Just read Marc Andreessen’s very insightful analysis of what happened with the Facebook Platform (the development of new applications) during the first three weeks after its launch.
Andreessen’s entry was written in June and provides an appropriate snapshot of what people must have been thinking at the point.
Well… My perceptions are only as a lowly user of Facebook, not as a developer. And though I’m fairly active on Facebook, I can’t claim to be a Facebook “Power User.” Yet, as an ethnographer, I can’t help but notice something going on.
The Facebook Platform was an important event in Facebook’s history but many things have happened since Facebook started out, a few years ago. I only joined during the Fall semester, 2005 and I wasn’t very active on it until February, 2007. But I now use Facebook rather extensively and end up talking about it on several occasions. I’m really not sure about the timeframe and I’m too lazy to look things up but I’m hoping to find out at some point. Comments are obviously welcome.
One of the most important things in Facebook’s history was when they opened registration to the wider world of (English-speaking) Internet users as a whole. Prior to this, Facebook was restricted to university, college, and school campuses. For a little while, some businesses could have their own networks. But a real shift happened when Fb opened the gates and let everyone in. There were some discontentment on the part of long-time users but, on the whole, it was a rather smooth transition. At about the same time, the “Mini-Feed” feature was set up. With it, users can see pretty much everything their friends are doing, from status updates and friend adds to wall posts and pokes. This feature also occasioned some controversy but the Fb team reacted promptly and rather openly. On the whole, this was handled rather well.
I think one of the first killer apps, before the release of the actual semi-open platform, was Facebook Mobile, which lets users interact with Fb through SMS. The reason I think this was an important application is that the Canadian Fb community seems to have at the same time Fb Mobile became available on Canadian providers. Oh, sure, it might be pure coincidence. But the feature probably made me more active on Fb and chances are that it happened with other users.
Over the past year, there has been a fair deal of coverage of Fb in both tech and general media. Much of it has been rather critical if not outright alarming or inflammatory. But the end-result was increased exposure to Facebook. For instance, the first time I heard about Facebook was in a podcast version of a talk at Indiana University about online privacy (still a very important issue). The presenter had analysed some trends in what information students were willing to share on Facebook. Being interested in online networks, I decided to join Fb out of mere curiosity and, right away, some of my students added me as a friend. Concepts like “network effect” and “viral marketing” apply too obviously to such cases to be worth explaining.
The launch of the Facebook Platform happened in this context. As a non-coder, I was personally impressed by the rapidity with which developers were able to release Facebook applications. It felt as if new applications sprung up within hours of the platform release. It probably took longer but it really looked like an almost-synchronised release for the platform and new apps.
Andreessen talks about the platform launch from the point of view of application developers. As a non-coding Fb user, I think the apps were quite important in intensifying the buzz about Fb but I don’t think applications themselves have changed Fb that much. Yes, people are much more active on Fb thanks to cool apps. And some of these apps are actually very useful. But, to me, there’s a clear continuity between Fb groups and apps (even though they are completely different in other ways). In fact, an important similarity between apps and groups is summarized in the name for a Facebook group: “I read the group name, I laugh, I join, I never look at it again.” Andreessen alluded to this, in a way, but the important point is that both group memberships and application additions are more toward the “passive” than the “active” part of the online behaviour continuum. In all the discussions about online “bubbles” and “busts,” such issues should be kept in mind.
Many application developers seem not to understand this. They create apps which create very little value to users and try to monetize by forcing application users to invite friends or to click on some irrelevant links. Bad form, IMHO. Like most other Fb users, I add apps when I see friends adding them. But I’m increasingly weary of the adding apps which seem too eager to disseminate quickly. IOW: please, pretty please, stop the “application invite” madness!
I also notice that several Facebook users are sorting out their applications and groups. Part of it is pure information overload (many people left a local group after being sent daily updates of blog posts in their Fb mailboxes). But part of it is simply about finding what place Fb plays in our lives. Sure, many of us were excited about the possibilities and most of us are increasingly active on Fb. But after the initial excitement, we go into a phase during which Fb is just a tool.
And that might be a Good Thing(tm).