Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Devil's Advocate: Creation of Applications on Facebook.

Dalton Caldwell caused a stir recently when he posted an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, accusing top Facebook execs of threatening his latest startup with the Luca Brasi treatment: Sell out to us or we'll crush you. 

"I had explicit approval from Facebook to build what I was building," says Caldwell, a software developer who unexpectedly found himself in the crosshairs because an app he was building to run atop Facebook was similar to Facebook's recently unveiled App Center. "They said, 'Sorry, we just need the revenue.'" 

Caldwell's public dust-up with Facebook -- which led to VC and Facebook board member Marc Andreessen stepping down from the board of Caldwell's company, Mixed Media Labs -- revealed much more than the personal tensions that occasionally flare between big and small software companies. It also opened a window on the extraordinary power wielded by Facebook and the power imbalance that thousands of developers have to keep in mind when they ally themselves with the biggest social network of them all. 

On the one hand, Facebook relies on a legion of third-party developers to invent apps that help keep more than half a billion users returning day after day. But in hitching their success to Facebook's reach, any developer that builds for Facebook's platform -- be it Branchout or Zynga -- can be sure to be in for a bumpy ride. Just look at what happened to BandPage, a San Francisco-based startup that built a tool for bands to share their music, communicate with fans about tour dates, distribute news -- you name it. Founder J Sider, a longtime band and venue manager who started the business two years ago, decided to build it entirely on Facebook. That's where musicians wanted to reach fans, he concluded, especially in a post-MySpace world, and Facebook didn't offer anything that met their needs. 

Facebook's 'black box'

One of the trickiest challenges for Facebook developers is navigating the tweaks Facebook constantly makes to "Edgerank," the algorithm that determines what shows up in the all-important News Feed. What appears in your News Feed might seem like a meritocracy, the result of how many of your friends 'liked' it or commented, but that's not the case. At least not entirely. 

Facebook can decide whether an app is seen by thousands or tens of millions of people, in effect controlling just how viral something becomes. Users often think that something is suddenly popular when what's really going on is Facebook is running tests -- always in the name of user experience, but doubtless also with an eye on revenue, especially as a newly public company with a sagging stock price. The impact can be huge. One week, an app is on fire. The next, it's reduced to ashes. "It's incredibly frustrating," said one developer, who didn't want to be quoted by name for fear of souring his relationship with Facebook. "We all worry about Facebook making changes, and we all want to figure out how to get in the activity stream more. But much of it is a black box." 

Working the relationship

Since things change fast on Facebook, app makers need to work hard to keep abreast of what might come. It's not easy, of course, since Facebook keeps its product roadmap and design plans close to its vest.
The relationship is one that Rick Marini, for one, can't let slide. Marini is the founder and CEO of BranchOut, the largest professional network that isn't LinkedIn. BranchOut, which has raised $49 million from big Silicon Valley investors, is entirely built on Facebook, and Marini's team meets with the folks at Facebook weekly to give them feedback and learn what they can about what Branchout could do better. 

BranchOut CEO Rick Marini
(Credit: BranchOut)
"We came out of nowhere and now have 30 million users, and there's no way we could have grown that fast without Facebook," says Marini. "Since the platform is always changing, we are always in touch with them. We tell them we see this kind of use behavior after you launched this change, and if things aren't working, they want to know." Facebook, of course, is rarely out to punish apps on its platform. Its execs are doing what they think is best for Facebook, and if that leads to some pain, that's the risk of attaching yourself to the world's largest social network. It's a symbiotic relationship, and sometimes an uneasy one. But ultimately, Facebook has created a flourishing app economy across all sorts of categories -- shopping, music, reading, games, fitness, cooking, and on and on. The power that Facebook carries is similar to that of Google with search. When Google makes major changes to its search algorithms, Internet roadkill is sometimes the result. But Google, like Facebook, is doing what it thinks is best: Google wants quality search results (with quality defined by Google), and Facebook wants a quality Facebook social experience (with quality defined by Facebook). And like Google, Facebook is now a big public company. As such, it's making decisions based not just on user experience. There are also millions of shareholders to satisfy and so there is added pressure to maintain revenue growth . It's that reality that leads Dalton Caldwell to conclude that Facebook, like the ad-driven Twitter, is no longer a true "platform," or what Zuckerberg used to describe as a "social utility."

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  1. A nice heads up for techies interested in developing applications for facebook! thumbs up iZone-iHUB!

  2. Bump on this article while searching for techie stuff. Nice. Keep it up!