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8.5 Facebook as a Platform

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand how Facebook created a platform and the potential value this offers the firm.
  2. Recognize that running a platform also presents a host of challenges to the platform operator.

In May 2007, Facebook followed News Feeds with another initiative that set it head and shoulders above its competition. At the firm’s first f8 (pronounced “fate”) Developers Conference, Mark Zuckerberg stood on stage and announced that he was opening up the screen real estate on Facebook to other application developers. Facebook published a set of application programming interfaces (APIs)Programming hooks, or guidelines, published by firms that tell other programs how to get a service to perform a task such as send or receive data. For example, provides APIs to let developers write their own applications and Websites that can send the firm orders. that specified how programs could be written to run within and interact with Facebook. Now any programmer could write an application that would live inside a user’s profile. Geeks of the world, Facebook’s user base could be yours! Just write something good.

Developers could charge for their wares, offer them for free, and even run ads. And Facebook let developers keep what they made (Facebook does revenue share with app vendors for some services, such as the Facebook Credits payment service, mentioned later). This was a key distinction; MySpace (a larger firm at the time) initially restricted developer revenue on the few products designed to run on their site, at times even blocking some applications. The choice was clear: Facebook had rolled out the welcome mat and developers flocked to the site.

To promote the new apps, Facebook would run an Applications area on the site where users could browse offerings. Even better, News Feed was a viral injection that spread the word each time an application was installed. Your best friend just put up a slide show app? Maybe you’ll check it out, too. The predictions of $1 billion in social network ad spending were geek catnip, and legions of programmers came calling. Apps could be cobbled together on the quick, feeds made them spread like wildfire, and the early movers offered adoption rates never before seen by small groups of software developers. People began speaking of the Facebook Economy. Facebook was considered a platform. Some compared it to the next Windows, Zuckerberg the next Gates (hey, they both dropped out of Harvard, right?).

And each application potentially added more value and features to the site without Facebook lifting a finger. The initial event launched with sixty-five developer partners and eighty-five applications. There were some missteps along the way. Some applications were accused of spamming friends with invites to install them (Facebook eventually put limits on viral communication from apps). There were also security concerns, privacy leaks, and apps that violated the intellectual property of other firms (see the “Errant Apps” sidebar below), but Facebook worked to quickly remove misbehaving apps, correct errors, improve the system, and encourage developers. Just one year in, Facebook had marshaled the efforts of some four hundred thousand developers and entrepreneurs, twenty-four thousand applications had been built for the platform, 140 new apps were being added each day, and 95 percent of Facebook members had installed at least one Facebook application. As Sarah Lacy, author of Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good, put it, “with one masterstroke, Zuck had mobilized all of Silicon Valley to innovate for him.”

Figure 8.2 Gaming on Facebook’s Platform Is a Colossal Business

Zynga, maker of MafiaWars, FarmVille, and CityVille, is estimated to be the second most valuable firm in the video game industry, generating north of $600 million in annual profits through the sale of virtual goods and by running advertising and promotions.

With feeds to spread the word, Facebook was starting to look like the first place to go to launch an online innovation. Skip the Web; if you want to get social, bring it to Zuckerberg’s site first (you can almost feel Tim Berners-Lee shuddering). A programmer named Mark Pincus wrote a Texas hold ’em game at his kitchen table.J. Guynn, “A Software Industry @ Facebook,” Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2007. Today his social gaming firm, Zynga, is one of the world’’s most valuable video game firms, a multi-billion dollar powerhouse that has launched over three dozen apps and attracted over 230 million users worldwide.D. MacMillan, “Zynga Enlarges Its War Chest,” BusinessWeek, December 17, 2009. Zynga games include MafiaWars, FarmVille (which boasts some twenty times the number of actual farms in the United States),D. MacMillan, P. Burrows, and S. Ante, “Inside the App Economy,” BusinessWeek, November 2, 2009. and CityVille. Playfish, the U.K. social gaming firm behind the Facebook hits Pet Society and Restaurant City, was snapped up by Electronic Arts for $300 million plus. And Disney bought Sorority Life maker Playdom for over three quarters of a billion dollars.B. Barnes and C. Cain Miller, “Disney Buys Playdom in $763 Million Deal, Becoming Hollywood Leader in Social Games,” New York Times, July 27, 2010. Lee Lorenzen, founder of Altura Ventures, an investment firm exclusively targeting firms creating Facebook apps, said, “Facebook is God’s gift to developers. Never has the path from a good idea to millions of users been shorter.”J. Guynn, “A Software Industry @ Facebook,” Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2007.

I Majored in Facebook

Once Facebook became a platform, Stanford professor BJ Fogg thought it would be a great environment for a programming class. In ten weeks his seventy-five students built a series of applications that collectively received over sixteen million installs. By the final week of class, several applications developed by students, including KissMe, Send Hotness, and Perfect Match, had received millions of users, and class apps collectively generated roughly a million dollars in ad revenue. At least three companies were formed from the course.M. Helft, “The Class That Built Apps, and Fortunes,” New York Times, May 7, 2011.

But legitimate questions remain. Are Facebook apps really a big deal? Just how important will apps be to adding sustained value within Facebook? And how will firms leverage the Facebook framework to extract their own value? A chart from FlowingData showed the top category, Just for Fun, was larger than the next four categories combined. That suggests that a lot of applications are faddish time wasters. Yes, there is experimentation beyond virtual Zombie Bites. Visa has created a small business network on Facebook (Facebook had some eighty thousand small businesses online at the time of Visa’s launch). Educational software firm Blackboard offered an application that will post data to Facebook pages as soon as there are updates to someone’s Blackboard account (new courses, whether assignments or grades have been posted, etc.). We’re still a long way from Facebook as a Windows rival, but the platform helped push Facebook to number one, and it continues to deliver quirky fun (and then some) supplied by thousands of developers off its payroll.

Errant Apps and the Challenges of Running a Platform

Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla, two brothers in Kolkata, India, who ran a modest software development company, decided to write a Scrabble clone as a Facebook application. The app, named Scrabulous, was social—users could invite friends to play, or they could search for new players looking for an opponent. Their application was a smash, snagging three million registered users and seven hundred thousand players a day after just a few months. Scrabulous was featured in PC World’s 100 best products of the year, received coverage in the New York Times, Newsweek, and Wired, and was pulling in about twenty-five thousand dollars a month from online advertising. Way to go, little guys!H. Timmons, “Online Scrabble Craze Leaves Game Sellers at Loss for Words,” New York Times, March 2, 2008.

There is only one problem: the Agarwalla brothers didn’t have the legal rights to Scrabble, and it was apparent to anyone that from the name to the tiles to the scoring—this was a direct rip-off of the well-known board game. Hasbro owns the copyright to Scrabble in the United States and Canada; Mattel owns it everywhere else. Thousands of fans joined Facebook groups with names like “Save Scrabulous” and “Please God, I Have So Little: Don’t Take Scrabulous, Too.” Users in some protest groups pledged never to buy Hasbro games if Scrabulous was stopped. Even if the firms wanted to succumb to pressure and let the Agarwalla brothers continue, they couldn’t. Both Electronic Arts and RealNetworks have contracted with the firms to create online versions of the game.

While the Facebook Scrabulous app is long gone, the tale serves to illustrate some of the challenges faced when creating a platform. In addition to copyright violations, app makers have crafted apps that annoy, purvey pornography, step over the boundaries of good taste, and raise privacy and security concerns. In fall 2010, the Wall Street Journal reported that unscrupulous partners had scraped personal information from the profiles of Facebook users and then sold the information to third parties—a violation of Facebook’s terms of service that created a firestorm in the media.J. Cheng, “Facebook Punishes App Developers Found Selling User Data,” ArsTechnica, November 1, 2010. Zynga also ran into trouble and was skewered in the press when some of its partners were accused of scamming users into signing up for subscriptions or installing unwanted software in exchange for game credits (Zynga has since taken steps to screen partners and improve transparency).M. Arrington, “Zynga Takes Steps to Remove Scams from Games,” TechCrunch, November 2, 2009.

Firms from Facebook to Apple (through its iTunes Store) have struggled to find the right mix of monitoring, protection, and approval while avoiding cries of censorship and draconian control. Platform owners beware, developers can help you grow quickly and can deliver gobs of value, but misbehaving partners can create financial loss and brand damage and can sow mistrust.

Key Takeaways

  • Facebook’s platform allows the firm to further leverage the network effect. Developers creating applications create complementary benefits that have the potential to add value to Facebook beyond what the firm itself provides to its users.
  • There is no revenue-sharing mandate among platform partners—whatever an application makes can be kept by its developers (although Facebook does provide some services via revenue sharing, such as Facebook Credits).
  • Most Facebook applications are focused on entertainment. The true, durable, long-term value of Facebook’s platform remains to be seen.
  • Despite this, top app developers have found Facebook to be extraordinarily lucrative. Zynga is a multibillion-dollar firm, while Playfish and Playdom were acquired for hundreds of millions of dollars each.
  • Running a platform can be challenging. Copyright, security, appropriateness, free speech tensions, efforts that tarnish platform operator brands, privacy, and the potential for competition with partners, all can make platform management more complex than simply creating a set of standards and releasing this to the public.

Questions and Exercises

  1. Why did more developers prefer to write apps for Facebook than for MySpace?
  2. What competitive asset does the application platform initiative help Facebook strengthen? For example, how do apps make Facebook stronger when compared to rivals?
  3. What’s Scrabulous? Did the developers make money? What happened to the firm and why?
  4. Have you used Facebook apps? Which are your favorites? What makes them successful?
  5. Leverage your experience or conduct additional research—are there developers who you feel have abused the Facebook app network? Why? What is Facebook’s responsibility (if any) to control such abuse?
  6. How do most app developers make money? Have you ever helped a Facebook app developer earn money? How or why not?
  7. How do Facebook app revenue opportunities differ from those leveraged by a large portion of iTunes Store apps?