Observations in the Social Media Application Wars

By Tom Kincaid

The phenomenal growth of Facebook after launching its application platform in May 2007 sent shockwaves to all other social networks. Where sites like MySpace had previously been actively attempting to block external widgets, they all began scrambling to implement their own APIs and embrace third party developers.

Now, a year later, the primary competitor to Facebook is clearly the Google developed open source OpenSocial which is finally launching on a consortium of sites including MySpace, Hi5, and Orkut. In addition to its own site, Facebook has also licensed its proprietary platform to Bebo (recently purchased by AOL.) Is this the beginning of the platform wars?

While it’s still early to see how it will all play out, a few observations can be made:

  • Spam and other abuse of the system can be a huge problem. Facebook initially had very little restrictions in its messaging which allowed a few early apps to gain a huge advantage by massively spamming their way to the top. This also created a backlash among users who quickly grew tired of spammy tactics and all apps in general.
  • Hi5, with fewer users than other networks, has proven to be amazingly viral. Perhaps this is due to the demographics of the users and the low number of apps in the directory (leaving a bigger slice of the pie for each one.) It also has unlimited messaging from applications, but so far, not too much spam.
  • MySpace has demonstrated disappointing growth for applications. This may be partly due to the fact that after seeing how spam almost ruined Facebook, there are only a few APIs for sending messages which have only recently rolled out and have many restrictions such are requiring an active confirmation before sending. The application directory is not heavily promoted and has recently become flooded with hundreds of quiz apps and two or three apps for every single TV show or sports team, making it difficult for users to find other interesting apps.
  • MySpace friends may have weaker connections than Facebook friends. This may be another reason for the much higher viral growth on Facebook, where applications provide an entertaining way for users to interact with their friends, with whom they already have a high level of involvement. MySpace users, in contrast, seem to be less involved with their friends, many of whom are probably just a collection of images for their profiles, and thus much less likely to participate in shared activities.
  • OpenSocial provides limited functionality and is already fragmenting. The promise of OpenSocial is that is establishes a standard for the same code to run on multiple sites. While this mostly holds, the capabilities it offers when adhering strictly to the specification are rather limited. Each site has also implemented it in a slightly different manner and extended it through a variety of other APIs which allow more comprehensive and site-specific integration. In fact, it is entirely possible to create an application for MySpace that does not use anything related to OpenSocial.

Finally, from a developer’s or brand’s standpoint, these platforms are all still amazing opportunities to leverage the existing membership and services of popular networks to develop a large user base with relatively less effort and shorter time than other methods.

Site Visitors1 Growth1 Apps2 Platform
MySpace 60.4 8% 1,000 OpenSocial, Proprietary
Facebook 24.9 98% 22,000 Facebook
LinkedIn 7.9 319%   OpenSocial Announced
Live Spaces 7.8 -13%   Microsoft Gadgets
Bebo 2.5 111% 2,800 Facebook (older version)
Hi5     300 OpenSocial, Proprietary
Orkut       OpenSocial, Proprietary

1 Visitors in millions for March and annual growth from Nielsen Online as reported by Mashable.

2 From April 22, by viewing sites’ app directories.