If you’re a Facebook user, you’ve probably used your Facebook account to log into another site or app, or clicked the Facebook share or like button on a news site. If you’re a developer, you’re no doubt familiar with Facebook Open Graph, mobile app ads, App Links and the Facebook Audience Network.
ALSO READ: Facebook now has 2B monthly users as it beats earnings expectations with $9.3B in revenue
Those are all examples of the Facebook Platform — a set of services, tools and products used by third party developers to tap into the 2-billion-person social network. Believe it or not, it has been 10 years since Mark Zuckerberg and team launched Facebook Platform. So what are they doing now, and what’s next?
To find out, we visited the company’s Seattle office, where a lot of Facebook Platform work takes place. On this episode of the GeekWire Podcast, we talk with Deborah Liu, Facebook’s Vice President of Platform and Marketplace, a Stanford MBA grad and civil engineer who worked at companies including eBay and PayPal before joining Facebook in 2009. Liu travels to Seattle frequently from Facebook HQ.
Listen to below, download the MP3, and keep reading for edited highlights.
Todd Bishop: It has been 10 years since Facebook Platform launched. I provided an overview in the intro, but can you give us a quick “state of the union” for Facebook Platform in 2017? What’s your team focusing on?
Deb Liu: You talked about a lot of products that we have. Beyond that, there’s Facebook Analytics, helping developers really understand what’s happening in their apps. We work on the games business and the games product, so people playing games with Facebook, on Instant Games in Messenger, as well as Facebook Canvas, so lots of different things where you’re engaging with it every day.
TB: How much of this work is taking place in Seattle today? We’re sitting here in this great glass conference room. I see employees streaming by. It’s a really wonderful location, but it’s not Menlo Park. How much is happening up here away from headquarters?
Deb Liu: Actually, a vast majority of our team is here. There’s one team in our Bay Area office but most of our team is here. In fact, most of our platform products have been built out here over the years. A lot of the innovations you see have actually been built out of Seattle.
TB: We’ve had this phenomenon of companies from Silicon Valley establishing engineering offices here. It seems like everybody has a different take on how they collaborate. How does your team work together, especially when you’re distributed among a variety of locations?
Deb Liu: Over the last three to four years, we’ve actually made a concerted effort to move entire product areas and teams here. Not just engineering. Some teams will have engineering teams here, but for us, our product managers are here, data scientists, designers, researchers. Innovation happens here. This is the home of platform.
TB: Why is that? Is there something about Seattle that made the workforce here natural for something like Facebook Platform or was it just happenstance in terms of who wanted to move here and live here?
Deb Liu: Well, two great platform companies are also here. Obviously, Microsoft and Amazon have amazing platforms, as well, and there’s a lot of excitement about the potential of what platforms can be. Platforms are opportunities for people to allow other people to build on the work that you do and to experiment and grow. That kind of mentality — looking for people who are really excited about that set of problems, you’re building something that other people can tap into, you’re actually building something that’s all about possibilities, not actually the end product — that takes somebody who’s really excited about that level of enablement. We find that in great people here in Seattle.
TB: A lot of folks would look at the definition of platform and think of something like Windows where you’re building a software application that lives entirely inside the environment of that platform. You do have some of that with games. FarmVille is probably the quintessential example of that classic form of platform. But a lot of what you do is about providing data, providing services that let people operate their apps or their sites independently but tap into the power of Facebook. How does that make what you do different? Do you think about the developer experience in a different way than that all-encompassing platform?
Deb Liu: We talk to a lot of developers. We really sit down and we say, “What are the problems you’re trying to solve and how can we help you?” For example, app install ads came from a conversation with some of our game developers. I said, “What is the biggest problem you need to solve?” They said, “Honestly, right now, it’s mobile discovery. We want people to discover our apps.” That was a problem we knew we could solve and that we could build app discovery. It’s an ad product but it’s really about app discovery. How do you match people and an app that they’re going to love?
A lot of our products really were led by developers telling us, “We would really like better insights on what’s happening on our apps. That’s something that you obviously built at Facebook. How can we tap into that?” Again, that’s how we built Facebook Analytics. Each of our products evolves that way. Account Kit, which is an evolution of login, is really letting people log in with their phone number. Again, it was born out of research that we did with developers. In emerging markets, that’s how people want to log in, and we found that there was an opportunity there, as well.
TB: What are some other ways you’re seeing developers use Facebook Platform these days, that might be emblematic of what’s happening in 2017?
Deb Liu: A lot of developers have told us using Facebook Analytics, they can really understand what’s happening across the platform because people might use one device like a tablet. They might use a phone and you might want to have login gating every single experience. So we can actually say, “Hey, this is the same person across web, mobile and you should really understand your conversion funnels across all of those.” That’s a really interesting way that we can help developers understand who’s coming to their site and how that comes to life for them.
TB: When a lot of people talk about Facebook Analytics, they think, “Oh, I’m going to see who liked my page, what my response rate is on that.” But you’re talking about actual analytics outside of Facebook.
Deb Liu: Yes, absolutely. It includes what’s happening on your page, for example, but it might be your website and it also could be your mobile app. You would say, “Hey, this group of people came into my mobile app,” and we could say, “Well, there’s an overlap with the people coming to your website and we can actually help you understand that.”
Evolution of Facebook Platform
TB: If you go back 10 years to the announcement of Facebook Platform, in May 2007, it was a very different world online. We were talking before the show started. I couldn’t find a video of the announcement by Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook Platform but apparently, it does exist. Michael Arrington of TechCrunch, the founder, personally covered the story of the launch. That’s the era that we’re talking about here. How has Facebook’s thinking and its approach to platform evolved since then?
Deb Liu: The other thing that happened 10 years ago was that Apple launched the iPhone.
TB: I was going to point that out. Two iconic platforms that launched literally within months of each other.
Deb Liu: Yes, absolutely. Think about that, and how much the world has changed. It seems like the default —that you have at a computer in your pocket that can do all of these things with touch and it has voice recognition, all of these things, but you think back 10 years and none of those things existed. You think about the evolution of the platform, we’ve evolved along with it. There was the era of web where lots of things were happening on the web, but how do we bring what was happening in the web into Facebook? How do we actually bring applications into Facebook? How do we help developers be successful?
Then, we started working on things like our plugins, which was the share button, the like button. We also had things like login where we made it easier for you to create an account on other websites. Then you see the huge leap to mobile and just how far that has come. It started out with a few apps and now, think of the proliferation of everything you can do on a mobile phone. All of those evolutions, our platform has come with it. Each time, we’ve worked with our developers to say, “OK, how can we actually help solve this set of problems that you’re facing in this new world?”
Future of chatbots
Todd Bishop: Facebook Messenger is another area for Facebook Platform, specifically chatbots. It felt to me like 2016 was the year of the chatbot, and it feels like chatbots have died off a little bit. Am I wrong?
Deb Liu: I think one of the challenges is, everyone thinks platforms are shipped fully formed, that we know what the end case is. But actually, great platforms are opportunities for experimentation. If you look at it that way, with every platform, you never know what the end state is going to be. If you look at the beginning of every platform that’s been out there, what ended up evolving was an iteration of technology. What’s great about platforms is lots of people can experiment and someone hits on a couple things that work and then people build on it. Someone hits on something else and they bring it together.
You can kind of see how platforms evolve over time. Building the platform, that’s just the first step. Then you say, “OK, what is the experimentation? Can we get 100 people, 1,000 people?” Some of them will take off and some of them won’t and a lot of these platforms are really dependent on someone hitting on something that really works and then other people building on that idea. You can see that in the chatbot platform. The idea makes sense. You probably aren’t going to have an app for every single airline you’re going to fly over the course of three to four years. That’s OK.
TB: You’re going to go into Messenger and you’re going to chat with their agent, their virtual agent.
Deb Liu: Yes. You care about, for example, “When is my flight leaving?” or why is something delayed. There’s just a few use cases and those use cases make a lot of sense in something like messaging where you just say, “Oh, my flight’s delayed. When’s the next flight?” or, “The gate changed. Where is that going to go?” Well, do you want to go download the app or do you want to say, “Hey, you know what, I just need to get this answer.”
Maybe if you’re a frequent customer of that airline, you’ll download the app eventually. But a lot of what we want to do is actually very lightweight. How do we bring that to people, and then how do we make that technology feel really seamless?
I think right now, what it’s replacing is still pretty good, right? You can go to a website and look it up. There’s other options, but I do think, over time, what’s going to happen is it’s going to feel so seamless just to ask somebody, “Hey, you know what, I just want to find the United Airlines chatbot.” It’s easy to find. You look it up and then you say, “Hey, what gate am I at for this flight?” and it just shows it to you. That would be elegant and simple. And I think that’s the world we will get to. It’s just taking a little time because people have something that kind of works today for them but that world is evolving where it’s going to be easier and easier and easier — where it’ll seem like second nature soon.
TB: One thing I would imagine is on your radar would be virtual and augmented reality, mixed reality, Oculus. How much will Facebook Platform be getting into those areas in the future?
Deb Liu: As we talked about at F8, this is just the beginning of that era of platform. F8’s the developer conference we had in April. We really talked about the beginning of a new era. Can you look at the world through a different lens? That lens is through your camera. Could you create virtual art? Can you create activities people can do? Can you leave messages for people in the real world? And that’s just the beginning. It’s the first step and now we’re having hundreds and thousands of developers who are excited about trying new things. Again, this is the first step of what could be in the future.
The challenge for any new platform is trying to figure out, what are a couple use cases you can start and then how do you spark the ideas. That’s where a lot of our developers come in and say, “Here’s an idea I have.” A lot of them will be really exciting but maybe not work at the beginning. Then it’s about iteration. How do you actually take advantage of all of the technology. We keep adding new APIs, new features. Then, they say, “Hey, if you added these three things, I could do this other thing.” You can kind of see how that evolution changes the platform but also changes what’s built on the platform.
TB: Where are you with VR and AR right now in terms of platform? Have you announced any actual products, or APIs?
Deb Liu: It’s still pretty early. We actually have a closed beta right now and so we’re talking to developers. A bunch of developers are actually using AR Studio to develop. You’ve seen some of the stuff like Mass Effect with other partners that have launched and you can kind of see the effects in the real world.
Stereotyping and gender bias
Todd Bishop: You wrote a really great commentary for Fortune in April about the role of stereotyping in the tech industry — saying it’s important for people to call out gender bias when they see it. The last few months have been very eventful in the tech industry. We’ve seen a remarkable increase in women in the industry going public about their experiences — not just with bias, but to the next level, with harassment. What’s your take on what’s happened over the past few weeks? I have to ask given that you put a stake in the ground there even before it started really happening.
Deb Liu: I think hearing the voices and having it called out is critical. I think that when things are underground, when things just happen, no one calls it out and no one else feels comfortable calling it out, either. But when you actually speak the words and you say, “Hey, this is what I saw” … then it brings someone else out so it’s, “Hey, I experienced the same thing,” and someone else, and someone else, then that’s when you actually have a conversation. The challenge is when everybody sees it and no one says anything, everyone accepts it as part of the industry. That’s not what we all hope.
What we hope is that we can have these conversations very openly and say, “You know what, this happened.” Again, a lot of the things I talk about are fairly innocuous but what’s happening recently is the first person to speak out encourages the second person and the third person. And then to say, “Hey, we all agree this is not acceptable and here’s how we’re going to solve it together.” I think this is the moment where that voice is being heard and that people are really understanding what was silent for so long.
TB: I was struck in your commentary by how subtle a lot of the things were. There was somebody who commented about a candidate being “bossy,” and someone talked about the beginnings of your meetings where you were … was it gossipy? They thought it was “gossipy” and you were just having chit-chat but it was the sort of connotation of those words. You lived by what you wrote in that piece, where you just said, “Hey, what do you mean by that? Can we talk about the implications of that?”
Deb Liu: Sometimes, I’m like, “Is it worth calling out?” but each time I have called it out, it’s actually made for a much richer conversation because now you can unpack what it is in the interview that gave people a signal that this person is not going to be successful here. It wasn’t using this shorthand that didn’t make sense, but to say, “Hey, what is an example, and what was demonstrated in this interview?” For example, in “gossipy,” it’s like, “what am I doing that I could do better?”
The thing is, I didn’t really understand the comment but they said, “Oh, you’re very informal and it’s kind of chit-chatty.” I’m like, “Would you like me to start meetings in a different way? Do you think that would make me more effective?” We had a great conversation about it. Even now, he thanks me for having pointed that out. Again, it is that moment where if I just let it pass, you don’t get the real feedback. You let it pass with this word and you miss the entire point. I think each of these moments, where we use these shorthands, it actually misses the opportunity for us to do something deeper.
TB: As we’ve been saying, you are the Vice President for Facebook Platform and Marketplace. Marketplace will be familiar to almost anyone who uses the Facebook app. I get the little alert that says I need to check it. I’m not sure why it always does that. It must be a UI trick to get me to open it up. At any rate, Marketplace is essentially an alternative to Craigslist and a competitor to apps like OfferUp, which is right here in the Seattle region. Can you give me a state of the union of Marketplace, that other side of your role?
Deborah Liu: Yeah, absolutely. You know what’s really interesting is large communities of people organized in Facebook Groups to actually buy and sell amongst themselves. … They communicate with each other and they buy and sell with each other and there’s a lot of trust, but not everyone was part of that. Not everyone could discover these groups. It was really hard to find in certain areas, or if nobody thought to create a group, it wasn’t available. We realized there was something really special about it, but how do we actually make it available to everybody? We worked to create Marketplace as a destination where people could actually connect with each other. It’s been amazing just seeing the kinds of stories that have come up.
The other day, I was trying to buy a bicycle. I found one and I met the seller. He said, “Oh, do you know the person who lives down the street?” I saw we had mutual friends. He’s like, “My daughters just babysat them.” It turns out they worked at Facebook and were friends of mine. Those kind of connections. He’s like, “I just want to tell you this has been really great, this experience. Just meeting people has been wonderful.”
As we were driving away, I said, “It’s something like recycling where we’re buying things from other people.” My daughter goes, “Actually, it’s called reusing. We learned about it in school. They don’t have to throw it away when they’re done. They can actually sell it to people like us.” She’s 8 and extremely precocious. I think that’s the kind of thing where you’re creating connections amongst people in communities, where instead of leaving something in their garage or kind of throwing it away, you can actually sell it to someone who can find value in it. It was exactly what we wanted, and we had a new connection. He friended me on Facebook.
TB: Of course, a lot of people will remember that kind of magic the first time they used Craigslist but the beauty of what you’re doing and what folks like OfferUp are doing, is that you’re actually providing an identity and a lot more trust as a result.
Deb Liu: Yes. We can actually see mutual friends, for example. A lot of the people I buy from, we have mutual friends and so I totally trust that I can interact with them. The other day, I messaged someone to buy his digital camera and he’s like, “I think I met you. Did you speak in this class at the (Stanford Graduate School of Business)?” I said, “Yes, I saw you there!” He’s stopping by my house tomorrow. It is that kind of magic of building community. It’s a different way of building community. We’re connecting people over products.
TB: There was just a report that Facebook is starting to test ads in Marketplace — in other words, ads by third parties, not people who are selling things. Can you tell us about that?
Deb Liu: It’s still early days but we really want to understand, for example, in Marketplace, there are some things that aren’t sold directly on Marketplace. There are products that people are looking for that might not be available. We do want to make it available so that people who are selling things, for example, on their website would be able to actually participate in Marketplace as well. It’s really early days. We’re just testing with a handful of partners right now.
TB: Big picture — Facebook Platform 10 years later, what’s your message? What would you want people to take away about the state of Facebook Platform and where it’s headed from here?
Deb Liu: The biggest thing is, I hope that everyone believes that it’s very easy to build products on mobile today. You can build a technology. You can build an experience and I hope that we are part of that. What we really care about is that our platform enables people to build in a way that they couldn’t before. Ten years ago, imagine you wanted to build a website. How do you drive traffic to it, how you bring people to it?
Same thing with mobile. You want to build an experience. Well, how do you actually acquire customers? How do you think about that experience? For us, we want to enable all of those ways for you to tap into the community of 2 billion people. How do we make that available to you? As we look forward, this is just the beginning. Bots is one aspect of it. You’ll look at, for example, AR. It’s still really early but there is going to be another thousand, 10,000 developers really focused on AR and VR in the future. How do we enable them? And how do we enable all the people who actually have businesses that they run to be more effective? We just want to be a partner in that as part of the platform.