Building apps for Facebook: A dance with the devil
Facebook has created a booming app economy that's made plenty of developers rich. It's also forcing a lot of them to lose sleep.
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 . "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 or Zynga -- can be sure to be in for a bumpy ride.
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." Facebook execs are guarded about exactly how the News Feed works. A Facebook spokesperson stressed that "apps grow on Faceboook based on quality and popularity among friends," but he also acknowledged that just what that means is Facebook's secret sauce. Any active Facebook user sees this in action. Remember the weed-like growth of Zynga's Farmville? Gradually, that petered out -- at least in part, it seems, because Facebook determined that users were feeling spammed and, in response, took a whack at Farmville. The impact was big enough that in its execs blamed Zynga's shortfall in part on changes Facebook made to favor new game titles. Social reading was a fun one. This spring, we all started to see what our Facebook friends were reading on the Washington Post, Yahoo and elsewhere. One day I peeked at my News Feed to discover Go Daddy founder Bob Parsons and Marc Andreessen had both been reading an article with the headline, "Supermodels without photoshop." Even for Facebook, it felt like over sharing.
Certainly it was more than many Facebook users had thought they'd bargained for. While Facebook won't discuss the specific changes it made and why, the company started tweaking away and, poof, suddenly the traffic to social reading apps dropped off. It's as if Facebook creates and ends fads.Take the money
I'm not saying that Michael Seibel, the founder and CEO of video-sharing app Socialcam, took the from Autodesk last month because traffic was dropping on Facebook, but that's what was happening. While it's true that a lot of people loved Socialcam and rival Viddy -- Socialcam's app had 16 million downloads on iOS and Android since it launched in 2011 -- it leaned heavily on Facebook for its growth. And the numbers made it look like Socialcam's best days were behind it. Socialcam is one of many apps that got a huge push by the rollout of Open Graph, in which apps get shared on your Timeline as well as your friends' New Feeds and Tickers. But Socialcam used Facebook aggressively, and its spammy and crafty techniques were criticized often. To watch a Socialcam video that someone shared on Facebook, for instance, you first need to sign up for the app. The rise and fall on Facebook was spectacular. On April 1st, Socialcam had 570,000 monthly average users, according to AppData. By June, that number had soared 9,952 percent, giving Socialcam average of 57.3 million monthly users. Come August 1st, however, usage had all plummeted -- down to 31.9 million, a decline that likely had to do with Facebook responding to complaints and making tweaks. And the falloff continues on Facebook. No matter. By that time -- on July 17, to be precise -- Seibel had sold to Autodesk, which says it will let San Francisco-based, four-person Socialcam continue to operate independently.
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.