Mainstream social networks continue to grow at a staggering pace in 2007 as they offer users compelling ways to manage and leverage their relationships with each other online. MySpace and Facebook continue to lead the pack as the two most popular social networking sites but for the first time, it also seems fairly clear that Facebook will soon overtake MySpace in overall usage, particularly as it offers a richer overall platform powered by a large and vibrant community of 3rd party application developers.
Beyond just the consumer space, Facebook also offers many features that the legions of previously faithful LinkedIn users find compelling including significantly better ways to keep in touch with business contacts.
Increasingly, I've also begun anecdotally hearing how departments in some large organizations are recommending that employees create Facebook profiles. And this is pointing to the burgeoning trend of businesses learning how to successfully leverage social networking platforms to achieve business goals. For instance, it's been almost conventional wisdom for a while now that MySpace is one of the quicker and better ways to get a small business online with its ready-made population of engaged users and features that directly support establishing and maintaining relationships with customers.
But Facebook's open architecture takes this concept to a whole new level and allows existing Web businesses to plug directly into their social infrastructure with their own Facebook applications. These apps can be standalone or integrated across the Web from Facebook back to the online business. The interest in integrating with Facebook has been high. As a result, over 5,100 Facebook applications have been developed to date that run the gamut from games and fashion to education and productivity software.
If you can't beat 'em, integrate with them?
Facebook currently has an entire category of business applications with over 227 different applications offered today, none of them built by Facebook itself.
Business applications for Facebook include offerings from well known sites such as eBay, Zoho, Jobster, and Blue Nile that offer integration with their home sites and data. There are dozens of lesser ones that provide a wide range of utility from To Do lists to business card managers. All of these leverage something known as Jakob's Law, which says one must design online products and services to take advantage of the fact that users spend most of their time elsewhere. And in this case, Facebook has become the Web 'dashboard' that many of us now spend out time in daily to maintain our relationships.
It's also worth noting that the only app that I could find from a major Fortune 500 firm was AT&T's Developer Contest, with a paltry 89 user share, belying the "get millions of views and users" advertised by service providers that build social networking apps and widgets for Facebook and other social networking sites.
The upshot: The mainstream business world has not figured how to take advantage of social networks yet.
The isn't stopping the social networking app momentum from building in the Web industry. A quick scan of Google shows that an entire subcategory of service providers that build applications and widgets have sprouted up to provide access to the multi-million user captive audience that the top social networks have accumulated in the last two years.
The perpetual beta era leaving the Fortune 1000 behind?
But despite AT&T's lackluster experience above, Facebook applications can be enormously popular. A quick check of one of the most popular apps, Slide's FunWall, has over 2,100,000 active daily users. That's a pretty large audience by any standard and shows the potential value of plugging into a large, ready-made ecosystem.
But it's abundantly clear that this phenomenon isn't well understood or appreciated yet by most mainstream businesses, particularly large established ones that often take a parochial view of creating their own destination sites instead of going to where the audience is today. Despite the rise of widgets that spread the presence of a Web site or application to the far corners of the Internet, the mass dynamics of social networking sites has so far almost completely fallen outside of the imagination of the marketing, advertising, sales, CRM, and other departments in the traditional business world.
Part of this is no doubt the rapid pace of change on the Web, with trends emerging and then exploding in weeks or a handful of months. But in an environment where corporate initiatives might take one on two years to build up a head of steam, it's hard to see how the lightweight business opportunities of the Web 2.0 era will be leveraged by traditional, slow moving companies.
And while it's remaining to see what the staying power of social networks will be, the crowds they attract wherever they are global in scope and extremely attractive from a demographic perspective. In other words, to paraphrase Tim O'Reilly, corporate winners and losers will be designated simply by whoever figures out how to leverage the social network.
In this way, the open model of Facebook is one of the best yardsticks yet to see who gets how to use the Web as a platform, just watch the daily ratings on the thousands of new apps that weave Facebook deeper and deeper into the fabric of the Internet on a daily basis.
Are you or your organization planning to build a Facebook application? Why or why not?