One thread in this book is the evolution of Facebook’s APIs that allow developers to access user information and connect it to other systems. Many companies use APIs (Jeff Bezos famously instructed his teams that internal APIs were the only way their systems should communicate) but as Facebook worked to gain popularity, it sacrificed users’ control over their own privacy.
When Facebook released their first API, it was considered a failure because it did not gain widespread adoption.
It flopped. “We said, Hey come one, come all, use the Facebook platform to build interesting things,” says Fetterman. “But no one noticed.” It turns out that simply releasing an API wasn’t enough. For one thing, there had to be a way for Facebook users to know that there was some other social application using the API, and that their friends were using that app as well. It was a problem of distribution. (p. 151)
In reaction, the company decided their next API would be not just a “platform” but an “operating system”. One difference is that they would require data sharing from their partners.
Like so many things, API usage was an instance of the Pareto principle: one customer (Zynga) accounted for 80% of their usage. Will we see this as well? If so, who will it be?
“At one point we were eighty percent of their API usage, says Pincus. “At our peak with them, we were sixty percent of their app DAUs [daily average users]. And I heard that by the time they went public, we were something like twenty percent of Facebook’s overall revenues.” Facebook was so dependent on Zynga at that point (its 2012 IPO) that the prospectus listed it as a business risk. (p. 168)
The company struggled with deciding how much user information to expose. Don’t err on the side of user pain!
Will Cathcart, an engineer who left Google to join Facebook in 2010, dove into the data and found an alarming trend. “One of my growing fears is that we’re routinely erring on the side of avoiding pain for developers and in the process causing user pain,” he wrote in a 2011 email. He cited data to indicate how people were tiring of developers’ tricks. “Users don’t trust apps to do the right thing,”” he wrote. (p. 170)
It turns out the users were right. Later the company weaponized their API buy turning off access for competitors such as Twitter (p. 263). They also failed to follow through with enforcement of their policies around privacy and data retention (p. 267). This set the stage for the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which the book also details.
Whether or not you continue to use Facebook (and its subsidiary products), this history will help you understand the company and how it treats your data.