Long Tail vs. Short Head look at Facebook applications

200710051740 Tim O'Reilly has released the results of a fascinating study of Facebook as an application platform. He's got good news and bad news.
The good news has already been widely disseminated: there are nearly 5000 Facebook applications, and the top applications have tens of millions of installs and millions of active users. The bad news, alas, is in our report: 87% of the usage goes to only 84 applications! Only 45 applications have more than 100,000 active users. This is a long tail marketplace with a vengeance -- but unfortunately, the economic models (for developers at least, though not for Facebook itself) all rely on getting into the very short head. Here's the distribution of active users among the top 200 developers. (Some developers have multiple popular applications.) As you can see, the drop-off is extremely steep.


  1. Not surprising — looks like a power law distribution. These are very common in all kinds of human/social/popularity scenarios.

  2. As a Facebook user during the whole advent of “Facebook apps,” I’d say one big reason for these statistics is that the apps were introduced more as cutesy, novelty add-ons than instrumental expansions. If you look for yourself, you’ll find that there is, in fact, more throw-away plaything apps than genuinely useful ones.

    The result of this is that, 1) There are statistically few widely-used apps because few of them are actually worth using, and 2) The saturation of silly apps, combined with the mentality that most apps are just novelty, means that barely any users are compelled to actively browse new applications — in other words, only the apps that were there from the start were widely viewed, and any brand new though useful app has a good chance to be ignored.

    The second claim does have a notable exception in that if an application is exceptionally good, the user pool will spread by word of mouth alone. Again, this creates a steep stat dropoff in that the “great” apps will be used in great quantity, while the “okay” apps that are pretty good but nothing worth talking about will not be used at all.

  3. An important factor here is Facebook’s really poor interface for browsing applications. You can search (ineffectively), or you can browse in vague categories with hundreds (or over 2000 in “Just for Fun”) of entries each. When browsing, you can sort by Recently Popular (the default), Most Activity, Most Active Users, or Newest.

    As with search engine results, I bet 90% of people never go off the first page of any category, and all but Newest of the sort orders reward being already popular.

  4. On what planet is a long tail in anything a bad thing?

    Come to that, why is anything about the usage of facebook apps either good or bad? It’s barely relevant to anyone, other than facebook users, and even to them the usage figures don’t bode well or ill: they are just figures. This is like saying “the top 85% of usage of PC programs is in just 85 apps!” (probably less I’d have thought).

    And that 15% is eminently mineable. You don’t have to be a big payer in any market place: you can target the long tail. If you are a small player, then you probably *should* target the niche markets.

  5. When he says a “long-tail marketplace” isn’t he just trying to put positive spin on “winner-takes-all marketplace”?

  6. I do not agree that this is an example of long tail as described by the Amazon book selling example. Most of the area under the curve in the amazon example occurs AFTER the drop off. In this example, with 87% of use going to just 84 applications, you have the classical example: usage (or sales) gets concentrated. If this were a true long tail example, you would have the majority of the total usage spread out across many applications which, individually, were not very popular.

    Although there is a steep drop off in this example, in my opinion the drop off is not steep enough to be considered a true long tail example consistent with the Amazon example.

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