Silicon Valley's bubble in Facebook-apps startup has been our own local version of the crisis in toxic mortgage securities. With venture capitalists growing leary of the concept, developers have been eagerly awaiting the outcome of Facebook's FBFund, a grants program for applications startups. Results were promised on September 22, then again last Friday; Facebook still hasn't made a decision on the lucky winners. Why? Because Facebook's applications platform has become, like everything else in the company, a scene of rabidly intense politicking.Here's an update for anyone who didn't get the memo: Facebook's applications "platform," a set of software tools for embedding timewasting entertainments within the social network's pages, is not a level playing field. Some applications are more equal than others. That's only become clearer since Facebook foolishly put Facebook's platform in the hands of its top flack, Washington-trained bloviator Elliot Schrage. Facebook's Great Apps program, meant to designate higher-quality applications, has become a shameful excuse for nepotism. Awarding money on the merits is hard enough. When you mix in the need to help out your COO's brother-in-law's pet startup, or your ex-president's latest venture, it complicates matters. Is Facebook going to come out with a list of apps to fund that it's truly proud of? Or will this look more like an appropriations bill after it's made its way through Congress, larded with earmarks?
Today at Facebook's developer's conference, social games widgetmaker Zynga will announce a $29 million round of funding — the company's second — led by Kleiner Perkins, the VC firm that backed Amazon.com and Google. Zynga has also acquired virtual world app YoVille and added former Electronic Arts creative exec Bing Gordon to its board. The company makes games like Poker and Attack, a Risk clone, for Facebook and other social networks. Zynga founder Mark Pincus told the Wall Street Journal that Zynga has 18 million monthly visitors and adds another 450,000 users a day. Kleiner Perkins partner John Doeer said his firm went ahead with the Zynga deal because of that kind of growth, telling the Journal Zynga has "cracked the code" on how to develop games that go viral fast. But really, how Zynga adds new users isn't all that complicated, clever or sustainable.
They can't say they didn't have it coming. But widgetmakers are angry all the same about Facebook's decision to clone Slide's Top Friends application as a feature in its latest redesign. "It would be insane for a new developer" to begin creating new apps the platform now, says an executive at one of the many Facebook-applications firms watching the story. The exec says the VCs widget startups pitch for funding know it, too, and are closing their wallets. He blames Facebook's "new regime," including new COO Sheryl Sandberg and recently-appointed flack-cum-platform director, Elliot Schrage:
Can a PR guy run an operating system? Silicon Valley's gut reaction: No way. And yet that's what Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has done in appointing Elliot Schrage, her handpicked flack, to run Facebook's platform. The platform, when it launched a year ago, was hailed as the world's next Windows; by opening up its friends lists and other features to outside developers, Facebook would surely become the next Microsoft, ran the standard line of punditry, in an age when the pundits were in love with Facebook. That, more than anything, surely stirred Microsoft to invest $240 million in the company. But in one very short year — or a very long one, rather — Facebook's platform has gone from selling point to PR headache.
If you're the application developer and they're the platform owner, you have to know death can come at any moment: Create a popular, simple application, and the platform owner might just rip you off in their next release. It's happened to Max Levchin's Slide, maker of the popular Facebook widget Top Friends. With its latest profile redesign, Facebook now allows users to specify which friends they'd like to display to profile visitors. (See how Facebook's version works in the image above and you'll note that with the friends I've selected, my goal is to intimidate profile visitors with my powerful connections.) Before you feel too sorry for Slide, note that this is a feature MySpace has long offered. Slide, seeing that Facebook lacked it, promptly cooked up Top Friends, which filled the void. Top Friends is Slide's second most popular application with nearly 1.5 million daily active users. On the strength of those user numbers, Slide has raised $50 million in a recent financing round, and is opening an ad-sales office in New York. We asked for Slide's reaction. They were surprisingly chipper!
Facebook's third-most popular widget, Slide's Top Friends, is back after Facebook suspended it on June 26. (The offense: displaying Top Friends' users birthdays and other private information that wouldn't normally be visible on Facebook.) What took so long? Following the suspension, Slide wanted to call its apps the most secure on Facebook. To feel comfortable doing so, it contracted a third-party audit firm to review its applications and source code, Slide exec Keith Rabois told us. "The issue with Top Friends was fixed immediately," Rabois told us, "But as you might imagine an independent audit takes time to perform." Elsewhere on Facebook, Slide's privacy troubles seem to be spreading.
Developers upset with Facebook's antiviral measures tell us enthusiasm for Facebook's platform is waning. Nonsense, says Steve Cohen, the head of platform engineering at Facebook rival Bebo. Earlier this year, Cohen built a platform for Bebo that was entirely compatible with apps built for Facebook. Cohen told Silicon Alley Insider that Bebo's big worry right now isn't that Facebook's redesign will kill developer enthusiam for the shared platform, but that a new Facebook platform will leave Bebo a step behind. Said Cohen: “Facebook really threw a monkey wrench in the whole compatibility thing. If we’re not compatible with Facebook, no one is going to develop for our platform.”
Welcome to the Silicon Valley hype cycle: One year, and you're over. That seems to be the consensus on Facebook's vaunted platform, whose one-year anniversary went largely unremarked. The company itself didn't blog about it until today, and sources tell us an open-bar party Facebook held in Palo Alto was low-key to the point of despair. It can't have helped that Google was throwing a massive party in San Francisco the same day to close out its conference for developers. How different a scene from a year ago, when the F8 launch event of Facebook Platform won comparisons of the company to Microsoft and of founder Mark Zuckerberg to Bill Gates.
Facebook's formal announcement of Facebook Connect is at once a transparently timed response to MySpace's announcement of partnerships with eBay and Twitter yesterday and the culmination of things the social network has been working on for ages. Facebook Connect, at its simplest, lets websites like Digg and Twitter integrate their users' activity into Facebook users' News Feeds. Those two companies, as well as Yahoo's Flickr and Google's Picasa, have been using Facebook Connect well before it was unveiled under that name. It cements Facebook's role as a central place to keep up with one's friends. Yet I'm not sure how I feel about it.
Earlier today, we reported that participation in Facebook's developer forum is down, most likely due to Facebook's new restrictions on Facebook-application spam. We praised these new rules, saying Facebook won't miss its lousiest apps. Now an executive from a major, well-funded widgetmaker tells us, "Your post misses the point." Before you reach for the "Block" button, hear him out:
New accounts and activity on Facebook's developer forums are down dramatically since January, reports Adonomics founder Jesse Farmer. And as the above chart indicates, Facebook's users no longer add third-party Facebook applications as much as they did at the beginning of the year. Along with increased competition from social network Hi5 and consolidation into larger widgetmaking companies, Farmer blames the slowdown on Facebook for "instituting increasingly demanding and arbitrary rules on platform developers, which they then enforced selectively and for their own benefit." We agree the slowdown is likely the result of the new rules, but we don't so much blame Facebook as praise Facebook for them.
When a Facebook user adds "skiing" to the interests on their profile, it's hard for an advertiser to tell exactly what the user means. A Google search for "Ski rentals in Wolf Creek, Colorado" is much more informative, by contrast. Advertisers know what kind of pitch to deliver, albeit in the form of an AdWords haiku. Inside Facebook's Justin Smith argues advertisers have an easier time targeting users of Facebook apps — for example, one who installs a skiing weather-map application, and looks up conditions in Wolf Creek. It's one reason he says that Facebook applications will prove easier to profit from than Facebook itself.
Why has Mark Zuckerberg courted disaster by offending the developers who helped make him worth $4 billion on paper? He has no one but himself to blame, says the CEO of a top Facebook widgetmaker. Facebook failed to control application spam last summer, he says, after it launched its platform. And so last night Facebook revised its rules to allow the applications with favorable user-feedback ratings to send more notifications and invitations. Apps with bad reviews will now have tighter restrictions. It's too little, too late, our source tells us.
Makers of Facebook applications have seized control over the social network's latest redesign. So who are these mighty developers capable of bending the stubborn Mark Zuckerberg to their will? Among others, the makers of "You're a Hottie," which tops the "Recently Popular" list in Facebook's "Just For Fun" application category — the most popular on the site, according to this handy reminder from FlowingData. Here's CLZConcepts.com pitch for their popular app:
Updated mockups reveal that Facebook has added a new tab to its soon-to-be-released user profiles. It's a small but telling detail that illustrates how the obsessively controlling Mark Zuckerberg has ceded power to independent Facebook-app developers. In his original plans for Facebook's redesign, Zuckerberg planned to integrate the Wall — the place where public messages from other users are displayed on user profiles — with Facebook's News Feed, which is where Facebook serves ads between "stories" about other users' activities. This integration was a way for Facebook to finally serve ads in the Wall, a placewhere users spend a great deal of their time on the site.