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Stats say that the US numbers for Facebook and Myspace are down in early 2008. The backlash against social network apps in in full swing…

… so much so that Facebook is cleaning up its profile pages so that apps will be listed in a separate tab to the combined wall/newsfeed, while the wild west “forced invite 100 friends to get the result of the ‘which German philosopher are you?’ quiz practices than some app developers use to boost app distribution have also been outlawed.

So why have apps become unpopular? A quick straw poll of my friends reinforces the conventional wisdom here – people are sick of streams of useless apps. A live poll taken at the last London Facebook Developers Garage confirmed the same, with a large majority of regular users surveyed saying that apps were good for “nothing” rather than other options such as “irritating people” and “connecting with friends”. Given this backlash, it was interesting timing for the Developers Garage to see how app developers and organisations are reacting to this change in user behaviour.

One such interesting company is business collaboration, communication and project management network Huddle. Huddle produce a rivalling service to Google docs, where multiple users in a workgroup (or “huddle” if you will) can upload, edit and comment on documents. Huddle have made a useful app whereby you can use their service through Facebook effectively. The app is integrated with the main Huddle site so regardless of whether you work through Facebook or the main Huddle portal, you can still collaborate effectively. Huddle are looking to expand the service to Myspace and LinkedIn, which is easy to do these days as SOAP can be used to link Huddle’s platform to multiple platforms. This allows users freedom to use Huddle whatever way they like wherever they like, especially if they already spend a lot of time doing work through Facebook (who are implementing plans to add a Googletalk-style IM client) or LinkedIn.

The goal of this app from Huddle’s viewpoint is to generate a buzz about the product and to encourage people to come to the mail Huddle site and monetise them by encouraging them to sign up for their premium services. Conversely Huddle are pushing the app through their site, which is sending users TO Facebook rather than the other way around but does have the benefit of creating buzz.

Another interesting app discussed at the Garage was the ‘Become Rambo’ app developed by UK company Wakari, who were contracted by digital agency Spinnaker as part of their advertising campaign for the new Rambo film for Sony Pictures. Long story short, Lionsgate in the US (who had the distribution rights for across the pond) hired another agency there, who also decided to make a Rambo Facebook app (‘Get Rambo’d’). Both of these rival apps were based loosely on the Superpoke concept, as in “A attacks B with C”, seeing as Rambo mainly assaults people. The key factor in the success of the Become Rambo app was the extra functionality; while Get Rambo’d just had options for attacking, Become Rambo included a points scoring system (if you hit the max then you get to fight Rambo), a health bar that can be refilled through invitations, and a wide variety of weapons to unlock.

The Get Rambo’d app is a great example of how to add a fun app that engages users. The average for the app was 200 returns per user, which was built through being clever with viral distribution and creating a ranking system to encourage interaction and competition between friends. This benefits the users, who are having fun with the app, and the advertisers as the app is driving the users towards their content. A comparison between the two Rambo apps showed that the ‘Become Rambo’ app held users attention for much longer as there were reasons to come back.

For me, companies like Huddle and Wakari are leading the way in the social networking app space. Rather than just building for the sake of it, they have created two very different apps that actually add value to the user. Overall the backlash against social networks and apps is a good thing – it should thin the market of the weaker and irritating apps and the more useful and fun apps should well emerge at the end. This change is being led by social network users, and as seen above, the likes of Facebook is listening and making changes. I think the craze and newness of social networks has worn off (all old school friends have been tracked down at this stage!) but with the app streamlining and noise reduction beginning, there will be a more gradual growth rate and stabilisation in the space as social networks become an everyday part of our lives.

(Thanks as always to Techcrunch for their up-to-date Facebook news!)