May 08, 2015

Closing Doors: The Trouble with Connecting to Facebook and LinkedIn

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Why so many integrations are getting harder to support

Getting Contactually to integrate smoothly with the whole wide world of internet systems and services is one of the most satisfying (and most frustrating) parts of our job. After all, we've very intentionally designed the platform to be as open as possible -- we want you to be able to use Contactually the way you want to, bringing in and sending out data through the platforms and applications that help you get the results you're looking for.

This has never been easy, but so far, it's also never really been impossible. Unfortunately, Contactually and many of the smaller services you love that are built on this philosophy are increasingly stuck trying to work with big companies that actively do not want to integrate with anything else. You've probably already noticed this trend over the last few years, as more and more inter-app connections that make a lot of sense, and "should" be possible (pulling friend data from Facebook, contact information from LinkedIn, etc.) either disappear from your favorite apps, or stop working properly like they used to.

So... why is this happening?

The Trouble with Connecting to Facebook and Linkedin...

When in doubt, follow the money

In general, if you want to know why a company is doing something, it's a good idea to think about how and why they make money. At Contactually, our business model is pretty simple -- our customers pay us each month (or each year) to use our service. If it's sufficiently useful to them, they'll keep paying. If not, they'll stop. That means that even from a strictly cynical, financial perspective, it's in our best interest to build the most compelling product possible. Sure, you might not agree with everything we choose to do in our quest to build and improve that compelling product, or the priorities we set during the process, but the basic interests of our company and our customers are directly aligned. We want you to remain a happy customer who loves Contactually and tells your friends about us, regardless of whether you spend five minutes a day in the app, or five hours. This is also true of basically any software-as-a-service product you pay for, like our friends at BombBomb, Zapier, or even gigantic SAAS products like Salesforce. They all follow the same premise -- customers can decide what about the product makes them happy, and then pay for the right to use the service that way, no matter what it is (as long as it isn't illegal or a violation of basic terms of use).

Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other services that you don't pay for -- and I can't stress this enough -- are not like this at all. They make money by getting you to spend as much time as possible inside their sites and apps (via advertising and selling your data), so anything that causes you to leave those places, even for a second, is something they are going to try to discourage. Yes, in the beginning when these kinds of services are relatively small, they're often very open as they attempt to get people to join. In fact, years ago you used to be able to pull basically everything from Facebook through it's API, and then do whatever you wanted with it without ever even visiting Facebook's site. Slowly though, over time, as these kinds of services grow large enough to throw their weight around, those "doors" for your data to escape (and be used to by other services you use) start slamming shut. APIs get more restrictive, and eventually often deny any access at all. This doesn't result in a better or more useful experience for users, but Facebook and LinkedIn are big enough now that people can grumble and complain all they want without affecting the company's bottom line, because they won't (or can't) actually leave.

Welcome to the "Closed Internet"

This trend -- closing off access to the outside world -- has rapidly accelerated with many of the big players in the last few months. Facebook and LinkedIn, in particular, have recently shut down essentially all access to their data to everyone except enormous companies who can pay equally enormous "partner" fees (and who knows if even that will be an option before long). We applied to LinkedIn's partner program, and never even heard back. Last month, we put an enormous amount of time into making Contactually compatible with Facebook's new, much more restrictive API, only to be told by Facebook that we simply weren't going to be allowed access to any of the data we've used in the past. The only "rule" we broke was maintaining the ability to do something that Facebook would rather you do inside of Facebook itself.

This is incredibly frustrating for us, because again, our business -- literally, our purpose for existing -- is centered around building what our customers want. We aren't competing with Facebook, or trying to get people to use Contactually instead of LinkedIn. We just want to help people who love those services to use them effectively with Contactually. LinkedIn and Facebook can position this kind of lockdown around "security" or "quality of experience" or whatever else, but at the end of the day, the fact is that they don't want your data doing anything except bringing you back to their properties as often and for as long as possible, and there's nothing anyone else can do about it.

What does it mean for Contactually?

At Contactually, we only care about any of this when it affects the quality and usefulness of the product we provide to our customers. In this case, we love being able to include as much Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn information as possible inside your contact profiles, so you don't have to run around checking a bunch of different sources for it. We want you to be able to do more things with more data, not less. To that end, we're going to continue to invest in new ideas and technologies that allow us to give you as much of that data as possible, especially when it enables you to build better, more productive relationships. We know it's always going to be a moving target, and big, advertising-supported applications are going to do everything they can to stop us -- but we're never going to stop trying to give you the most powerful, convenient experience we can build... period. That's our purpose, and our promise to you.

We're already working on some new, less big-company-dependent features to help you build better contact profiles with information from external sources like this, and we'll be sharing more about them with you as soon as they're ready to go. If you have any questions about exactly what's happening with Facebook, LinkedIn, or any other integration, don't hesitate to leave them here in the comments, and we'll do our best to answer them.