It's time for app developers to fall out of love with Facebook Login

Back in 2009, Facebook unveiled Facebook Connect, a new feature for website and app developers to implement for users signing into apps. By simply tapping the "Connect with Facebook" button, it lets new users skip the account creation step and use their existing Facebook accounts to quickly and efficiently get started with a new app.

It was a breakthrough feature for Facebook at the time, designed ostensibly to make it easy for consumers having to memorize dozens of account passwords for each app you use. In turn, by sharing your Facebook data, app developers are able to better personalize the experience using your profile information and friends list to, as Facebook states in its developer guide, "build value by connecting people together".

And in the nine years since its initial implementation, we've seen just how valuable the renamed Facebook Login service and the data it aggregates for developers has become. A staggering number of apps and games offer that familiar blue button as a simplified way of onboarding new users with just a few taps, all while quietly skimming their profile for relevant personal information and contact lists.

We've seen Facebook account data used in apps to effectively target potential voters in both the 2012 and 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections, with the latter causing more than a bit of controversy for Facebook over the last month.

Which brings us up to today in 2018, with Facebook set to facing questions in front of Congress in the coming weeks regarding how it allowed the personal data of over 50 million Facebook users to pass through a third-party app and into the hands of Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting and data analysis firm alleged to have used the data to target specific Facebook users with messages designed to stoke anxieties and personal biases all in an effort to support the Trump presidential campaign.

  • READ: There is 'good' data collection and then there's Facebook, and you need to know the difference

Subtle Conditioning

Politics aside, the scandal around Facebook's handling of user data has convinced many to consider deleting their Facebook account altogether — but that has proven to be easier said than done. Facebook has been wildly successful at becoming the go-to place for keeping tabs on your friends, and because of this, it's also a really effective tool for app developers looking to use your network of friends to build out its own user base faster than otherwise possible.

Facebook highlights over 60 apps on its developer site that have successfully implemented Facebook Login to great success, whether to create better user engagement and make it easier for them to convince you that so many people you know are also using the app. If you know you're among friends using an app you're probably going to continue to use that app moving forward — it's essentially an extension of the sticky way Facebook keep you coming back for more, and it's an incredibly efficient way for app developers to instantly collect a pool of data for any new user that signs up.

Part of the reason Facebook Login is so effective is that it's straight-up easier than filling out a unique account form every time you download a new app — because let's be real, no one enjoys filling out forms. In that way and depending on how your personal data is manipulated, Facebook Login could almost fall under the category of a dark pattern — a method for websites or apps to get you to give up more information than is required by playing on assumptions.

Over time, seeing that "Connect with Facebook" button on every login screen conditions us to avoid the hassle of creating a new account by simply tap through to Facebook. This system works be fine as long as there's a circle of trust built between Facebook, the app developer, and the end user. We blindly allow Facebook to grant the app access to some of our data under the conditions that they're only accessing basic information and that we are ultimately in control of the data being shared. It capitalizes on our need for immediacy and a frictionless experience using our smartphones and is anchored by the understanding that Facebook supposedly cares about protecting our privacy.

Over time, seeing that "Connect with Facebook" button on every login screen conditions us to avoid the hassle of creating a new account by simply tap through to Facebook.

But it's fair to say that Facebook should be less trusted today than it was nine years ago. While we rightly should have been skeptical of Facebook's ability to keep our data secure from the outset, the latest round of scandals has further eroded the remaining trust between Facebook and its users.

By extension, people should be less trusting of connecting their Facebook account to outside apps — whether it's because you're afraid it will annoy your contacts with invitations to play a silly mobile game, or because it might try to eventually use your data against you in some nefarious way.

Just like we should all be doing our part to detangle our lives from Facebook's web, app developers owe it to users to divest in their reliance on Facebook Login. I'll use PUBG Mobile as an example here because it's wildly popular at the moment and also a particularly egregious example of how developers, too, can rely too heavily on Facebook Login. When you load up PUBG Mobile on your phone, you're given two options — play as a guest or login via Facebook. Creating a guest account seems to imply that your account is less-than-official or incomplete without linking your Facebook account. If you do create a guest account, you'll be greeted with the "Link your Facebook" account every time you log in until you finally relent. Once linked to Facebook, there appears to be no way to unlink the account so you're stuck with it.

It's one thing to offer Facebook Login as an alternative way to easily create an account, but to straight up not offer any other way to log in to an app or game is just lazy on the developers part, and speaks to the way Facebook has lulled us all into complacency.

Marc Lagace

Marc Lagace was an Apps and Games Editor at Android Central between 2016 and 2020. You can reach out to him on Twitter [@spacelagace.