GSP East: How to battle the Facebook zombie army

Panel at Graphing Social Patterns: East conference pits moderator against four high-ranking Facebook Platform officials. Here's a preview: Lots of talking points.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read
From L to R: Dave Morin, Josh Elman, Ruchi Sanghvi, Ben Ling, and moderator Dave McClure Caroline McCarthy/CNET News.com

ARLINGTON, Va.--A quartet of Facebook's platform engineers took the stage on Wednesday morning at the Graphing Social Patterns: East conference, for a discussion led by conference organizer Dave McClure about what's next for the social network's developer initiative. Speaking to the developer-heavy audience at the small conference were senior platform manager Dave Morin, program manager Josh Elman, product manager Ruchi Sanghvi, and director of platform product marketing Benjamin Ling.

Morin said that the social network has hit the milestone of 80 million active users worldwide.

As is typically the case with conference panels featuring Facebook employees, the four participants were refined and well-coached, their dialogue frequently dotted with mentions of Facebook's "trusted environment" and the desire to give users more control over their data. But their message was clear: Facebook has to rein in its platform, which now has over 24,000 applications available, to keep that madcap rush of Zombies, Vampires, and Pirates vs. Ninjas under wraps.

"The (developer) community learned a lot of viral techniques to grow, and what we found is users didn't really like that," Ling said of the social network's "app spam" problem. "We opened up the set of tools to enable developers to build great applications, expecting that they would build applications similarly to the way that Facebook had been building applications. And some of them did, some of them didn't, and I think a lot of them didn't."

Ling continued, "What we learned is that it was important to actually add a couple of controls into the system, create the right incentives by giving more allocations based on user feedback." That's where Facebook's impending profile redesign comes into the equation. It'll use a tabbed interface to keep many applications off the front page, cleaning up the experience but leaving many developers to worry that they won't be able to get the same kind of traction. Considering some developers were already concerned that Facebook had been instituting new regulations on the platform that made it tougher for them to spread the word about their applications, it could be a shaky PR move.

All four panelists said that while some developers may initially have issues with the redesign, it will eventually make it possible for Facebook to offer a "richer" and more dynamic experience and let applications tap even further into the social interactions on the site. More importantly, they stressed, users will stop hating on the platform and might be more likely to spread the word about applications they like.

"If we think about Facebook Platform six months ago or more, forced invites were something that you stumbled upon in application after application," Elman said of applications that required users to invite friends, which were banned several months ago. "We really want to reward through the system. We really want our top applications to be model citizens...for those that aren't, we'll be taking even sterner enforcement, potentially," he said.

"Allocations for our distribution channels are now based on users' feedback," Sanghvi said regarding the fact that applications will be promoted based on internal statistics on how many users are actually sticking with them. "Ever since we changed the allocations based on user feedback, we noticed that the acceptance rate for requests has gone up 30 percent."

More about Facebook Connect
Morin spoke extensively about Facebook Connect, the data portability project that he's been working on for quite some time. "The idea behind Facebook Connect is to allow users to take their Facebook data with them wherever they go on the Internet, or devices, or something like that," he said. "We all spend a lot of time in Facebook building up what we've commonly referred to as a social graph, but really what that means is when you want to go (outside the site)."

One of the launch partners for Facebook Connect when it debuts later this year will be social news site Digg; syncing a Facebook account with a Digg account will mean more than just a single log-in, Morin explained. "If you go to the Digg site today, you might see there's the 'most popular' list of Diggs in the entire system," he said. When Facebook Connect goes live on Digg, in contrast, it'll be "possible for me to see which things my friends are Digging. Just the smallest bit of social context actually enables me to have a better experience on the site, because I can see what my friends are doing."

The panelists were vague as to how exactly Facebook Connect will tie in to the social network's privacy control groupings, which it launched earlier this year.

Some more tidbits: Facebook will certainly be launching a payment system for application developers, as has been widely rumored, but Ling--a veteran of the Google Checkout technology--wouldn't provide a time frame. They've also tossed about the issue of an ad network for developers, but haven't made concrete plans.

The FBFund developer grant fund, which launched last fall, has given money to "more than two, less than 10" developers who applied, Ling said; Elman added that five to 10 more are "in the queue" and that grants of between $25,000 and $250,000 have been handed out.

The company's recent announcement that a substantial portion of the platform would be open-sourced was designed to "enable developers to have deeper insights on how the platform works," Elman explained. Developers will be able to tap into more extensive metrics on the platform, he said.

And Ling, the Google veteran, reiterated the company's common talking point regarding its blocking of Google's Friend Connect project. "We are working with Google very closely to figure out how to work together in this space," he said. "As it stands, they are violating our privacy policy."