Badgeville’s Social Layer and Facebook’s Future

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ADOTAS – Adotas contributor Brandt Dainow may have blown a few mental gaskets last year with his column “Why Facebook the Site Will Die,” but behind the inflammatory title was a prediction I find myself returning to time after time. Dainow suggested that the masses would eventually quit flocking to Facebook.com, but “Facebook services [would] become part of the infrastructure of the web.”

It’s especially interesting to think about now, right before the f8 conference where the social network is expected to add a media element to the Facebook experience, basically setting it up as one portal to rule them all. However, my mind was already reeling thanks to a chat with Badgeville cofounder and CEO Kris Duggan about his company’s new Social Fabric solution at the Gamification Summit East in NYC.

During the summit, I heard a lot of doubt about the social network’s future — there were mixed rumors about declining membership and engagement, followed by pronouncements that the fascination well had run dry. Oh, and what about Google+ being right on its toes?

But I take all of these ruminations with a shaker full of salt. Nearly every claim harvested about Facebook membership declining is easily refuted (only Facebook has the real numbers and they don’t like to share), while Nielsen’s latest findings suggest that it’s still the most popular website in the U.S. While the social network seemed slightly unnerved by the launch of Google+, it encouraged Facebook to plug up some glaring holes in its services and arguably one-up Google.

(Now the tech media conventional wisdom is that Google+ is already over, that it looks a lot like Bing in the search world. I’m still yet to really use Google+, but I don’t think it’s on its way out — I believe it will be used in a very different way than Facebook.)

But still, Facebook’s long-term survival odds may have taken a dive — and I mean the social network and its technology. In a story that sounds a lot like another fallen social network, Facebook may have been distracted by advertising revenue, which apparently doubled last year’s total in the first half of 2011 alone, and missed the writing on the wall — or rather Adotas, and more specifically Dainow’s predication.

The Social Layer

Badgeville introduced Social Fabric at TechCrunch Disrupt the other week, the same conference where it launched a year prior. It’s not a content management system, stresses Duggan — it’s a tool for turning a website into its own social network and its users into a community. This includes interaction, instant notification of social activity at the top of the page, the ability to follow certain users, activity feeds — basically, any website can become Facebook-lite. It sounds a lot like Dainow was suggesting — an easily insertable social layer.

Content-based social networks are certainly nothing new, but doing it right hasn’t proved easy. In addition to integrations with Facebook, Twitter and other social networks Huffington Post has incorporated elements of gamification (badges, notifications) to create a rich and engaged community around its site. It’s not a comments section, it’s a social tapestry. Of course, HuffPo is a major publisher and can afford to develop and execute such technology in-house.

Badgeville is offering to power a site’s social layer as a service. Combine this with what Movable Media’s Andrew Boer has been writing about content marketing and you have an interesting Internet future: social networks built around brands that sponsor high-quality content users engage with on that specific site.

It’s the evolution of the web, Duggan argues. At first publishers offered content with no feedback loop. The social media revolution connected content and virtual identities to form a simple feedback loop. Now the social media layer on publisher pages connects content and interaction between users to establish a full feedback loop back into the content.

“The old publication standby for turning down social technology is that ‘content is king,'” Duggan says. “It reminds me of bankers 40 years ago saying, ‘No one will use an ATM!’ The brand is king — it can make money through content, community and commerce.”

“We’re telling brands, ‘Don’t let them go to Facebook!'” he explains — nearly everything Facebook offers could be right on site via a social layer.

Duggan knows what he’s talking about — I don’t think anyone has quite illuminated the point of gamification technology as well as he did in an editorial that ran on this site a few weeks ago. (He gives credit to his entire team for the excellent piece.)

Badgeville’s first year of operation has been a crazy one. Back when it launched, the gamification platform supported four behaviors — now anything is possibly as the platform is completely configurable by the client. Following the company’s publicly release of its Dynamic Game Engine gamification platform in June, the company received $15 million in venture funding in July, most of which Duggan says is still in the bank as revenue intake has been steady.

Social Fabric has been in the cards since the beginning, he says. After building a platform for installing gaming mechanics, the next logical step was social mechanics. It’s really a quick leap from one to other — from how do points engage users to how do we connect these users?

The next step may be even more interesting, as Badgeville is studying the interaction between indicators of relevance: social relationships versus timing versus influence, all analyzed based on signal strength. The inherent insight in such analytics should make publishers’ mouth water, but Duggan isn’t promising anything yet.

“Before yesterday, the data collection methods weren’t even in place,” he says with a smile.

Circling back, what if brands can stop users from heading to Facebook via smart content and inter-site social networking capabilities? Why would users head to Facebook.com when they could interact with others around smart content? Then again, Facebook may soon be offering great content as well — we’ll have to see what they’re up to on Thursday.

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