Healthcheck on the Facebook platform – negative outlook

A couple of weeks ago I wrote that Facebook is maturing as a platform – a post I wrote in response to uproar from the developer community about how Facebook was making life difficult for them. My point was that Facebook was right to make life more difficult for application spammers, and the uproar was best understood in that light.

I think it is helpful to see Facebook as an emergent system where as the community grows the rules need to evolve to maintain both the consumer experience and a healthy growth rate.

We are now witnessing a period where Facebook observed that application spam was ruining the consumer experience and is sensibly tinkering with the rules in response.

The question is whether the rule changes will have the desired effect – or whether they either fail to improve the customer experience or choke off growth.

Which brings me to the point of this post – according to data on 20bits the lead indicators are that developers are deserting the platform. Specifically, activity in the Facebook developers forums is declining rapidly.

Monthly Statistics for the Facebook Developer Forum
Posts per day 461 225 -51%
Threads per day 80 44 -44%
Highly active users 461 225 -47%

20bits also reports that new applications on Facebook are less successful than they used to be. Apparently apps launched at the end of January were 1.5 times more successful than new applications launched at the end of March.

The bull case for Facebook is that their actions have cut out low quality applications and that developer activity will rise again as they start producing better content. Three months is a long time in the social network world though, and I would guess they are a bit worried by these trends.

Further, Facebook won’t have helped itself by not playing fair:

This is not to forget mini-scandals like the Facebook/CBS partnership, where Facebook removed invite restrictions on CBS’ sponsored March Madness application, even though there were other, independent applications in the same category. It’s hard to say how this affected developer morale, but it showed that Facebook was willing to hurt independent developers when it benefited them.

All of this comes at a time when competition from other social networks is hotting up. Facebook needs developers to choose it’s platform in preference to Myspace, Bebo, OpenSocial and others. Right now the indications are that it isn’t doing a great job of that.