Not that long ago I laughed at comparisons of Facebook and LinkedIn because I didn't see much point in using Facebook. Now I laugh because the tools are so different, most comparisons seem silly. Facebook is still the place where people live their online lives, and LinkedIn is still the place where people seek business advice, business partners, jobs and employees. I was poking around LinkedIn the other day, and I saw another sign that they almost get it. Almost.
Back in October, LinkedIn launched applications that you can add to your profile. Sounds a bit like Facebook, doesn't it? Or like the iPhone or Firefox, to name a couple of common products that let people write plugins or applications for their platforms. It seemed not so much a misguided attempt to be more like Facebook but rather, a sensible way to serve customers better while engaging the developer community to innovate in ways yet unknown.
A quick look at the LinkedIn featured applications page today shows a dozen apps from some well-known sites and services that seem reasonably useful to the LinkedIn population: WordPress and Six Apart blog apps, Huddle Workspaces,Box.net files, Amazon reading list, LinkedIn polls, Google and SlideShare presentations, TripIt and LinkedIn Company Buzz. And there's a link to "browse more applications" that shows the same 12 apps. Is that all? I guess for now, it is.
Sure, it's perfectly reasonable to prime the pump with some sure-thing apps from major sites, but what about the vaunted long tail of odd little niche things that might or might not catch fire? I clicked around to find out how apps are created and added to the site, and was disappointed to see this:
Get Started with the Platform
LinkedIn allows developers to build applications that run on LinkedIn user’s home and profile pages. Applications currently available can be seen and installed from the Application Directory. LinkedIn applications are developed using the OpenSocial development model.
How to develop for the Platform
The LinkedIn application platform is not publicly available for all developers. We evaluate requests to develop for the LinkedIn platform from partners who have clearly compelling value to our users and who can rigorously follow our privacy policies. We are looking for applications that provide clear business utility to LinkedIn users. LinkedIn is not a place for sheep throwing. There is equal opportunity to build applications that apply to all LinkedIn users as there is to develop applications that apply to just a targeted portion of the user base. If you think you qualify and have a compelling user value proposition, let us know using the form below.
I agree, LinkedIn is not where I go to join my friends' Zombie Armies (although I bet we can all name some companies that might fit that description), but as with the iPhone fart machine, isn't the fitness of the app really up to the community of users? Those are extreme examples, to be sure. You don't have to feature these weird and edgy apps, but if you don't let it out there, you'll never know if it improves or degrades your product.
Do you think it bothers Facebook that somebody wrote a LinkedIn app for Facebook? Maybe somebody should write a Facebook app for LinkedIn. Facebook's app directory has only 23 apps categorized as "business" which is just four more than are tagged "fart."
So I have two seemingly conflicting bits of advice for LinkedIn: (1) don't try to be like Facebook, and (2) don't try too hard to be unlike Facebook when they do something right, such as opening up their API to all kinds of weirdness. It might feel weird at first, but as long as you've written a good API that keeps everybody safe, the community will decide what's good and what's bad, and that will be a lot closer than almost getting it right.