The Facebook economy

Friday, August 31st, 2007

The Facebook economy has grown from nothing to spawning entire venture capital funds devoted to it. How quickly things change:

Talk about a killer app. Two years ago Jia Shen and Lance Tokuda wrote, just for fun, a goofy Web application for MySpace that could turn anyone’s photos into live-action slide shows. It succeeded — horribly. Within days of its launch, hordes of users at the then-superhot social network discovered the app, added it to their profiles, and communicated it to their friends. It spread like a case of Ebola at the Super Bowl. Within a month Shen and Tokuda had 100,000 users, and traffic was doubling every 24 hours.

The servers — those digital canaries in the mine shaft — crashed, and crashed again. “It was crazy,” Shen says. “We were down 17 of the first 30 days.” Then it got worse. With traffic peaking at 1.5 million users, server costs topped $20,000 a month. And there was no way to monetize their creation.

Still, they soldiered on for more than a year, keeping afloat with tens of thousands of dollars in loans while hoping to figure out a way to turn their enormous fan base into a brilliant business. It never happened — at least not on MySpace.

This spring, however, Shen and Tokuda spent a few days porting their MySpace hit over to Facebook. The upstart social network began as a hangout for high school and college students and last September allowed anyone to join.

Eight months later, Facebook did something MySpace still hasn’t done: It opened up its network to developers and made it easy for them to make money from their applications. Which is exactly what Shen and Tokuda did when they rewrote their app and let it loose on Facebook.

Two months later, the duo had generated more than $200,000 in ad revenue. By late July they had 14 other apps up and running, with more than 22 million users. “When we started, we had no idea what we were doing,” Shen says. “Now we have a whole suite of applications, and that’s where our power is.”

It’s an increasingly common tale as the Facebook economy picks up steam. In just 10 weeks, hundreds of developers launched more than 2,500 new applications, triggering 139 million downloads. While a possible Facebook IPO or acquisition could change things overnight, for the moment it’s a free-for-all.

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