Facebook: it's not just for kids anymore... (and it does XML, too)

Social networking sites have taken off over the last few years, and for a long time there seemed to be a clear divide: Doostang, Ecademy, LinkedIn, and Xing for business networking vs. Facebook, Friendster, and MySpace for kids (be it high-school or college). Plus every network had their own particular and sometimes even unique focus (e.g. Musicians on MySpace, Harvard and MIT grads on Doostang, and lots of Europeans on Xing).

But things are not so simple anymore. As Facebook grows in popularity amongst "business types" due to several unique features that set it apart from the likes of LinkedIn (more on that later), the character of the network changes and it also gives rise to some interesting generation-conflict issues, such as in Liz Ryan's recent article "Worlds Colliding: My Mom's on Facebook!" in the BusinessWeek Career Insight column.

So what are these unique features that set Facebook apart from the rest of the social networking sites? There's been plenty of already, so I won't recite it all. Instead, I'll just say that it was these things that got me excited:

  • Great UI design: the user interface is clean, customizable, and elegant - yet is provides for an environment that is actually fun to work with. Very much unlike MySpace (chaos) or Doostang (boring)! LinkedIn and Xing are not necessarily bad in their UI design, but Facebook is simply so much better. Designing a great user interface is just as important for Web 2.0 applications, as it was for regular desktop software. What can I say: when it comes to Altova's developer tools I've always been working hard to ensure we invest in the best UI design (and as a result, I regularly hear "XMLSpy rocks" or similar comments when I talk to people at conferences or trade shows).

  • Open platform that uses XML: 3rd party developers can add to it, and masses of developers are already flocking to the platform. Facebook applications are using FBML (Facebook Markup Language), which extends HTML by additional FBML elements (in the fb: namespace) that are described by this XML Schema (yes, I know, they call it a DTD, but it's really an XML Schema - I should tell them to use the DTD and XML Schema tools in XMLSpy to fix this). In addition to the FBML describing the user interface, the 3rd party applications call a Facebook API, where most parameters and results are transmitted in XML (e.g. see the description of the Events.getMembers API call).

  • Privacy control: it has much more fine-grained controls on what information I want to share with friends, the network, or everyone. Only Xing is still slightly better than Facebook in this regard, because of its European roots.

  • Flexible integration: it allows me to integrate my blog and new postings are automatically part of my Facebook news feed. In the same way I can integrate my photos (SmugMug), videos (YouTube), and other content. While some of the other networks only allow me to post a maximum of 3 links (LinkedIn), Facebook allows me to link as many web sites as I want and lets me directly integrate any RSS feed and have it automatically post to my profile. The only similar offering I've seen so far (other than dedicated news aggregators) is the new Plaxo pulse (beta).

There you have it, I'm going to join Robert Scoble and openly state that I like Facebook. Send me a friend request, when you get your account set up...