work on their phone. However I'm sure there has been some positive user growth from their "viral" techniques, but at what cost to their brand? Plaxo is still dealing with damage to their brand from their spammy era.

The Gmail behavior is even worse primarily because Google didn't fix the problem. Especially since people have been complaining about it for a while. No one can blame Google for wanting to jump start network effects for features like Shared Items in Google Reader or products like Google Talk, but it seems pretty ridiculous to decide to automatically add people I email to an IM application so they can see when I'm online and contact me anytime or to the list of people who are notified whenever I share something in Google Reader. It's just email, it does not imply an intimate social relationship. The worst thing about Google's practices is how it backfires, I'm less likely to use that combination of Google products so as not to cause inadvertent information leakage because some "viral algorithm" decided that because I sent a bunch of emails to my child care provider she needs to know whenever I share a link in Google Reader. 
If you decide to spread virally, you should be careful that you don't end up causing people to avoid your product like the diseases you are trying to emulate.

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