Do you play Farmville?
Do you play Mafia Wars?
If not, you still know what I'm talking about because you've been plagued by invites from all your Facebook friends who do.
Last Thursday (3 December) it was reported by Sky News that Farmville has a bigger population than Twitter - at 65 million users. That's 35% larger than the population of South Africa.
That's one hell of a big farming community.
Aside from anything else, that's a rather large amount of people all in one place at one time. An amount of people that, if monetised, could make someone very rich.
Money money money
Zynga, the game's creator and creator of other popular titles like Mafia Wars makes money in two ways: selling advertising and selling money - letting people exchange real cash for digital currency, in order to buy nifty things for their farms.
The problem is that sometimes these two means of monetization cross. Players are offered virtual cash in exchange for completing surveys, testing their IQ or ordering other products through the advertisers. Don't let these activities fool you, they may not appear to be harmful, but they are.
Dennis Yu, CEO of BlitzLocal, says in an interview on Tech Crunch, appropriately named "How To Spam Facebook Like A Pro: An Insider’s Confession" that advertisers make use of these application to gather information about people - leads - that can be sold or used to target people at a later date. For this reason they are called "lead gen" scams.
The applications that ask for your email address, your phone number or access to your facebook profile, all feed this information to advertisers who then spam you at will.
Farmville is not the only application that allows access to these advertisers, nor are Facebook applications the only means that they get access to you. Take for example, applications you install on your phone - chat, IM and certain games. Those that are supported by advertising and often carry banners. Did you know that these banners have access to your personal information?
I was speaking to someone today who had the unfortunate experience of clicking on one by mistake only to find himself subscribed to a sms service - one that charged him - without so much having to enter his phone number. Canceling these services is often reliant on being able to trace the third party... which said third party deliberately makes difficult.
A number of court cases, including the recent class action suit against Zynga and Facebook, are attempting to defend users against such scams. However, when it comes down to it - which is more likely to win: morals or money?
While Zynga has promised to remove the offensive applications and advertising, it is only a matter of time before other scams leak under the radar. After all, both Zynga and Facebook have so much to gain if they do.