When it comes to developer activity, Facebook is no longer the only gnome in the garden of social media.
Last week, a blog post by developer Jesse Farmer set the stage for some lively discussion about whether the Facebook Platform, revolutionary at its launch, is approaching an expiration date--and it only debuted a year ago. Activity in the site's official developer forum has declined sharply, he observed, new applications are less likely to become successful, and now that there are more destinations for social applications--from gaming sites to OpenSocial--developer activity no longer has a single hub.
Farmer crunched some numbers and found that they supported his hypothesis. The number of active users in the developer forum was down 27 percent since January, posts per day were down 51 percent, and he found that the average application launched in early January was 1.5 times more successful in terms of adoption rates than one launched in March.
The Facebook Platform, once a revolutionary free-for-all, has been "suburbanized." The roster of popular applications is dominated by corporations like Slide and RockYou with estimated valuations in the nine figures, and new rules and regulations have made it seem like less of an open playground where a kid with a cool idea and some spare time can start a new online fad or even make a few bucks. It's not a signal of doom for the social network, which has passed 70 million active users, according to company figures, and continues to grow. But it's a sign that the social Web is much bigger, and that Facebook can't be the center of attention forever.
"The forums just aren't what they used to be, and it was less the activity than sort of the quality of the posts that were being made," Farmer, the creator of Facebook application analytics tool Adonomics, said in an interview with CNET News.com on Tuesday. "There are all these people who will pop in, ask a question, pop out."
Developers mostly agreed with his original post, Farmer said, based on feedback he's received. "There were sort of three kinds of responses. One response was, like, 'Yes, we agree,' and there's lots of people who said 'Yes, we agree' who in public would not be able to admit that," Farmer explained. "There's a group of people who are, like, 'Well, maybe, but...' and they have some other explanation."
One entrepreneur said that he's been paying less attention to the developer forums because they simply aren't as useful as they once were. "Jesse's numbers are pretty clear," said Evan Steinberg, who is in the process of creating a Facebook application called Check My Campus. "Developers appear to be leaving or becoming more passive in the forums...I only visit the developer forums from time to time and don't always find what I'm looking for."
Only a handful of people flat-out disagreed with him, Farmer said. "The linchpin of (that) argument is that they present an alternate hypothesis, that people are just used to the Facebook Platform, so they don't participate in the forum anymore and that explains the decline." But more likely, he said, Facebook is a less appetizing place for developers. Early dreams of cashing in on applications have died down. Some independent Facebook applications have gotten acquired by larger companies. Other developers, after seeing their creations fail to gain a following, have likely moved on.
And the kicker came in early February, Farmer explained, when "OpenSocial stopped sucking as much." Medium-size and large social networks like MySpace.com and Hi5 started welcoming developers to their OpenSocial-compatible platforms, and suddenly there was more to do than build applications on Facebook. Farmer added that new rules and regulations on Facebook's platform--what tactics developers could use to spread the word, the nature of the advertisements in their applications--made the environment less hospitable.
Steinberg said: "The Facebook Platform was a huge introduction and I think we're all grateful for its existence. But the Web is opening up and developers are beginning to shop around. Saying you're building a Facebook app isn't particularly novel anymore."
The demise of "fluff"?
Plus, Facebook members are more likely to find that Zombie Wars application annoying rather than cool now. "Applications really have to be good to stick around these days," observed Steinberg, whose application is geared toward high schoolers looking to learn about prospective colleges. "I think we've seen the demise of 'fluff' and will begin to see the survival of utility."
Though Farmer's analysis focused on actual development activity, not users installing and interacting with the applications, he admitted that he wouldn't be surprised if that's on the decline, too. "My suspicion is that any time you're building something on top of a network and you're using network effect to distribute everything you're making, there's a reason it's called viral marketing," he said. "It's because it spreads like a disease, and like any disease, it reaches a point where there's no one left to infect."
The Facebook Platform won't be dying anytime soon, but Farmer said that it's no longer the biggest craze on the Internet and the evidence is beginning to show. "A lot of the people who, when the platform first launched, were very eager to send on invites, have become 'inoculated.'" It's no longer a novelty, so the initial rush has cooled off.
That's a warning signal for the dozens of upstart marketing agencies and development firms that have been betting on social-networking platform applications as the next big moneymaker. It's a symptom of the hype cycle: virtual-world development companies were all the rage a few years ago, but when was the last big announcement you heard about a brand launching a Second Life campaign?
"What we're seeing is a maturation of the marketplace, not just in the technology that's being used, but in customers' attitudes about the industry," said Eric Litman, whose development agency Aux Interactive debuted earlier this year with the aim of creating social-media applications for clients. "A lot of the early exuberance will dissipate."
Litman said that the social-media development world is indeed much bigger than Facebook now. Anyone who's made a significant investment in the social platform craze can't rely on Facebook applications alone. "With OpenSocial, developers have multiple options for how they want to target their audience. There is a significant difference in mindset between the people on Facebook versus those on MySpace versus LinkedIn," he explained. "Slowed new development growth on Facebook does not necessarily mean that development is slowing overall."
But this could turn out well for Facebook, if Mark Zuckerberg & Co. play their cards right. Competition is good for any market, and social media is no exception. If Facebook's onetime monopoly over the application developer market led it to grow complacent, perhaps the competition will cause it to make some modifications and change the perception that it's "a significantly less attractive package than it was even four months ago," as Farmer put it.
Already, Facebook has announced that its application program interface (API) will be modified so that Facebook "identities" can be portable across the Web. Google has announced a relatively similar program called "Friend Connect," and MySpace will be debuting "Data Availability" with a limited number of partners. But it looks like Facebook will be first to market, as it was with its developer platform, and that's key.
Steinberg said that when he launches his Check My Campus application, he plans to use Facebook's developer standard rather than any other, because the social site's university-focused roots are still strong enough so that it's the most relevant place on the Web for an application about choosing colleges to attend.
"I still think the platform is perfectly healthy," he said.