Last summer, I fell in love. Please don’t tell my wife.
This spring, i’m taking another lover. Please don’t tell Facebook.
I’m not alone. Ask any alpha geek in Silicon Valley. They’re all double-timing on Other People’s Platforms every chance they get. I’ve spoken to dozens of pasty-faced coders, and every last one is pinching themselves to make sure it ain’t a dream, they never had it so good. I’m telling you, folks: there hasn’t been a market for eggheads this strong since Italy in the 14th century.
Developer Renaissance: Sistine Apps
If you’re a web developer or recent computer science graduate, these are most certainly the best of times. With the groundbreaking launch of Facebook Platform last year, and the subsequent emergence of multiple new [open] social platforms this year — MySpace, Bebo, hi5, Friendster, Ning, Meebo, LinkedIn, etc — we are experiencing a Geek Renaissance the likes of which the software community has never before seen.
While there have been notable spikes of technology innovation on new software platforms in the past — DOS in the 80′s, Windows in the early 90′s, the browser & the Internet itself in the mid-to-late 90′s — the recent explosion of both users and developers active on multiple social networks and platforms is unparalleled. These multiple platforms make this Brave New World such a competitive and fast-changing landscape.
Consider this: In just a few short years, MySpace and Facebook have come out of nowhere to become Top 10 Internet properties, with hundreds of millions of users and billions of monthly page views. And in addition to those two juggernauts, there are seven or eight other social networks among the top 25 sites worldwide. Several of them have also launched their own social platforms. Even Google entered the fray last fall by announcing Open Social, not a platform per se but rather a common API framework for building other social platforms (aka “containers”) and applications.
In short: it’s ON. That is, a massive global competition for the bits and minds of nerd-dom and every socially-enabled application on the planet has begun.
One Man’s Viral Loop is Another Man’s Spam Soup
So why all this attention to social platforms? Because social apps appear to be the most amazing viral and infectious method for acquiring new users quickly. The breakout growth of a number of Facebook apps in the past year — several of which topped a million installs in just a few weeks, sometimes days — demonstrated that integrating social network connection data into traditional software applications enables astonishing levels and rates of customer acquisition.
On the other hand, such a high level of viral customer acquisition appears to (currently, at least) be driven by a rather “spammy” invitation process, which can also have negative effects on user experience and cause “app fatigue”. (Note to Facebook and others: why not dial up virality and discovery via the News Feed? What are you waiting for?) Viral distribution and user engagement aren’t mutually exclusive, but it does seem that most apps tend towards one or the other — with the notable exception of “social games” (ex: Scrabulous, Warbook, Oregon Trail).
Social Graph Clone Wars
Just as apps compete for user attention, social platforms are now also competing for developer attention using a variety of features and levels of enabled distribution (virality), engagement, and monetization. Platforms will now compete for developers by offering alternate strategies for differentiated reward — and at the same time, those same platforms will have to make decisions about how committed they are to preserving a “happy” user experience that limits spammy app invitations and notifications.
On this particular point, Max Levchin, Founder/CEO of Slide.com, has written a tour-de-force essay on game theory for social platforms, and how platforms should structure developer incentives to drive growth. It’s one of the best thought pieces i’ve read all year. I encourage you to check it out.
See the Apps @ Graphing Social Patterns West (March 3-4, San Diego)
I also encourage you to check out Graphing Social Patterns West, O’Reilly’s newest conference on the business & technology of social platforms, coming up March 3-4 in San Diego (co-located with ETech). If you are looking for one conference that covers social networks from top to bottom, this is it. We will have keynote presentations from Google, MySpace, Facebook, Yahoo, and Forrester Research, and a ton of innovative startups and developers discussing marketing strategy and technical architecture for people building on social platforms. I hope you’ll join us for an amazing journey and conversation.
(note: App developers who enter the GSP West AppNite Live Demo Contest can register for 50% off the normal conference fee)