by C.G. Lynch

Q&A: Dave Morin, Facebook Senior Platform Manager, on Facebook Connect and the Future

Jan 29, 200913 mins
DeveloperEnterprise ApplicationsInternet

Here's a Facebook insider's views on where the social networking giant stands now, how it's handling concern among third-party developers, and where it's headed with Facebook Connect, an effort to broaden the platform's reach throughout the Web.

Dave Morin, senior platform manager at Facebook, has to manage many of the moving parts of the Facebook ecosystem. As profiled in our related story about the Facebook economy, the decisions he and his team make affect all the developers, marketers and advertisers who have staked the future of their business on building applications and products on top of the platform.

More Facebook Coverage on

The Fragile Facebook Economy: Developers Struggle As Rules Change

Salesforce’s Apps to Run on Facebook: New Social Networking Power Couple

Business Lessons From Facebook Apps

But Morin is as philosophical as he is technical. He views the importance of social technologies as computing’s next major iteration, on par with the personal computer and invention of the Web itself. At 28, he talks about how the younger generation’s willingness to share is a special one, but that it must be managed carefully to ensure the proper privacy and security.

Here is my full interview with Morin at Facebook’s headquarters in Palo Alto, California. Morin talked very openly about the future of Facebook Connect, the aim of which is help Facebook users to take their identity with them across the Web. Morin also spoke of the relationship Facebook has with its developer community, one that has become tricky as he manages changes to the Facebook Platform and the effect they have on their businesses.

CIO: Let’s start with Facebook Connect. It came out in November. What have been your early impressions so far?

Morin: For us, Facebook Connect is really about enabling the entire Web. Not just the Web, but also mobile devices and desktop applications to become more social. On the Facebook Platform, we have more than 600,000 developers and 50,000 applications. We saw this ability to add social context could be incredibly powerful, so we were excited to finally get Connect out the door and enable anyone on any website or device or app to become more social. We’ve already seen amazing adoption. We’ve seen several hundred sites already live and we’ve seen incredible numbers.

For example, I think last week, Gawker, which did a Connect integration, saw their log-in conversion increase by 40 percent, which is an incredible number. When we were creating Connect, we really thought it has three pieces. One is the ability to integrate identity and let the user log in with the Facebook account. Two, to add social context so people can not just write a comment on a blog, but to see what comments their friends are making. That little piece of social context can really increase and improve discovery for people. The third piece was all about feed, increasing the distribution of comments.

CIO: Other tech companies have done data portability initiatives or have taken stabs at this in the past. Why has it usually failed? And how can Connect be different?

Morin: We have one key point: we call it dynamic privacy. One of the key shortcomings of all the data portability initiatives in the past has always been that. Facebook is really strong at allowing people to represent themselves with their real authentic identity. People are used to their real name, their real profile photo, and connect to all of their real friends. The reason why people do that on Facebook is because of the incredible privacy model we’ve set up.

And the privacy model is just based on control. We give the user full control of who can see what pieces of content on the site and it’s all based on who you are friends with. You can set it all up so everyone has a really clear understanding of who is seeing what. So that’s what’s really made Facebook a great place to have authentic interactions just like they do in the real world. When you’re in the real world, you have a door in your house, locks on your car, and there are all these social contracts set up amongst all of us. On Facebook, we’ve really tried to mimic the real world with our privacy model. And so as we looked at enabling Facebook users to go anywhere with that identity that they’ve created, one of the most important things we were looking at is how do we enable that privacy model to follow you wherever you go? In other words, be dynamic.

So we think we’ve come to a pretty good product or solution here that solves it in a pretty unique way, both through our standard API and through our Facebook markup language, FBML. We’ve actually enabled it so any developer that integrates Connect, if they integrate a profile picture or somebody’s name or any piece of Facebook data into their site, it’ll actually stay up to date. So a practical example of that is if you log into another site like Gawker or Citysearch or Yelp, you create a profile page. If we hadn’t implemented Connect, the data wouldn’t transfer over [from Facebook]. We wanted to make to when you change your profile picture on Facebook, it should change everywhere, and that’s what we’ve done with Facebook Connect. You can expect it’s going to be the same one no matter where you go. That’s the case for all the information in your profile.

CIO: Facebook started with a young demographic like you and me. Anecdotally, people in college and in their 20s like to share lots of information. But the problems with Beacon last year revealed that we care more about privacy than maybe people thought. Since then, Facebook added really robust privacy settings. What’s your view on the ability to share versus privacy? Where’s the right balance?

Morin: Giving people the power to share is something that we care deeply about, but we know you can only give people the power to share if they know who they are sharing with. Your point it exactly correct. People on Facebook have just gotten used to it. They’re used to having these great privacy settings. You might not use all of them, but you know they’re there. You’re absolutely right in that our generation does share more than any other in history, but in order to share, you have to have control. We’re deep believers in that.

CIO: Let’s talk about your relationship with the developer community. How has it evolved since you first launched the platform?

Morin: When we first started, we released this little API in 2006. We had a small group of several hundred developers who were very, very dedicated. They were pretty great. When we built the Facebook Platform, the first version of it, and released it in 2007, we had grand aspirations, but those aspirations were like 5,000 developers. We were, and still are, completely humbled by the response to the technology. Our goal has always been to make the Web a more social place. That mission has enabled us to bring 650,000 developers in 180 countries to the Platform. That’s been something we’ve been incredibly humbled by, and also incredible invigorated. We think it’s amazing.

Interacting with the developer community, and enabling people to build things that are social, for me personally, it’s why I work here. It’s an amazing mission to be apart of. Initially, what we offered was the ability to integrate deeply with the site. We offered a new kind of distribution model. And the distribution model was not just about distributing information for web pages or the standard distribution models. It was all about people. The internet is not just about information, it’s about people. There’s a person behind every piece of content. We very much wanted to give developers the ability to add social context. We were really interested in creating a new opportunity for developers, which to us meant the ability to monetize pages on Facebook however you wanted, whether it be service models or banner ads, whatever you wanted to do to monetize or not monetize. Whivever way you wanted to go, we wanted to meet that.

So you ask how has it evolved? We’ve seen the Facebook Platform and the surrounding community turn into an entire ecosystem. We’ve got thousands of developers and thousand of applications for virtually every kind of social context you can possibly imagine. We have deep investment from the venture capital community. We’ve got several apps and developers that have not just millions, but tens of millions of dollars in funding. We’ve been able to build out an ecosystem that can support business of that size.

Over time, our developers have advanced with us. We’ve learned a lot along the way. We had to learn how to scale and manage a community of this size. We had to learn a lot about communicating and making sure developers always have access to the information they need to ensure that their businesses are sustainable for the long term. So we’ve spent a lot of time working on that and learning along with our community.

CIO: There’s been a lot of consternation in this Facebook ecosystem over the redesign and the long terms effects we’ve seen on apps now that’s it’s been sitewide for awhile. It moved a lot of widgets off the profile pages, which people built businesses around. Are their worries legitimate as it relates to their health and viability on the platform?

Morin: When we first launched, we learned a lot about the need to communicate, to develop processes that really can help get developers the information they need. So as we approached doing the redesign, we talked to small developers and developers of all sizes to ask their opinion and get their feedback. We wanted to have an open dialogue with that community. We really apply the concepts of Facebook itself to communicate with our developer community. We’ve done some interesting things. We created a wiki. We publish a lot of documentation. Similar to how Facebook does it. That was really helpful because they were actually able to shape the future of the product. They came in six months prior to the launch of the product.

We knew, and continue to know, that every small change we make can and will affect people’s businesses. So we want to make sure we’re making correct long term decisions for the ecosystem. A big part of the redesign of the site was about shifting from these profile boxes and static displays of information to this feed model.

We were noticing, as just a general trend in the world, that people are sharing more and more content. They are sharing more pieces of content more often. They might be updating their status or listen to a couple songs on iLike. We wanted to give that sort of trend a forum in the product. So by adjusting the design of the site, and doing this redesign, we were able to create this feed model where everyone’s feed is front and center and everyone’s applications integrate into it in multiple different ways. So we really tried to help developers, and are continuing to help developers, figure out how to integrate into those integration points.

The developers who have really taken advantage of the integration points that we’ve added have seen massive success. There’s this great application called Citizen Sports. They’re doing just fantastically since the redesign.

The shift to the feed model is a really good evolution for the long term. We think for the long term of the internet that people are going to continue to take actions all over the Web. As we’ve now rolled out Connect, the joke I like to make, as I did earlier today in a meeting, is that if a friend does something on the internet, you don’t know about it until it actually happened. On Connect, you might yelp a restaurant or say something on your blog. The most important part of our everyday lives is social interaction with each other. By enabling people to get those actions they take into their feed, under their control, is something that can help people have a better life.

CIO: But aren’t the developers concerned because they relied on so many of their users to find them through the profile, and now that just goes away?

Morin: That was definitely some of the concern. I think anytime you deal with real-estate changes, whether it’s in the real world or online, it’s a different model to digest. But we’ve seen that developers that have really embraced the new model see a return because you get higher engagement.

CIO: When I was at the Web 2.0 Summit, I couldn’t help but see that your CEO (Mark Zuckerberg) is always dogged with questions about Facebook as a business, the “how will you guys turn a profit?” question. While I know he keeps saying you’re focused on growth, surely you must think about where the Platform fits as a monetization opportunity for the company.

Morin: I think I’d answer it the same way that Zuck has. Right now we’re most interested in just growing the development community. Not only in terms of growing it, but helping people make very high quality applications. We’re really just focused on that. We want to get as many people and developers access to the technology we’ve created to make their apps more social. We want to give them access to the resources, content and education all of the stuff they need to ensure that whatever their goal is. If their goal is to monetize, we should get them more content on how to monetize. If their goal is to grow and get users more engaged, then we want to help them create great products. We just released a video series where we show developers how-to coding videos. We’re really focused on getting as many developers on as possible.

CIO: I have a philosophical question.

Morin: I’m all about it.

CIO: With Connect and these types of initiatives, aren’t you really trying to be the starting off point on the Web? Google has said everything starts with search, but with Connect, it almost looks like things could start off with Facebook. Could Facebook become a type of operating system for the Web, on top of which everything is built?

Morin: That’s what we’re trying to do. The reason we call it platform is we think that the Web, or Web services, and a web-based platform is very much the future. We don’t really refer to it as the cloud, but we do think people will be doing more and more on the internet. The value we bring is adding the social context to everything. Being able to be the operating system for the internet and adding that social context is something that we’re excited to be doing.

If you look across history, at how technology evolved, it started by creating computers. Then computers could publish things. Then we figured out how to connect computers. After that, it was like, ‘Wow there’s all this information on these computers, we should figure out how to link that together.’ So along came Google and all that indexing that went on. And the way we look at it now, there is a person behind all those keyboards and we think connecting those people is very powerful.