Mike Schroepfer, Vice President of Engineering at Facebook, spoke with Jason Kincaid at this morning’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference. The topic of the conversation focused on many of Facebook’s newest features, including the recently launched Friend Lists and “Subscribe” option, which lets users follow others’ public updates in a model very similar to Twitter and Google+.
This led, of course, to a discussion of how much “inspiration” Facebook drew from other sites. Is Google+ now influencing Facebook’s feature set?
The “Subscriptions” feature, in case you missed the news, addresses one of the biggest pain points for Facebook users who have a lot of friends, Jason blogged earlier today. It means that power users who want to follow the updates of public figures now have a way to do so, without having to submit a friend request to the person in question. It also provides a way for users to breach the previously constricting 5,000 friend limit on Facebook.
But what about Facebook Pages?, Jason wanted to know. How does this feature compare?
“Pages are an awesome product for multiple people who are administering a Page for a brand,” explained Schroepfer, but subscribe is for sharing with friends and others more broadly. (Hmm…sounds like Twitter, doesn’t it?)
In addition, Facebook also rolled out a new feature that lets you customize the kind of updates you see from friends. For example, if you only want to see status updates, and not updates from games, you can now do that.
The recently added automated friend lists were discussed, too. Instead of dragging-and-dropping friends into Circles as on Google+, there is no manual effort involved with these lists. And the lists are there if people want to use them, otherwise, they just fall off the left-side navigation where they now reside. It’s not overly complex.
But one-way follows, ways to get Games out of your stream, friend lists? Who else in the social networking space is doing this? Twitter and Google+.
So why launch these features now, asked Jason? (The implication that Facebook is now being directly influenced by competitors’ products).
“We’ve been working on lots of iterations of friend lists and the subscription metaphor for a while,” hedged Schroepfer. “No one wants to spend their afternoon dragging and dropping,” he said. But Facebook couldn’t get the Friend Lists really working until now, he added.
In response to a more direct question about what Schroepfer’s favorite feature of Google+ was, Schroepfer had nothing to say. However, he later explained, “the challenge with this is that anytime we launch something, you can say it’s a response to X or Y.” But competition is great, he believes, and people can choose.
Not all of Facebook’s attempts to emulate other social networks or new trends pay off, though. Examples of recent failures are Deals (a Groupon-like service), Questions (a Q&A product similar to Quora or Yahoo Questions and others) and Places (a check-in function that emulates Foursquare). All have either been largely downgraded in importance or killed off entirely.
“In order to innovate, you have to experiment,” said Schroepfer. But to get things right, you have to fail, he said. Facebook has a sign hanging in its offices, for example, that says this job is 1% complete.
Most importantly, Facebook wants to be able to ship code fast…it wants to deliver changes to its 750 million users faster than a startup with a million users can. Of course, moving quickly can mean more bugs. But dealing with that issue has been a big focus this year, says Schroepfer. Every single metric he’s seen says it’s getting better.
But the best question from the interview was probably Jason’s bold attempt to get some info on new Facebook products, namely Facebook Music and the forthcoming iPad app.
Will we see Facebook Music integrated into the iPad app?, asked Jason.
A “death glare” was the jovial, but decidedly non-comittal response.