Emotions Run High Leading into Facebook Developers’ Conference Today

Jason Holloway will be among the thousands of developers gathered today at Facebook’s second annual developers’ conference, and like many others, he’s counting on some much-needed encouragement from the social networking behemoth.

Holloway is the 38-year-old cofounder and CEO of Face it!, a bootstrapped, 20-person startup in Palo Alto that makes Facebook applications for corporate customers, including Adidas and the dog food company Pedigree. Until last fall, Holloway, a UC Berkeley-educated engineer with an MBA from Stanford, was a cofounder and the chief executive of a video startup called Dovetail. But after Facebook opened its platform to developers last May, Holloway couldn’t resist redirecting his energies. “We started Face It! last fall because we were so excited about the possibilities,” he says.

Emphasis on “were.” For Holloway, excitement has since turned to dismay over numerous Facebook moves and rule changes and what is perceived to be preferential positioning of Facebook’s own applications. I talked with Holloway late yesterday about what’s been happening.

Why are you frustrated with Facebook?

The pendulum just feels like it has swung so far in the opposite direction [of where it was in May 2007] that it feels a little punitive. The restrictions they’ve put on viral growth are extreme.

How has Facebook clamped down on viral growth?

Basically, rather than enforcing rules against those who are developing applications in bad faith, Facebook has changed the rules for everyone.

I know that on Monday, Facebook introduced a makeover meant to hamper spammers, and that developers were sent new policies to “prevent applications from creating artificial or inappropriate incentives to use Facebook features.” Is that what you mean?

Not exactly; let me give you an example. We came up with a neat little application for project management, finishing up a version of the application for the Obama campaign on Friday. The idea of the application is to help groups plan, so part of it involves sending messages, like Facebook notifications, back and forth. But Facebook stops allowing you to send notifications after a certain amount of exchanges — so you can be in the middle of discussing or planning something and you can’t finish the conversation.

How many notifications is too many?

It depends on the application, but from 20 to 40, which is admittedly getting into spammy territory with some apps. Others literally need, though, and should get, unlimited quotas, because they are performing intensive communication that people do not want cut off.

Well, I get why they’d want to cut off applications after a point. What about BreakUp, another application of yours that automatically informed someone when a “friend” on Facebook delists them. I read in TechCrunch earlier this year that they’d taken it down even though it didn’t violate Facebook’s terms of use.

That’s a utility we wrote because a couple of us were curious if anyone had removed us as friends. The friend information is there, of course, if you look through your own profile, but we thought we’d automate the process. But Facebook got upset about it after Michael Arrington wrote about it. In fact, they were very heavy handed about the whole thing. They said, “We turned off application, but let us know if you fix it.” They wanted both parties to have to agree with the application. So we fixed it, told Facebook, and asked if they could turn it back on again, and they just never responded.

Are they generally unresponsive?

No, they’re generally really good about being responsive. Tech support has been very helpful. A couple of times when they’ve accidentally shut off applications and we’ve contacted customer support, they’ve gotten up the application again in a day or so. For a company of their size, I think that’s pretty responsive.

Why not just focus on other social networks? There’s MySpace. Other companies are opening up their platforms, like Apple’s App Store and Google’s OpenSocial…

We’re considering other social networks. One reason we haven’t done it yet is that we’ve been big believers in Facebook’s platform.

So what would you like to see change?

Facebook responds with general rules when people do bad things, and they hurt everyone in the process. Everyone gets punished together. I’d like to see them create a class of developers that get special privileges. If they establish a trusted class, then there’s a lot for the developers in that class to lose. They aren’t going to violate its terms of service. It’d be consistent with Microsoft and other companies that provide a certification level that makes life easier for those behaving properly.

Do you think we might see an announcement around that today?

I think there will probably be a number of big announcements. The recent redesign of its platform will be a big topic: what profiles look like, how terms of service have changed, how developers write applications for Facebook.

What do you think about its new profile?

I think on balance it will be a positive thing. I guess we’ll see how users react. One of the positives will be these new profiles tabs, which will be a chance for people to have a few easily accessible applications, almost like home pages. So there’s an opportunity for really good applications to distinguish themselves on users profiles. On the negative side, Facebook has been making it really hard for new applications to get discovered via its “news feed.” In the last week, when I’ve gone to mine, everything listed was a Facebook item. I have 500 friends and 100 apps, so you’d think something else would bubble into my news feed.

It’s a scary thing for developers focusing on Facebook. It’s like with chat. Developers had come up with something like 1,200 Facebook apps. Some of them had investors. But a few months ago, Facebook announced a chat app that it gives privileged access. It’s targeting certain applications and killing them with them with its own applications.

So what needs to happen, in your view?

I think they need to take a strong stand that they won’t do that because otherwise, they undermine the normal capital process and they’re going to a very hard time attracting quality applications going forward. Who wants to bother?