How Facebook’s Top Engineer Is Trying to Read Your Mind

/// How Facebook’s Top Engineer Is Trying to Read Your Mind

November 29, 2012  |  Blog

It’s been a great year for the Facebook platform, but Mike Vernal wants more. Facebook’s director of engineering tells us the social network is trying to pump up user posts, favoring longer stories and content and adding data that will help Facebook and its partners repurpose even the simplest status updates.

Vernal oversees Facebook’s Open Graph, the platform apps and websites use to take the data connected to your collection of friends out of Facebook and to push content into it – like what Spotify playlists your friends have assembled for New Year’s Eve. Open Graph has proven enormously popular with developers, but Vernal keeps pushing for ever richer, ever deeper sharing between Facebook and the outside world. He sat down with Wired Business at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters this week to explain why the Facebook platform is favoring long form content, why Vernal craves the hidden subtext of your status updates, and why mobile social apps might be “the next big wave of innovation.”

Wired: What is the elevator pitch for what you’re trying to do with the Facebook platform?

We’re trying to help users map out all the things they care about and all the things they’re connected to, and to help people discover things through the lens of their friends.

“We’ve definitely become biased toward longer form. The more time you spend engaging with and generating content, probably the more valuable it is.”

Wired: And based on that, how far along are you?

We’re 1 percent done. It’s really early.

Wired: That implies there are still a fair number of opportunities for people to build new apps despite the seeming explosion of startups already cranking them out.

I think that’s definitely true. At the risk of sounding cliché, it seems really clear to me that building mobile social apps is the next wave of big innovation. Things you can take with you everywhere that let you share things in the moment, and discover things in the moment through the lens of your friends are really, really compelling.

Wired: Facebook officially launched its platform Open Graph in January. What’s the year been like?

Historically, we had a very vibrant games ecosystem, and there was a lot of sharing of links and news articles and things like that. We offered a bunch of tools to developers like the “Like” button and Facebook login. You could bring your friends with you to apps and websites, but the way in which data was shared back to Facebook was kind of generic. It wasn’t as deep or as rich as it could have been.

The thing I feel really good about is we just have had a huge increase in diversity of apps over the past year. The biggest apps are much more beyond games, it’s things like Instagram on the photo sharing side of things, it’s things like Spotify and Rdio on the music sharing side of things, it’s things like Netflix and Hulu on the video side of things, it’s things like Nike+ or Endomondo on the fitness and running side of things. Etc, etc, etc.

I spent some of the holiday weekend playing around with 20 or 30 new apps. Almost every single one of them let you log in with Facebook. I logged in and found my friends and could do stuff with them, and then share stuff back to Facebook in a pretty rich way. That wasn’t true a year ago.

Wired: Do you find yourself having to tweak the system a lot to address spammy apps?

We’ve definitely become biased toward longer form. The more time you spend engaging with and generating content, probably the more valuable it is.

When we started Open Graph we were more focused on the discovery side of things. The theory was, wouldn’t it be great if you could figure out which articles were interesting to your friends? We found that what people most enjoyed was being able to tell stories about those things in a more customized way. And the storytelling value of a book you spent five hours reading, or a two hour movie you watched on Netflix is just so much greater than an article you spent 30 seconds reading or a 20-second YouTube clip.

Wired: How has the platform evolved more broadly?

The biggest evolution has been the move from desktop to mobile. We’ve been 100 percent focused this year on just completely revamping our mobile platform. I’d say the vast majority of our Open Graph partners are either mobile or tablet based.

Wired: Do you see any interesting differences in the usage pattern between desktop and mobile?

Mobile apps lend themselves to more frequent use throughout the day. A lot of the sharing we see is happening in the moment versus soon after the fact. On the desktop side of things you see a lot more people going back to their computer and maybe doing stuff in bulk, catching up for the day. It’s the difference between using a digital camera and iPhoto versus something like Instagram.

A good example of this: I was home for Thanksgiving and saw a bunch of movies with my brother-in-law and my sister. And after each movie, my brother-in-law would check us in on Facebook. His status update was just the name of the movie. So it was like, Argo one day, and Skyfall the next day.

That demonstrated his desire to share with other people and to remember the moment. But the problem with that post is it was completely unstructured. It was just the word “Argo.” Later on, when I’m trying to figure out what movie to go watch, it’s not easy for me to figure out that a bunch of people I know just watched this movie so that I can then ask them for their opinion about it, or see what other movies my friends watched the most. What we should see over the next year is those kinds of status updates getting more and more structured.

Wired: What else should we be looking for from the Facebook platform in the coming year?

It’s two things. The first is we want to enable people to tell richer and richer stories about their lives. Going back to the example of my brother-in-law, our goal today should be a much richer story that when you see it in your newsfeed, you can easily watch the trailer for Argo, you could easily see where it’s playing and buy tickets.

On the other side, as we enable more and more people to tell these kinds of stories, making it easier for you to discover stuff that will be interesting to you in that domain. Making it so when you get a new e-book reader at Christmas, it’s really easy to figure out which four or five e-books you should go buy. When you’re traveling, having some way to easily figure out the places your friends like to go visit.

Wired: In June Facebook launched App Center to help guide people to Facebook-enabled mobile and desktop apps. How’s that going?

On desktop it’s been really successful. It is one of, if not the, most popular way for people to find and install apps. On mobile it’s been really valuable but one of the dynamics that’s different is people spend so much of their time in News Feed just kind of scrolling endlessly. We found trying to surface apps in feed is the most valuable way to aid app discovery, so we’ve been more focused on that.

Wired: So is App Center ever going to operate at the scale of Apple or Android stores?

App Center versus the app store is not how I think about it. Instead we want to help people share stuff that’s important to them and help people discover things that are interesting in the world through the lens of their friends. And on the app front on mobile I think we are doing a pretty good job of it on mobile. We are driving something like 180 million clicks per month to the app stores. It’s complementary to them.

Link: How Facebook’s Top Engineer Is Trying to Read Your Mind


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