January 18, 2009 – Developers of popular social media Web applications are availing themselves of new, far-reaching operating platforms, thanks to the steady growth of cross-site initiatives like Twitter and the OpenSocial cross-social-network consortium led by Google.
In contrast to the first wave of individual social site application initiatives spawned last year by Facebook Platform, the emerging cross-site platforms offer developers the opportunity to integrate their applications just once to reach prospective users across Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Hi5, Orkut and other social network communities – a scenario that is simpler and less costly than integrating apps with each of those sites separately.
According to several early moving and popular social media app developers, including ffwd and Watercooler, the cross-site platforms offer more comprehensive and timely support to developers because app support is their primary business. By contrast, application platform operation is a secondary afterthought for social site operators like Facebook who must concentrate most on servicing consumers rather than developers.
ffwd – a developer of Web apps that make it easy for consumers to create personalized Web video channels and to share video channels with friends – has, through its recent integration with multi-site social messaging leader Twitter, laid down markers for how many other developers may more efficiently navigate the social media landscape in 2009.
Once an acquisition target of Facebook in 2008, Twitter describes itself as a free, ad-supported service that allows friends, family and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one question, 'What are you doing?' To accomplish this, Twitter provides consumers with a device-agnostic message routing system that accepts messages from SMS, Web, mobile Web, instant message or from third-party applications program interface (API) projects.
Consumers are using Twitter largely for micro-blogging, a service that allows users to post their latest social page or blog updates and have them exposed to a private or public list of friends in a format limited to 140 characters. In practice, the service is providing media reviewers, TV show fans and other tastemakers an avenue to attract followers – a substantial value-add for video and other content owners seeking viral promotion of their wares.
In the case of ffwd's integration, Twitter users now have the ability to post videos found on any Web site directly to Twitter using a "bookmarklet." Posted videos are also now available as passive recommendations in a Twitter-like stream on the user's ffwd channel page.
Crucially, ffwd had only to work with what ffwd CEO Patrick Koppula describes as a predictable and stable set of Twitter APIs and developer support services. The integration now opens real-time sharing to ffwd users resident not only on Facebook, but on a range of other social sites, as well blogs, video aggregation sites and other areas of the Internet. "We expect a two- to three-times increase in traffic for us, just through this Twitter integration," Koppula says.
"The existence of this single programming model helps both developers and Web sites," according to Google's own Web site. "First, developers only have to learn the APIs once in order to build applications that work with any OpenSocial-enabled Web site. Second, because any Web site can implement OpenSocial, developers have a broad distribution network to reach users. Web sites also benefit by engaging a much larger pool of third-party developers than they could without a standard set of APIs."
Google's own Orkut, the top social networking site in Brazil, is among those sites so far implementing OpenSocial.
ffwd's Koppula acknowledges what this reporter has been experiencing firsthand on Facebook when it comes to discovering and using third-party applications. Many are hiccupping and failing to perform, due in large part, Koppula says, to a less than comprehensive, hands-on developer-support regime.
Indeed, Koppula suspects that the younger Twitter platform has the opportunity to become a key successor to the likes of Facebook Platform exactly because Twitter introduces what is already the next generation of social networking behavior characterized by more real-time sharing of discoveries on the Web – including video – among friends and among followers of bloggers or other tastemakers.
"Twitter is one of the best ways to share timely information and ignite a conversation around it," he says. "The fact is, video is best enjoyed as a conversational experience. So while it was obvious for ffwd to build on the Twitter platform, we are especially happy with the well-integrated result of the service offering. It's like we were baked right in from the start."
The practice of sharing YouTube and other video clips, already well established in the form of links shared via email and via feeds among social site friends, gained yet more traction in January with MSNBC.com's launch of a feature that makes it easier for consumers to locate, clip and share video segments of presidential inauguration TV coverage and embed them in other sites, a feature already afforded for entertainment video on Hulu.com, the NBC-News Corp. joint venture.
The ffwd-Twitter integration advances this trend by combining social bookmarking and inter-site messaging with video. Links to video content are transferred into what are called "Tiny URLs" (www.tinyurl.com). Twitter is connected to tinyurl to keep links small enough for Twitter's messaging format. "Social bookmarking handles music, video, text, so you can't quickly browse through videos," Koppula explains. "With us, installation is dragging the video from the site to my bookmarks. It can be dragging an object from a Web page onto my browser. My ffwd Share button brings up a template to type in an address, and we then allow you to post links that make it clear it's a video, and we enable you to share that video with a friend no matter where they are.
"When I save a video, it says, 'Patrick has posted new video,' and now I don't even need to email friends, because all Twitter-using friends will see all my status updates," he adds. "I've discovered a video they should check out. It accelerates the ability for good video content to get spread out through social networks."
In terms of transforming consumption behaviors, Koppula believes that such mechanisms represent "the beginning of personal virtual television channels. If you become known for being good at selecting videos for your group, they'll more closely follow your updates in Twitter, and now the friend or follower can surf a central repository of all videos you've shared," he says. "It's no longer sharing content just once and it's gone. Now there's a repository."
ffwd also believes the emerging social media paradigm will transform video programming by empowering the crowd as programmers. "Internally, we ran scenarios like the ability to build a virtual CNN dedicated to the Mumbai crisis. It's very compelling, because it's driven by people doing real-time status updates," he says. "Eventually we want be embedded in devices for traditional TV viewing, so you can tune into not to just CNN but into a Mumbai Crisis Channel."
Such ambitions presuppose stable, reliable Web operating platforms, and the competition to establish dominant Web operating platforms – whether they be a Facebook Platform, Twitter, OpenSocial or a Microsoft Mediaroom middleware for IPTV or tru2way middleware for cable – has only just begun.
"There are new major platforms every month, so we now evaluate what platforms we build on, because there's a ton to target," says Kevin Chou, CEO of Watercooler, whose FanSection and TVLoop Web services claim more than 30 million registered sports and TV show fans through applications resident on multiple social networking sites.
Consumers and programmers can embed a Watercooler widget application in a fan or blog or other site and share content across multiple social network platforms. Watercooler's latest application, through a partnership with Delivery Agent, enables a commerce revenue stream shared with TV programmers through online sales of "SeenON!" products from apparel to house wares that fans spot in some 200 TV shows. The content owner creates the official licensee of licensed merchandise, working with people on the set to determine which merchandise gets marketed.
Watercooler claims to be the number-one television entertainment and sports tool on Facebook, and social networks so far underlie its market share. However, the relative complexity of social network platforms and activities tend to skew toward younger demographics. To expand its reach to less tech-savvy older users, the company launched a standalone destination, TVLoop.com, in December, providing a way for non-regular social network users to find out about favorite shows, watch shows, chat about them and buy things around those shows.
"We think it's interesting to be able to build on multiple platforms, but you want all of them to be stable, because if one platform goes down, it has a pretty serious impact on our back room processes," Chou says. "New versions of most platforms generally are good, adding new features and improvements.
"We and developers in general are encouraging platforms to be consistent with how they notify developers and users of changes in the platforms," he continues. "We gear up for change, it doesn't happen, then suddenly it happens. If we can plan for the resources, that's what the development community needs. We need to cultivate healthy relationships. If you're fan of a TV show chatting about the show, it's more optimal to be able to talk with other friends no matter where they are – at Facebook or elsewhere. We're able build fast, growing monetizable business, and we give the platforms more fun things and attractions."