In app debacle, Facebook shows it still has growing up to do

Facebook has come to attract a fair share of controversy on a regular basis, and this past week was no different. Indeed, with all the impressive growth Facebook has displayed — from revenues to users to big-name board members — it has become increasingly critical for the social networking giant to formulate a better strategy for managing the public perception of its updates and releases.

Facebook has come under fire most recently for implementing tighter regulations on its third-party applications. The new enforcement system enacted late last week was purportedly aimed at cutting the rampant application spam on Facebook’s platform. But in practice, it apparently cut out a number of legitimate applications as well. Developers, angry that their apps have been partially or entirely disabled without notice, have taken to Facebook’s message boards and the press to protest the actions.

Facebook has said that the new regulations were enacted as a response to a sharp uptick in user complaints about application spam on their walls and in their news feeds. The targeted apps were ones with “high negative user feedback,” the company said in statements released on Friday. Facebook also says that developers can appeal if they feel their app was wrongly disabled.

Meanwhile, some observers are suggesting that deeper motives than simply cleaning up spam are at play — namely, the ongoing and much-buzzed-about development of Facebook’s Project Spartan. With Project Spartan, Facebook is said to be building an HTML5-based platform that will allow the company to provide an app-like experience that runs entirely over the web within a mobile browser. An article published on Sunday by paidContent asked if Facebook’s app crackdown was a “Spartan prelude,” and on Monday mobile technology news site Mobiledia suggested a similar link.

Whether or not a Project Spartan connection exists, Facebook has recognized the need to clean up its apps before. Anyone who uses Facebook even occasionally can probably attest to the overabundance of spammy apps hosted on the platform. And in the wrong hands, a Facebook app can easily turn from being an annoyance into being a real danger. Last week the Los Angeles–based startup Unsubscribe rolled out a new Social Monitor feature that shows the various safety levels of the applications that users have installed on their social media profiles. In developing the feature, the team at Unsubscribe used several methods to test the security of Facebook apps — and they were pretty surprised at what they found.

“A lot of people have had apps for a long time, and they were built by developers who aren’t necessarily attached to them anymore. They’re kind of like ghost ships,” Unsubscribe CEO James Siminoff told me in an interview last week. As a security test, Unsubscribe’s team started calling app developers and asking if they could buy their apps — and along with them, access to their install base. “We were surprised at the number that said yes, for very low prices,” Siminoff said. “If someone wanted to, they could buy access to a couple hundred million email addresses, with complete social data attached to it.”

If Facebook’s application platform can clearly use a good scrubbing, why were so many people upset at the measures enacted last week? And why are some so quick to assume that there is a deeper, darker strategy than the company is letting on?

Like a lot of Facebook’s missteps, it seems that the backlash here is more related to the execution than the intent. Adding facial recognition technology to photo tagging is not inherently creepy, but the way that Facebook implemented it quietly as a default feature hit a sour note. Spam cleanup is generally well and good, but the company probably should have warned developers whose apps were being targeted by the new regulations before shutting them off entirely.

To be sure, Facebook is not the only company with such problems: Apple (s AAPL) and Google (s GOOG) have both been heartily criticized for rejecting or shutting down applications and APIs with little warning. In a way, all the hoopla Facebook encounters regularly is just part of its entry into the tech industy’s big leagues.

Indeed, Facebook’s challenge for the future is to provide enough transparency to its users and partners while still retaining the degree of strategic confidentiality needed to maintain a competitive edge. With some 750 million users, many of whom are highly engaged with the service, Facebook, like many other large companies, faces unique challenges on the corporate communications front. Though Facebook has clearly come a long way in its seven years, snafus like this are a reminder of how much more growing up it has yet to do.