Is Facebook Worth Its Platform Hype?

Saturday Jul 14th 2007 by Nicholas Carlson
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With venture capital getting involved on the platform, should we be worried about another bubble?

In May, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the Facebook Platform, which allows third-party developers to build applications for the social utility's users. The parade hasn't stopped since.

Whether it happens on the Today Show or tech gossip blog Valleywag, coverage for Facebook since the platform launch has been nothing short of iPhone-esque in some circles.

But Facebook users aren't so sure the platform is worth the hype.

"I'm not really into it," Phillip Carkuff, a Facebook member going into his freshman year at the University of Dallas, told internetnews.com. The mini-apps, he said, are nice. "But I'd rather stick to the basics."

George Washington Law student Zach Williams, a Facebook member since 2004, was also unimpressed.

"The appeal of Facebook is how simple and organized it is," Williams told internetnews.com. "All those new applications just clutter up profiles and are largely ignored or forgotten by most users."

Facebook spokeswoman Brandee Barker told internetnews.com a different story, of course. To counter Williams and Carkfuff, she said more than 50 percent of Facebook users have added at least one application.

The most popular application is iLike, which allows members to add streaming music and music videos to their profiles. In addition to recommending new music and artists, iLike alerts users when their artists go on tour, as well who else plans to go to the concerts.

Numbers-wise, iLike is a hit. With more than 4.5 million Facebook users signed up, the application has more than doubled its user base since joining Facebook Platform, adding over 300,000 users a day.

But there's a long list of also-ran apps on the platform, making the popularity of iLike seem an anomaly. The drop-off from the fourth most popular app, Super Wall, to the fifth most popular app, My Aquarium, is particularly steep, from 1.7 million subscribers to just 200,000.

With the disparity in these stats, can Facebook justify the hype, or is the social network in the middle of developing its own little platform bubble? That depends on whom you ask.

The platform's architect

The first thing you'll notice about Facebook CTO Adam D'Angelo is that he needs more sleep. Maintaining the site at all hours of the night doesn't leave him and his developers time to create new Facebook features.

D'Angelo said that during the first few years of Facebook's existence, many new features emerged only out of a series of all-nighters called "hackathons."

Now that there's a Facebook platform, third-party developers will do most of that work. "We don't even create the features on Facebook. We just create the platform and then developers create the features and then users create the content," D'Angelo said.

Of course, Facebook wouldn't be able to outsource its workload to third-party developers without offering some incentive. Or at least promise of it. To help with that, D'Angelo was happy to play the prophet. He said they hope developers will make money with their apps.

The word has reached the masses.

Facebook's Barker said that more 25,000 developers have already created more than 1,000 applications for Facebook in the month since the platform's launch.

Among them is developer BJ Fogg who attended the Facebook platform launch rally in May. "I'm excited about Facebook; they've reached critical mass," Fogg, founder and chairman of Yackpack.com, told internetnews.com, adding that Facebook will provide his application the thing it needs most: users.

The Facebook platform, in the minds of converted developers like Fogg, will provide instant access to an audience that by May, according to ComScore, had grown 89 percent over the same period last year and 100 percent since September.

"Before we had to convince people to join a social network, and it's gotten to the point where a lot of people are getting registration fatigue. Now they're already there [on Facebook]. It's perfect for our application."

And every other developer's too.

But the question remains, are those 25,000 developers Barker mentioned creating an economy on the Facebook platform or just a logjam? Remember, only the top four applications have more than a million users at this point.

The only way to know might just be for developers to keep building.

Money for an app

Bay Partners, a Silicon Valley-based early stage venture capital firm, recently set up a program called AppFactory to invest $25,000 to $250,000 in entrepreneurs writing applications for Facebook Platform.

Firm Partner Salil Desphande told internetnews.com he sees the Facebook platform leading to something much greater than mere access to Facebook's "social graph," which is its map of users and the connections between them.

Desphande considers Facebook platform as the first "monumental step" through a door leading to what he called the "meta-graph," a sort of Holy Grail for developers building social applications.

He thinks that because of the platform, Facebook will grow so popular that it will force other social networks to open their social graphs to third-party developers, too. Users will demand their favorite social applications to be available on all social networks so they can interact with anyone on the Internet.

In this scenario, applications that started on Facebook with proper funding will be successful.

Desphande isn't sure, however, exactly what kind of applications will succeed with the money his firm and other firms are investing. That's because today on the Facebook Platform is a lot like 1994 on the Internet, he said.

"Imagine you're asking someone in 1994 what kind of apps are going to exist on the Internet? Any answer you could come up with would be too narrow or not imaginative enough."

But VC investment in imaginative concepts can be dangerous. Going back to 1994 as Desphande insists, it's hard to forget the dot-coms that rose out of venture funding and then crashed in the years to follow.

Which leads to a final question.

Is there reason to worry?

There is always a reason to worry. But there's no need to panic yet.

Remember, Facebook users are notoriously nostalgic. Last fall, high school and college students protested when Facebook decided to open the social network to the greater public.

"It's a horrible idea to open Facebook to anyone and everyone," Facebook member Jason Rodzik wrote on the page for a group called "Students Against Public Facebook Access."

Rodzik got that one wrong. So did the millions of users who protested the introduction of the News Feed.

And while it's a good idea to balance Facebook Platform hype with the opinions of the unenthusiastic crowd that's "not really into it," there's anecdotal evidence to suggest new members join the site because of the apps.

Elizabeth Crosta, a public relations representative and Facebook user since July 4, told internetnews.com in a message: "LOL - I am OBSESSED with facebook. I love the platform and the interface. It is clean, easy to use, simple and fun.

"Currently I am just testing a bunch of apps," she continued. "I like the video app the best so far (i was able to upload my trapeze lesson). I am also enjoying the MyGarden and Xme. But some of them are totally useless."

Costa isn't sure if Facebook and its platform are over-hyped or not. But it probably doesn't matter much in the end. As long as the users keep coming.

"I am so new at FB that I am just having fun with it."

This article was first published on InternetNews.com.

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