Watch this MySpace

The message “So and so has added you as a friend on Facebook” is about as common as offers for Viagra in email inboxes nowadays. Until September last year Facebook was restricted to people with .edu email addresses but they have grown spectacularly since opening their doors to everyone and are certainly the talk of the UK media town.

It helps  that  UK  journalists are signing up to Facebook in droves. The BBC group has over 13,000 members and even the Feral Beasts  o f the  Media group formed in response to Tony Blair’s parting shot to the press has 762 members. But as Ben Hammersley, BBC reporter, technology writer and  architect of the Frontline Network  says “the real test will be how many people remember their Facebook login details in twelve months time”.

 According to ComScore, Facebook has more than 27 million  active users and has been getting more than 100,000 new registrations a day throughout 2007. Impressive statistics but Facebook is has a long way to go to catch the big two in the UK – MySpace and Bebo. Bebo has narrowly overtaken MySpace with around 37% market share in the May figures from Hitwise whereas Facebook has less 15%.

 Facebook’s popularity with journalists probably doesn’t worry Mr Murdoch and News Corp who bought MySpace for what now seems a paltry $580m (Mark Zuckerman, the creator of Facebook turned down $1.6 billion from Yahoo). What will be worrying him is that the key 18-24 year old demographic is moving to Bebo and Facebook. This shift has coincided with the heavy advertising and overt commercialisation on MySpace.

 Another reason that Mr Murdoch should be worried is F8 – Facebook’s recently unveiled development platform. This platform is a set of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that allow outside developers to develop new features and applications that can be deeply integrated with Facebook. Examples of this are on the Frontline Network. With a couple of clicks the photos or video with the highest rating by Frontline Network members can be included on anyone’s Facebook profile.

 Facebook encourages viral distribution of these third party applications by notifying everyone’s friends in the network when they start using a new application. This means that a successful application on Facebook can grow to millions of users within weeks. What is exciting investors is that Facebook is allowing commercial activity such as advertising in the application and giving 100% of the revenues to the third party developers.

Vaughan Smith, creator of the Frontline Network welcomes the opportunities that the Facebook platform brings. “The Frontline Network has been built to allow media professionals to easily showcase their work – whether words, photographs or video – and have it rated and discussed by their peers. Its other function is to deliver the content to an audience that supports our members’ work and Facebook applications encourage this through viral distribution”.

MySpace doesn’t allow commercial activity in third party applications and doesn’t even have a formal developers programme. Unsurprisingly programmers have shifted their focus and are furiously tapping out code for the Facebook API. There are already hundreds of applications – from the useful such as letting their members import their travel blogs onto their Facebook profile, to the useless such as Poke Pro which has more ways to “poke” someone than there are positions in the Kama Sutra. Rather than the more traditional poke the so inclined can “lick” “spank” or even “headbutt” someone.

The Frontline Network is built on the Ning platform – another one of the many MySpace invaders. Like Facebook it has a set of APIs that allow developers to build their own applications but unlike Facebook it is very customisable. And like all social networks its success will depend on its ability to connect people who share common values and provide them with the tools to express themselves and tell their stories easily. As Ben Hammersley puts it “the strength of the Frontline Network lies in its peer approval and review by fellow media professionals and its ability to deliver new audiences. And it’s not just a meeting place for teenagers to mingle with people who’ve read Wired magazine this week and panicked”

While Facebook is looking good at the moment there are no safe bets as to which platform will win the longer race. What is sure is that social networking is as important online as it is offline and is here to stay. And this won’t have escaped the canny Mr Murdoch who is more than capable of delivering a slap in the Facebook. There are already rumours that he will merge MySpace with the troubled Yahoo! for a 25% stake. This would bring him a 2000% return on his original investment in MySpace and might even give Yahoo! a desperately needed shot of social and participatory media know how.