Facebook's app feeding frenzy

Founder Mark Zuckerberg says new third-party applications will help his social network grow. But how much is too much of a good thing?

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
5 min read
NEW YORK--At Wednesday night's Facebook Developer Meetup, the mood could be summed up by the appearance of a clean-cut young entrepreneur who had written "I NEED AN APP" in thick black marker on his name tag.

His Web endeavor hadn't even gone live yet, but he knew he wanted--even needed--to be able to build an application for it using Facebook Platform, the set of tools the popular social-networking site released last month.

Now that third-party companies and developers can create custom applications for Facebook members to add to their profiles, building "Facebook apps" has become a top priority for many Web companies--particularly smaller ones looking to make it big by capitalizing on Facebook's large and loyal user base.

"It's an amazing platform," said Nathan Freitas, creator of Cruxy, a set of tools that help musicians and filmmakers share and sell their digital content. "It's fantastic. They really thought of so many things, and it's a pleasure to develop for, honestly."

Less than a month after its debut, however, Facebook Platform may be closing in on a saturation point. Dave Morin, Facebook's director of platform, told the Developer Meetup audience via videoconference that more than 40,000 developers have requested to be part of the project, around 1,500 applications have been produced so far, and some of the most popular went from zero to 850,000 users in three days. "This is unprecedented in the history of the Internet," Morin said to the developers.

"I definitely think that people are initially going to run into 'app fatigue,'" said Amit Gupta, who hosted the developer event on Wednesday night. Gupta has created a Facebook Platform application for his photography tips newsletter, Photojojo. "I think I've started to see that already with some of the people in my circle," he added.

"I definitely think that people are initially going to run into 'app fatigue.'"
--Photojojo founder Amit Gupta

But in an interview with CNET News.com after the developer conference, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (who dropped in unexpectedly at the event) said though some users might find the third-party applications distracting or disruptive, they're central to Facebook's overall philosophy of letting users build the site from the ground up.

"If you think about just how we went about building the site," Zuckerberg said, "the traditional approach would have been to assemble the information and build the directory ourselves"--like a phone book. Instead, Facebook allowed people to opt into membership and build their own profiles. "In general, we really want to make this as decentralized as possible," he added. "Decentralized systems just tend to be more efficient."

That does raise another potential risk for Facebook: losing control. "There are a lot of things we're going to have to deal with as they come up," Zuckerberg said, while adding that no major problems had surfaced yet. He pointed out that the terms of service for Facebook Platform are the same as those for standard use of the site: no pornography, spamming, harassment, or copyright violations, among other unsavory things. While Zuckerberg has touted the openness of Facebook Platform, he's also quick to note that plenty of regulations are in place to keep tabs on developer activity.

As an example, Zuckerberg said Facebook Platform developers cannot yet use JavaScript in their applications, because it isn't seen as secure enough for the platform in its current form. "Rather than putting it in our terms of service that you promise not to breach our security and putting the onus on us," he said, "we are just going to open it up slowly over time."

Wild West

But even Zuckerberg's caution wouldn't seem to dissuade developers' enthusiasm. Starry-eyed entrepreneurs at the New York gathering talked about how they'd heard of companies that had experienced soaring traffic after creating popular applications, like iLike's music discovery tool, when they achieved heavy viral buzz. A few mentioned potential investors have added "Are you working on a Facebook Platform application?" to the questions posed to start-ups seeking funding.

"As soon as I heard that (Zuckerberg) was thinking of opening it up to other applications, I thought it was definitely important," said Rachel Sterne, founder and CEO of the citizen journalism start-up GroundReport, who is working on creating an application. "We can't be the last one on the block."

There are now applications that tie into massive social media sites like Flickr, Digg, and Last.fm; as well as smaller companies like TravelPod, Flixster, and PicksPal. There are also standalone applications that don't connect to any external site and simply serve to spice up the user experience (for better or worse): like the SuperPoke application that allows users to virtually karate-chop and pinch each other; the Graffiti Wall, which lets members draw in the manner of Microsoft Paint in a box embedded on profiles; and Bunny Picture, which is exactly what you'd think it would be.

It's nothing short of a gold rush. "There's a land grab, because (lots of) space has not been claimed," Freitas explained. "There's definitely a rush, and I think there's going to be a saturation point."

It's similar, Freitas said, to his earlier experiences developing an e-mail application called ThinAir for the Palm 7 platform several years ago. "It was the same deal," he said. "Apps coming out left and right, every app got a lot of traffic, and at a certain point it was too much. What's good is that it settles down."

Even when the dust eventually settles, it's unclear whether Facebook members might be nostalgic for the old blue-and-white site. "I've already seen people saying Facebook's getting too cluttered and I think people are already feeling a little overwhelmed," Sterne said. "One of Facebook's biggest advantages used to be that it was the antiMySpace. It was simple and clean."

MySpace, which dwarfs Facebook in membership numbers and global reach, has always allowed members to heavily customize their profiles with audio, video and embeddable code--sometimes to the point of nausea, depending on who you ask. But ultimately, Facebook developers think adding their work to Facebook's mix will be worth it to the young company.

"It's the Wild West. I love it," Freitas said. "They're not trying to be overprotective, which I think is ultimately a good thing, but there's a lot of risk in that strategy and I admire them for taking a gamble."