The brawn of Facebook, the brains of Twitter
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If you were a social-networking site other than Facebook or Twitter, you were probably struggling to stay above water in 2009. But if you were one of the many services built on top of Facebook's or Twitter's platforms, this may well have been a very good year.
Some formerly big names in social networking were attempting to revamp, rebrand, or recover. MySpace hired former Facebook exec Owen Van Natta to spearhead a turnaround for the News Corp.-owned social site as it saw its traffic increasingly eaten up by Facebook's; at year's end, it was still struggling to reinvent itself as a music and pop-culture powerhouse. Friendster, long past popularity in the U.S., took advantage of Asian traffic and sold itself to a Malaysian company in December. AOL, under the new auspices of CEO Tim Armstrong, more or less attempted to sweep its embarrassingly pricey $850 million acquisition of social site Bebo under the rug, placing it in a new division called "AOL Ventures."
Facebook, however, was riding high. Shortly after the start of the year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg--several months away from his 25th birthday--posted an entry on the company blog in which he announced that the social network had hit the milestone of 150 million members. At the beginning of December, it had more than doubled, reaching 350 million.
What was responsible for the lightning-fast growth for a site that started out as a stripped-down directory for students of elite universities? Well, it had a lot to do with the groundbreaking innovations that Facebook continued to roll out--scattering its code like seeds across the Web. In '07 and '08, the hot developer trend was to build an application for Facebook's platform that members could install and share with their friends; in '09, with the platform clogged and spam concerns causing Facebook to crack down on the rules, it was all about Facebook Connect. Introduced in mid-2008, Connect lets third-party sites sync up their registration and member log-ins with Facebook. By the end of '09, more than 80,000 sites were using it.
Still, some Facebook Platform apps continued to flourish phenomenally--namely, games. Companies like Zynga and Playdom manufactured one "social game" after another, pulling in revenue that collectively may have surpassed Facebook's own. Another company in the space, Playfish, was purchased by Electronic Arts this fall. Thanks in part to the phenomenal traffic of these apps and the ad space that app makers purchased to pull in even more players, Facebook became cash flow positive well ahead of schedule.
Then there was Twitter.
Twitter, which first started getting serious industry buzz early in 2007, isn't really a social network--it's a communication tool. But Twitter presents enough potential to shake up the world of social media that behemoth Facebook was forced, more or less, to be reactive: first attempting to purchase Twitter outright, and then adding a number of "real-time" features to its news feeds that looked a whole lot like a Twitter timeline.
Meanwhile, the media hype surrounding Twitter just kept snowballing. Its potential for instant, up-to-the-minute news delivery had become evident in the 2008 presidential elections. And it grew ever more prominent with big-time news events in '09 like the Hudson river emergency plane landing, the death of pop star Michael Jackson, and the contested Iranian elections this summer. Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Ashton Kutcher became powerful evangelists.
What it all amounted to was the first round of shots in the battle for the "real-time Web." Facebook, spurned by Twitter, instead bought FriendFeed, a real-time social-networking aggregator without a whole lot of traction but with a crack team of ex-Google engineers. Marketers salivated over the potential ways to harness "conversation." And late in the year, search companies like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft's Bing started to announce deals to bring more and more real-time data into search results. Facebook attempted to ready its members, many used to closed-off profiles visible only to friends and family, for a world where their status messages and wall posts might be publicly searchable. New privacy controls released by the company in December are still eliciting reactions and modifications.
Something to watch in 2010: while the idea of running separate social networks on mobile phones was quashed long ago with the launch of Facebook's slick mobile site and apps for handsets like the iPhone and BlackBerry, location-based networking apps like Foursquare, Brightkite, and Gowalla have started to break into the mainstream. Often with slick Facebook and Twitter integration, and backed by big-ticket investors from the first wave of the social-networking era, these "geo" apps are a craze that only began to pick up momentum in 2009.
--By Caroline McCarthy
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