The new Facebook is on a roll
The social network's new strategy has already led to surprising innovation - and another million or so users.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- It's been an eventful week since Facebook launched a new strategy to turn itself into a platform for applications created by outsiders. The social network has gained another million users and is now up to 25 million. And now that the company has created a new green field for developers, innovation is exploding.
The hottest application on Facebook is from a music social networking company called iLike. That service is now approaching a million users, growing at about 200,000 per day. This is amazing for a company whose own website had a total of three million members prior to the Facebook launch.
In this excellent interview at VentureBeat, iLike CEO Ali Partovi says that company president (and his twin brother) Hadi Partovi, a Microsoft (Charts) veteran, believes that "in the history of computing, there was the personal computer, there was Windows, there was the web, and now the Facebook platform."
That might seem strong stuff, but one can understand the Partovis' enthusiasm for Facebook, since after four days iLike was getting more traffic on Facebook than on its own site.
What makes it all the more amazing is that the iLike application on Facebook isn't even very good. But its tremendous success tells me two things. First, that music applications are craved by Facebook's membership. After all, music info and promotion has been the single biggest factor other than sex and dating to fuel the growth of MySpace, the dominant social network> But it hasn't up to now been a big part of Facebook.
But iLike also demonstrates the viral power of Facebook's platform. This is probably its most under appreciated aspect. Neither Facebook itself nor application partners like iLike did any explicit promotion or advertising of the new applications. Facebook didn't even tell its membership that it was opening up to outside applications.
But with Facebook's "News Feed" feature, information about the activity of your friends is broadcast into your own home page. I joined iLike after I noticed other friends doing so. A little note just appeared in my News Feed saying something like "Jim Aley added the iLike application." (Jim is my close Fortune colleague and editor.) That sort of thing has happened about a million times. Popularity begets more popularity, and iLike is spreading like wildfire.
When Facebook unveiled the applications strategy last Thursday, it had 65 partners who launched about 85 new applications. Now there are already 300 applications, many created by solo programmers in dorm rooms. One, called "Last.fm," was written by Jake Jarvis, a New Jersey high school freshman, and already has about 23,000 users.
It builds a simple link to the popular music social network application of the same name, which was purchased this week by CBS and has not yet built its own official Facebook application. (Here is an interesting TechCrunch post on Jarvis' work.) Another new application, called "x me," created by a student at Cambridge University in the UK, already has over 184,000 users who use it to signal their affection, distaste or other feelings to other Facebook members.
The launch of the Facebook platform represents a major shift in how the web works, and it put punditocracy into overdrive. Popular tech blogger Paul Allen (not the one who co-founded Microsoft) writes that just in the way the so-called LAMP stack of open-source applications allows companies to build higher-value business applications with less effort than ever, the Facebook platform eliminates labor in the creation of social applications.
Partovi, in that interview with VentureBeat, goes further: "Anybody who is currently...building a consumer-facing website should be thinking about...building a Facebook app instead...Developers who don't ask themselves that question are like the people building multimedia CD-ROM software in 1996 who didn't ask themselves if they should be building websites."
The new realities of social software will mean painful transitions for marketers, according to columnist Joe Marchese at MediaPost. Like Allen, he focuses on the attitude that Facebook brings to the entire project, which assumes that what is good for its users will be good for the company.
That attitude will not be easy for many marketers to adopt. Marchese is addressing the advertising/marketing community when he writes: "When was the last time you, like Facebook, asked your staff not what social media communities can do for your brand - but what your brand can do for social media communities? Advertisers need to start with this question and work backward to marketing goals."
It's certainly not going to all be smooth sailing for Facebook. Facebook shut down an application called "Statistics," meant to track visitors to your Facebook profile, because it violated the company's "terms of service," according to company strategy chief Matt Cohler. The application apparently did not properly incorporate privacy controls.
Facebook executives say privacy is central to all that the company does. Cohler acknowledges the company needs to do a better job explaining how to install and uninstall applications, and to use the extensive privacy controls that can work with them.
As always there were naysayers, like the acid-tongued Rafat Ali of Paidcontent.org , who attacked the entire Facebook project (and last week's articles about it by yours truly) as unimportant and over hyped. He's wrong.
Many say their biggest worry about Facebook is that it won't be able to handle the growing volume of usage as it becomes more and more popular. There have already been repeated instances of applications stuttering under the load.