Reid Hoffman believes that Facebook has a big future as a development platform, arguing that many fresh-from-college coders will turn to the popular social networking site when building their next Web-based entertainment application. But he questions whether the Facebook "friends list" - or "social graph" - is suited to business applications and other tools that go beyond entertainment.
Of course, that’s what you’d expect him to say. Hoffman is the co-founder and chairman of LinkedIn, a social network for business professionals, and he recently tossed some dough into the $10m fbFund – which funds nothing but Facebook applications.
"Can one [social networking] site be everything? I think the answer is no," Hoffman told developers and marketers at something called Graphing Social Patterns, a San Jose conference dedicated to all things Facebook. "But I do think you're going to see a lot of very interesting applications based on the Facebook social graph."
In May, Facebook introduced Facebook Platform, a public API (application programming interface) that gives third-party developers an unusual level of access to the site’s inner-workings. That includes the ability to distribute applications through Facebook's social graph, the thing that links users to their closest online friends.
Yes, developers can build applications for other social networking sites, most notably MySpace. But Facebook makes it easier for end users to quickly share such applications with others on the site. When you install a Facebook application, for instance, the site automatically sends out notices via your personal news feed.
"Facebook was the first platform where you already had a large number of users using the social graph and engaged with it, and the applications could essentially rely on the graph in order to build," Hoffman said. "MySpace has widgets and something of a social graph...but there's no way for the widgets to access a real set of relationships."
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We have trouble saying social graph with a straight face, but many believe this sort of "viral distribution" will re-invent the world of online applications. Another speaker at the conference, Lance Tokuda, CEO of online application developer RockYou, said his company can distribute applications seven times faster via Facebook. Supposedly, a RockYou application called Super Wall reached two million users in just three weeks.
"Any company that could have gotten these sorts of numbers on the web before Facebook could definitely have gotten funding," said Tokuda. "Any VC would fund a company that got two million users within three weeks of launch."
Obviously, Reid Hoffman believes in this model too. But before he said so, he did his best to show that FaceBook doesn’t compete with LinkedIn. He said that whereas LinkedIn is a place for "professional people searches," Facebook is a "massive directory for communications." Basically, he's saying that LinkedIn is a better place to gather information about complete strangers you're interested in doing business with.
With a nod to Tolkien’s The Lord Of the Rings, he insisted there was not "one graph to rule them all." "Is there one kind of graph that containing each different sort of relationship, thats says 'these are my friends,' 'these are family,' 'there are acquaintances,' 'these are professionals,' 'these are my soccer buddies'?" he said. "My personal theory that there will be multiple graphs." In other words, LinkedIn is for professional networking, and Facebook isn’t.
That said, Hoffman sees real possibilities in Facebook as a development platform. He called Facebook’s own photo-sharing application "pure genius," and he believes that there’s a big opportunity for developers who can imitate the way it hooks into the sort of social relationships fostered by the site.
With Facebook Photo, if someone tags a picture with your name, then your friends are alerted. "It created a great many-to-many communications system around a very simple application," Hoffman said. "What I think will be most interesting in terms of Facebook applications will be those that try to replicate that genius."
In fact, he believes youngsters are lining up to use Facebook as their primary development platform. "As I tell many venture capitalists, many of the new developers coming out of college will start by writing Facebook applications," he said. "You'll see a lot of the social entertainment stuff on Facebook."
Of course, it’s college students that have made Facebook so very popular in the first place. According to the company, 57 per cent of the site’s users are between 18 and 24. ®