If you are following social media development, then you probably have seen or heard of the O’Reilly Research analysis published here and analyzed here (among many other places). Ben Lorica’s post on Radar provides a very interesting glimpse into the Facebook ecosystem and highlights some industries that are doing well through an in-house categorization of applications and comparing the corresponding number of active users.
As this chart from the research highlights, the biggest category on Facebook is applications that are ‘just for fun’. Obviously the assessment that the most successful applications on Facebook are those that have marginal value and are time wasters resulted in extensive coverage of the report in the blogosphere and ended in headlines such as: On Facebook, Girls And Boys Just Want To Have Fun.
I think the categorization of the applications by the research team has a lot to do with this assessment. I have been looking at the same question from a different angle for a while which might be useful in structuring a discussion around the topic.
Facebook was a social network way before it became a platform. It had millions of users that were active on the site way before any of these applications existed. When the platform was introduced last year, from a user’s perspective, all of a sudden new functionalities became available. Some of the functionalities were improved versions of the existing features (think SuperWall) and some opened completely new opportunities (such as iLike for music).
So what happens if you look at the Facebook universe in terms of activities that were facilitated before and after the platform launch. Below i have tried to summarize the main activities of a typical Facebook user (please comment if I have missed major areas). I have also included (a very subjective) assessment of how Facebook was doing in facilitating each category before the platform launched by using different font sizes.
In the right most column I have included some of the applications that have emerged to improve the user experience for each activity plus the total daily active users of all such applications in the top 20 facebook applications (in terms of daily actives). Please note that the active numbers are based on back-of-envelope calculation on a random day and only for top 20 applications. In the O’Reilly report, they summed all applications up which takes the tail into account as well.
I think this perspective highlights a couple of trends/questions
- What’s up with Photo Sharing? Is Facebook Photo application so perfect that nobody can provide value beyond it? This seems like an excellent opportunity for a brand new application to come out of no where and take over.
- Improving existing functionality/purpose has the least barrier to user adoption. This is especially true in case of sub-perfect existing experiences. Facebook wall was boring and text only when FunWall and SuperWall exploded in popularity. People discovery still sucks on Facebook which is a great opportunity for Zoosk and others innovating in this area.
- Media consumption has always been a part of most successful social networks except for Facebook. To this day I don’t understand why Facebook is so bad when it comes to media discovry and sharing. But this was a known winner and iLike and Flixter capitalized on the opportunity very well.
- Social gaming seems to be the only truly new activity category when it comes to successful applications. It was basically ignored by (or unknown to) social networks until Scrabulous and Friends for Sale came into the picture on Facebook. This category now is rightly so getting plenty of attention from the venture community and entrepreneurs.
What does this mean for applications not in these categories? Is this the extent of utility that application developers can provide on social networks? I don’t think so. Social gaming didn’t really realize it’s potential until early February this year, full 9 months after the platform opened up. What is the next big emerging activity category? That being said, I believe it is much more natural to grow on social networks if you are enhancing or extending existing user bahaviors.
I should also highlight that this analysis is only looking at very large applications. If your application does not benefit from network effects then you don’t need to be huge in order to be able to provide utility. One more thing to keep in mind is that monetization potential is completely left out of this discussion. Even though having a large active user base helps with monetization opportunities, it does not guarantee the way to profit.
Is this trend going to hold up on other social networks that are opening up? It’s too early to tell. But the initial indications suggest it might hold true on MySpace and Bebo as well.
PS: Obviously a large contributor to the success of applications is the viral engineering of applications. For each of the successful applications in these categories there are hundreds of tiny copies. Just because you pick a hot category does not mean you will have a huge user base. It might just make it a little bit easier to do so. Follow Dave or Andrew‘s blog if you want some viral wisdom.