Facebook is getting stingier about giving data to startups that don’t share content back to it. At least, that’s how it’s describing its decision to cut off a voice messaging app that it has recently begun competing against.
Yesterday, Facebook told voice messaging startup Voxer it will cut off the app’s access to Facebook’s “Find Friends” data citing its policy on competing social networks. A Facebook spokesperson confirmed with me that it will enforce this on apps that use its data to bootstrap growth but don’t contribute anything.
Voxer CEO Tom Katis tells us that it was contacted by Facebook on January 17th to say its Find Friends data access would be turned off 48 hours later. That will prevent Voxer from helping you auto-follow your Facebook friends when you join the service, which makes sure you have someone to chat with right away. Katis says Facebook stated that it views Voxer, whose walkie-talkie app has a couple tens of millions of users, as a “competitive social network.”
Voxer disagrees. It doesn’t view its product as a direct competitor of Facebook’s social network or Facebook Messenger — it’s been live with Facebook more than a year without any issue, after all. Instead, Voxer tells us its “unique, patent-protected technology enables live, push-to-talk functionality combined with the benefits of a messaging application” but isn’t trying to be a wider social network.
That may be why Voxer thought it was safe from Facebook’s Platform Policy, which states:
“Competing social networks: (a) You may not use Facebook Platform to export user data into a competing social network without our permission; (b) Apps on Facebook may not integrate, link to, promote, distribute, or redirect to any app on any other competing social network.”
But late last month, Facebook added voice messaging to its standalone Messenger app. Then this week it rolled out VoIP calling to Messenger for iOS. Facebook seems to be getting very serious about voice messaging and taking on your telephone. Voxer similarly reduces your need for a home phone, or apps like Skype. This means Voxer qualifies as a competitor. But why single out Voxer when there are plenty of apps that vaguely compete with Facebook?
Facebook Wants To Trade Its Data, Not Give It Away
Facebook has its own explanation of the Voxer block.
Users do have the option to post an audio message they’ve Voxed over to Facebook, but since Voxer conversations are private, people rarely do. Also, the option is mostly buried. I couldn’t find it until I looked through Voxer’s help documents. If you slide left a previously sent message, it reveals a share button that lets you post your message to Facebook, Twitter, SMS, or email. That means Voxer is pulling way more data from Facebook than it’s giving back.
If a startup shares back content such as photos or Open Graph stories, Facebook says they’ll be free to use its Find Friends Data. I believe that’s because Facebook can monetize that content with news feed ads.
If a messaging app doesn’t share anything back and qualifies as a competitor, a spokesperson tells me it will only be able to use Facebook’s login system. They said Facebook won’t be asserting its vague “competing social network” policy more broadly than that, and it considers non-contributors to be a small class of apps – including Voxer.
Voxer’s Katis responded to Facebook’s explanation by saying the policy is hypocritical. He believes Facebook either wants Voxer to share more, which would make it more of a competing social network but more of a contributor, or Facebook wants Voxer to use its data less. (In which case, why was Voxer in the clear for a year, and why have a developer platform in the first place?)
Getting cut off from Facebook’s social graph could spell trouble for Voxer, which raised a massive $30 million funding round in April 2012 at a rumored $180 million pre-money valuation. That value could be hard to justify if it becomes much more difficult to retain users because they don’t start off connected to their friends. It depends on what percentage of users employ the Find Friends feature. We’ve heard it may be around 30%.
Facebook’s Platform War
This new policy is hugely problematic for startups in the messaging space, though, as they primarily deal with private conversations. What would they share back to Facebook that wouldn’t violate that privacy? Obviously who you message with and what you say shouldn’t become news feed stories.
If you look at Facebook’s wide breadth of features, there’s likely tons of startups that could be considered “competitors” and don’t have anything to share. If they get hit with similar Find Friends cut-offs, it will be much harder for them to gain traction. Recreating your social graph manually via email addresses on every new app you use is a huge pain and could deter people from finishing on-boarding or ever discovering the value of a non-Facebook social app.
There’s similarities here to Twitter’s recent policy changes. It ceased giving open access to tweets and required those that use them to reproduce them faithfully. It too was sick of others coining off its hard work; like Facebook, it also promised one thing to developers then did something different.
Facebook is a public company, and it’s not going to act like a charity anymore. You could say Facebook had no obligation to be so generous in the first place. Unfortunately, though, in Facebook’s push to be the way the world connects, it’s about to make other apps less social.
Eric Eldon contributed to this article.