It started innocently enough: last month a friend sent me a virtual lily plant on Facebook and invited me to create a (Lil) Green Patch, a digital garden that would grow on my profile page, and that any of my friends could help water, weed and plant. Sounds cute, right? Not if you've recently suffered through an overwhelming slew of requests to give a grain of rice, send good karma and rate your friends on everything including their hotness, creativity, fashion sense and intelligence. I wasn't merely skeptical I was annoyed. But I didn't want to be a killjoy and I love plants so I went ahead and clicked "Accept."
That is the moment I became part of Facebook's fastest-growing problem: application overload, a.k.a. Facebook fatigue. Like thousands of users before me, I started spamming my friends with requests to grow Green Patches of their own. When they did, I bombarded them with more plants and decorations for their gardens. (Lil) Green Patch is one of the 15 most popular add-on applications on Facebook, according to Adonomics.com, and it has more than 350,000 active users. It's also just one of thousands of viral apps that require you to invite your friends to participate in order to make them useful and fun. You've seen other apps like it, including Hug Me (send friends a virtual hug or tequila shot), Friends For Sale! (yes, you can actually sell your friends to the highest bidder) and Send Good Karma (swap "blessings," "goodness" and "happiness" with friends).
The backlash is well under way. David Diggs, a junior at Michigan State University who has some 300 Facebook friends, complains, "It's annoying to get about 70 invitations a day about taking some kind of quiz or adding an application." Diggs is one of more than a million people who have joined a Facebook group that is petitioning to ban the inviting of friends on applications. (Ironically, the group encourages members to invite their friends to join the cause.) In February, Facebook responded to users' outcries by allowing people to block application invitations individually, but petitioners are demanding the ability to block all requests with a single click. With more than 20,000 add-on apps for the site, it's nearly impossible to avoid the deluge. While most users won't go so far as to leave Facebook altogether, the increase in "junk" notifications is enough to leave them feeling peeved while they're logged on. (Is there a Send Bad Karma app?)
So why do people spam their friends even though most people hate it? I could claim I was motivated by altruism proceeds from the ad revenue generated by the (Lil) Green Patch go toward saving the rainforest but the truth is that I just wanted to grow my garden and see how many different kinds of plants I could send and receive. If I send 1,000 plants I earn a garden gnome. Cool! (By Green Patch's own statistics, the application has contributed a mere $15,650 toward its stated cause since launching in December.)
An even bigger nuisance with using Facebook apps is that it's not always clear how they work. Tina House of Combine, Tex., says she accidentally posted a Valentine's Day greeting that said "I love you," not just to her husband, but to all of her friends, while using the application Super Wall, because she did not realize that the program defaulted to sending the posting to everyone. "I still shudder over that one," she says. And because advertisements are slickly intertwined with the apps they often use the exact same font and graphics it's easy to inadvertently click one by mistake. David King, CEO of Green Patch in San Mateo, Calif., says about 5% of the hundred or so e-mails his company receives from users each day are from people who are "confused."
Other users are simply fed up. Shinique Smith, an artist in New York City, says she stopped using the viral apps not because they're confusing, but because they're intrusive. "Every time you do, you have to invite 20 people, and then the next thing you know, 20 other people have invited you to do it. People send me stuff all the time. It's annoying and overwhelming."
App creators insist that people actually enjoy the invitations. "It is something very positive," says Vikas Gupta, an Amazon.com alum who created both the popular Send Good Karma and Hug Me apps, and runs his start-up Jambool out of a spare bedroom in San Francisco's South of Market district. "It is a positive action that people like sending to their friends."
For all my guilt over spamming people who don't think imaginary heather bushes and paradise plants are gifts worth giving, I feel immediately vindicated as soon someone accepts and sends me one in return. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen too often: I've only got four plants now. Won't you send me a few more?