Facebook's Josh Elman on the platform

Josh Elman, a platform program manager at Facebook, talks about behavioral shifts the Facebook technology taps into and focuses on new initiatives and programs for developers on the Facebook platform.

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Scott Laningham (scottla@us.ibm.com), developerWorks Podcast Editor, IBM developerWorks

Scott LaninghamScott Laningham, host of developerWorks podcasts, was previously editor of developerWorks newsletters. Prior to IBM, he was an award-winning reporter and director for news programming featured on Public Radio International, a freelance writer for the American Communications Foundation and CBS Radio, and a songwriter/musician.



06 February 2009

You can listen to this podcast HERE

developerWorks: This is a developerWorks podcast. I'm Scott Laningham on with Josh Elman, a platform program manager at Facebook, where he focuses on new initiatives and programs for developers on the Facebook platform. Welcome to the podcast, Josh.

Josh: Thanks, Scott, it's great to be here.

developerWorks: Really appreciate you making time for this. And it sounds like ... we often get this, it sounds like you're in one of these sprawling, gigantic conference rooms with the spaceship-like telephone sitting on the desk. Am I close?

Josh: Yes, we've got the nice spaceship phone in front of us. It's kind of a great, open work environment here and we dive into conference rooms whenever we need to make calls or anything else.

developerWorks: That must be a great place to work. Matter of fact, I thought as an opening thing I'd like to hear something about your thoughts about what, you know, Facebook just announced its 200 millionth registered user. I mean, what's it like to wake up each day and remember that you're a part of that?

Josh: You know, it's pretty incredible. I've been at Facebook a little bit more than a year now and it's just been amazing. When I joined, you know, we were well under a hundred million users and to see just how rapidly we've grown and spread around the world, really speaks to kind of the universal product that we're making here, which really lets people ... gives people the power to share and connect with each other and make the world a lot more open and connected.

And kind of when we think about the kind of product and just distilling it down to like the simple essence of what people need to be able to more effectively find their friends and their family and simply communicate messages, that they can just, you know, easily send out to all of those people in a very trusted, kind of private and secure way, you know, it really is amazing at how that just speaks to people no matter whether they're in Malaysia, whether they're in Argentina, whether they're in France or the U.S.

And you know, the power of kind of building these simple tools and these platforms that let lots of people build rich application on top of them, has really blown I think everyone's expectations here. And we're really just focused on this much bigger vision of giving users this power to share.

developerWorks: You know, I wonder sometimes with that if this is all about tapping into latent desires for being in touch with people you've lost touch with or if this is really almost fostering a new kind of behavior. Have you ever thought about that, I mean, when you watch this explosion of activity around Facebook?

Josh: You know, it's interesting. I think it's really a latent desire to be more in touch with all the people that you care about in the world. It's something that I refer to a lot as ambient awareness, which is kind of this idea that there are people who you meet and you interact with in various parts of your life whether it's your uncle who you might only see, you know, every couple of months or they live in a different part of the country so you don't see them every day, but you really do care about what's going on in their lives. And when you get to this new level of being able to share and just kind of stay updated on what each other are doing, it makes you feel much, much closer to them. And then in fact, when you get together with them again, instead of kind of what have you been up to for the past six months, you can immediately just engage in kind of the interactions and things that you're already aware of about each other.

It's funny. Today's a Monday and at Facebook, you know, a lot of people here are connected on Facebook and we update what we've done over the weekend. And when you come in on Monday, you don't so much hear the question of what did you do over the weekend; you hear the question of like, hey, how was the musical that you went to Saturday night? Or, how was that concert that you saw ... where there a bunch of friends who were recently at the Coachella concert in southern California and you kind of can get reviews from them on the concert immediately rather than starting with the, what have you been up to.

developerWorks: Yes.

Josh: And it really just makes people actually feel much closer.

developerWorks: Yes. Or why did you feel compelled to eat that entire bowl of Jell-O or whatever people posted. [LAUGHTER]

Josh: Sometimes there's that too.

developerWorks: What was your pathway, Josh, of coming to Facebook? You know, something about your background and how you ended up in this position?

Josh: Yes. So, you know, my background, I got about 12 years' experience really kind of at the forefront of consumer Internet, what I call sort of connecting producers and consumers. I started out at Real and ended up leading the RealPlayer team, which is really, you know, was a great new tool to kind of connect media and people who owned music and content owners with people and give them great new ways to consume streaming audio, video or music. Since then I joined LinkedIn, which was one of the first social networks, really kind of help build out a lot of the original professional network and help build out our jobs business there. And then in between LinkedIn and Facebook, I worked at a company called Zazzle, which is really kind of trying to create a new e-commerce model where any designer can upload and create content that Zazzle produces on demand for them.

So I've always kind of been in this center of kind of trying to enable people with new tools to help them reach consumers and really empower consumers in new ways. And I think the Facebook platform for me was just a really natural fit, you know, extending all these things we were just talking about about Facebook giving these tools for users to share and extending those off to developers to give them ways to really extend the power of the social graph, the stream and all the sharing tools to help build their businesses in new ways that were never possible before.

developerWorks: Yes, that's great and what a story and what a path to prepare you for this. I'm wondering, how do you think Facebook is changing software developer expectations for corporate applications? And I'm thinking about social networking and social tools in the workplace, plug-in enhanced applications, you know, finding the quick app to solve a specific problem or need. How do you think it's impacting the workplace, not just the consumer market?

Josh: Well, I think that's a great question. I think to answer this on the corporate side, I'd like to start on the consumer Internet side and explain a little bit about what Facebook does differently there and then we'll talk about how that translates in the corporate market.

developerWorks: Sure.

Josh: On the consumer side, when you're building a new business and you're really trying to engage consumers, the most important thing is that users really want to share what they're doing. And really we've always known that word of mouth is the most powerful means for referrals for any kind of business, whether it be for a job, whether it be for a restaurant review, whether it be what car or what TV to buy. And I think Facebook's platform and all this stuff when we talk about sharing is really the most powerful word of mouth kind of system that we've ever had on the Net.

And so for a consumer Internet company, we've given all these great ways for them to tap into users' kind of latent need to want to share and through our sharing, through our feed, through the ability to easily login with your Facebook identity and find all your friends, you've had these new ways to grow a business by either sharing with each other and causing this very rapid distribution that you couldn't have done before on the consumer Internet.

Before Facebook's platform, it was always, try to get users to enter in their entire email address book and blast something out to their friends. But with Facebook's platform, those tools just became sort of much, much simpler because Facebook could already build the social graph for those users so they could just broadcast things out to their social graph.

developerWorks: Yes.

Josh: So I think the kind of wrap it up take of users and distribution has just made, you know, building a consumer company much different than ever before. I think when we look at corporate, I think we have a lot of those same needs, but some very different ones as well.

You know, on the corporate side I think where the kind of, the initial interest will be in two areas. One is what I often call the extranet which is a blend between what's going on inside a company and what's going on outside. And there are companies in ... there are companies like Jobvite where inside a company you might sort of set up a job and say you want to go look for this person, but then it's able to tap the Facebook social graph in order to help you find new candidates by giving users the way to kind of share these jobs with their friends and easily like search their social graph for referrals. There's another company, Aperio, which is built on the salesforce platform that works in very, very similar ways.

So again, it sort of blends what's going on inside the company that might be private or might be otherwise and lets the people at the company tap the real-world social graphs right at sort of that extranet level to go and find new people and create those same sort of word-of-mouth referrals to bring them back into the company.

A second thing that we've seen is really for collaboration. You know, there's a company called drop.io that's doing some really interesting work around collaboration where users can go and easily use Facebook and Facebook Connect to share files with each other both across companies as well as within it, but they're really relying on the power of the social graphs in order to make sure that there's trust there. They've been talking to us about using that sort of identity. When I share something with someone at another company, making sure we're friends on Facebook first is a very trusted way to make sure it's a more secure connection than potentially it just sort of blasting out into the ether. So our identity and our unique, you know, each person is a real person helps kind of ensure that sort of extra security, especially when you're going sort of again at that extranet level between companies.

Lastly, there's a company called Xobni, it's X-O-B-N-I, that's doing some really interesting things around the inbox and around context. When you ... it's a plug-in for Outlook, but when you install it and you get emailed, it actually will go and pull up some Facebook information on each person who you get emails from.

So again, it just makes that feel much more personal and again, bringing that real identity in much better than just getting an email and not knowing what the email address links to and who the person is. So I think those are two of the ways that we're seeing a lot of engagement at the corporate level.

developerWorks: You know, this idea of portability of reputation or portability of relationships that you're building on a site like Facebook makes so much sense because, like you said, there's a safety there as opposed to having to start from scratch every time. You want to connect with people in some other way, right?

Josh: Yes. You know, we really think that that sort of identity and relationships is something that when you can sort of find one true source and bring it with you whenever you go, that can actually be a much, much more powerful way than having to kind of recreate an identity each time. And then on the other side, be able to look at somebody and say, hey, this is your Facebook account, hey, this person is in need of networks, this person is connected to these other people who are all real, makes you trust that person much, much more, even if you don't otherwise know them.

developerWorks: You know, our audience is largely made of up software developers, other IT professionals as well, but a lot of developers. What's your interaction like with the broader developer community around this stuff? What kinds of feedback do you get from them?

Josh: You know, it's interesting and as I said, we spend a lot of our time still, you know, more on kind of the consumer Internet and the media facing side and I hope some of your developers there would be interested, too. The feedback we get is some of the hardest problems that they have is how to really reach new users and be able to grow their businesses. You know, a lot of times they aren't necessarily asking us how do I make more money, but it's like I know how to make money if I could just get more users and just get the users I have coming back more often, you know and doing things on my site.

And I think those are some of the biggest problems that we hear about on that side. And we spend a lot of time with them sort of helping them understand how to tap into the word-of-mouth tool through Facebook so that as they have a new user they can make that user a lot more valuable by giving them ways to reach their friends and reach out beyond their friends. And then when they get somebody who's using it, we help them understand how to use Facebook and all the tools we provide to get those users coming back more and more often through what they're doing and what their friends are doing.

On the corporate side, I think a lot of the questions we do hear about are around identity and around security and this is definitely an area where I think for Facebook and the enterprise is going to be an ongoing thing.

developerWorks: You know, Josh, some of what you're talking about here with leveraging that network to get the word out and you see a lot of companies going, well, how can I use something like Facebook or how can I use social networking to monetize or market or whatever. And I know we all know that there's some very tender territory there you have to be very wise about where you kind of violate the rules of that space. How do you guys ponder where that line is? And do you get those kinds of questions from corporations that say how can we use this to achieve such-and-such business goal and then you kind of have to help them understand that, well, it's not about shopping directly, maybe it's more about realizing the greater power of the network beyond just making a straight sale?

Josh: You know, that's a great question, Scott. That's actually something that we both hear about and talk about like all the time. We really think it comes down to like the kind of communication tools Facebook provides, there's really a social contract that's wrapped around these things. And I mean and that basically says like, look, if you and I are having a conversation or if I'm sharing something with you through Facebook, there's a fundamental trust that you believe that I'm saying it authentically and willingly so that, you know, when you're reading it from me you don't think Josh is getting paid to say this or Josh is, you know, sharing this, if I do it he might get some advantage, but really that I just naturally wanted to share that with you.

Then there's an expectation on the other side between me and how ever I'm sharing it that when I send you something I know what you're going to have to go do to either view that content or experience the same thing. So like I don't send you something that I think is free and then you click on it and it's like, Scott, please pay us $5.

developerWorks: Right.

Josh: And like all these things sound pretty natural and pretty obvious, but when you really get into the details, there's a lot of cases where the interest of a business where I'm like how do I get these users to spread my message faster really start to beg some questions in terms of that like core social contract. And I think where we come from and what we've seen in Facebook in like our rapid growth has been, you know, when you really kind of understand and give users these tools to help them talk about your stuff, help them share your stuff, but really as naturally and simply in line with what they're already doing on your site, you'll get very powerful and very authentic spread.

When you start getting the business of trying to coerce it and you know, somewhere between incentivize and almost trick users into sort of doing it, you'll get found out very quickly and in fact that will hurt your entire business.

So, you know, I tend to call this, instead of a term that's often used called viral distribution, I tend to call this social distribution because you're really distributing this kind of information very naturally and socially along the social graph. You know, a viral thing is actually maybe something you don't want to catch ...

developerWorks: Right.

Josh: ... but something that's really social is something that, you know, you really do care about and it's great when it spreads that way.

developerWorks: You know and it's so true that some businesses have always understood that referrals are about the most powerful thing anybody can get because it comes from a trusted friend and a trusted relationship as opposed to a hardcore marketing message from someone you don't even know or have a connection with. And this seems to be tapping into that on a broader scale than ever before, I would say.

Josh: Yes. That's definitely true. And like bringing it back to our, to developers, our Facebook developer platform is just a set of APIs that lets any developer access the core of what Facebook is so the users who are using that experience can spread these messages to all the same tools. But really just by opening up all these tools we want to let any developer building any experience access this in just the same way as long as they follow these same kind of rules of the road around authentic content and really encouraging the users of their experiences to share this stuff naturally.

developerWorks: Does Facebook Connect represent a different or expanded arena for opportunity for developers around all of this?

Josh: Yes, I think so. So Facebook Connect is really our core set of APIs and tools that lets users of any external Web site, desktop application, or mobile application access the information from their Facebook account into that experience and then push information through Facebook via all the means that we've been talking about. So Facebook Connect is really our set of APIs on the Facebook platform that lets this hook into any Web site or experience you could be building. And you know, we would look at something inside of a corporation exactly the same way.

developerWorks: How's the adoption and the activity around Facebook Connect going? Is that something you can talk about at all?

Josh: Yes, it's going incredibly well so far. So, you know, in just a couple of months since we launched it, we've got over 8,000 Web sites that are integrating Facebook Connect and this includes a lot of, you know, major companies you might have heard of, like USA Today, lets users share articles both from their Web site or from their iPhone applications. OpenTable lets you share whenever you're making a restaurant reservation with your friends. Citysearch is a Web site with tens of millions of monthly users where any time you're writing your review you can share that with your friends. And meetup.com is a great Web site where there's all kinds of meet-ups and local events happening around the country and the world and whenever you RSVP for one of those, you can, again, share that through the Facebook events product.

And we've seen this on hundreds or thousands of blogs so that the comments that users are making on blogs are more authentic when tied to their Facebook account, including huffingtonpost.com. So we've just been thrilled by the uptake so far and can't wait to see what comes next.

developerWorks: There were a couple of questions from staff members here that just before we wrap, that I wanted to just quickly toss out.

Josh: Sure.

developerWorks: One of them was around Facebook apps. Is there any talk of some kind of an iPhone-like payment system where people can buy apps versus just using them for free on Facebook?

Josh: You know, that's a great question. To date we have let applications choose how they want to make money and they can include charging for payment, charging users for virtual items in there or making money by advertising and such and so forth. We have focused on really making all these tools that help applications reach new users more effectively through all the tools we've discussed and engage them and said, you know, let them kind of make money how ever they so choose to build businesses.

But you can imagine, we're always looking at, you know, new ideas and how those could fit in. But you know, we aren't, you know, doing anything with that, you know, at this time.

developerWorks: Is there something about successful apps, some qualities that they have in common that you think people can focus in on and go, this is the kind of thing I need to think about when I'm trying to develop something that I really want to see widely adapted?

Josh: Yes. Well, I think the neat thing is, you know, a successful application can really span almost any industry or business. You know, we've seen a really successful application called LivingSocial that allows you to, you know, rate kind of the things that you're most interested and that you like and compare those likes to other people. There's an application called Causes that allows you to find the non-profits you care about, join causes, donate to causes in honor of somebody's birthday, et cetera.

And I think games have shown that there's a lot of activity that can really grow and prosper when you kind of make games more social, you know, as well as when we started the examples on the more corporate and enterprise side around jobs like Jobvite and Aperio, that are both building really healthy businesses that are leveraging Facebook to be more successful.

The way I usually answer this question is, you know, whatever business that you're building, how ever you're building it, you definitely want to find kind of the right business to be in that makes sense for you. Facebook and Facebook Connect can really be an amplifier that helps you reach new users and get a lot more engagement much more quickly.

And everything in the world is social and so social can apply no matter which business you're in to really be able to leverage those tools of Facebook.

developerWorks: Any teasers of things to come, cool things coming up that you can at all share with us?

Josh: You know, we talk a lot about what we've got and we don't say much about what's coming next. But I can tell you there's a lot of exciting stuff, so stay tuned on our developer site at developers.facebook.com.

developerWorks: Fantastic. Josh Elman, a platform program manager at Facebook. We're grateful you made time for us today, Josh. Thanks.

Josh: Great. Great to talk to you, Scott and look forward to many more.

developerWorks: This has been a podcast from ibm.com/developerworks, IBM's premier technical resource for software developers with tools, code and education on IBM products and open standards technology. I'm Scott Laningham. Talk to you next time.

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