washingtonpost.com’s new Facebook app

Back in late April, I was asked by my bosses at The Washington Post and Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive if I could meet with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. At the time, it was pretty hush-hush as to why.

In very short order, I was on a plane headed to Palo Alto — along with WPNI “new products team” colleague and programming genius Deryck Hodge — to meet with Mark and a bunch of other really cool and smart folks from Facebook. What they showed us was amazing. And ground-breaking.

Facebook was working on a new API that would allow others to build applications on Facebook. They called it Facebook Platform. And what made this so impressive to us was that the sytem they had built would allow developers to build things that tapped directly into the Facebook social network in ways that would layer in all of the aspects of a social-networking site.

These weren’t going to be widgets or RSS feeds. These were going to be real social-networking tools.

And, yes, the initial prototypes were going to be done by “partners” like washingtonpost.com, but the cool part was going to come after it was all formally announced on Thursday, May 24, by Zuckerberg.

To me, the cool part was that Facebook was going to release this API to everyone, not just big companies or companies with some sort of relationship with the site. Anyone who wanted could try to build apps for Facebook.

Now that’s cool.

And it’s not like these new apps were going to muck-up Facebook. If you like Facebook just like it is, you don’t have to use or add any of these apps to your profile. But if you do want them, you can “install” or “uninstall” as many as you’d like. Your call.

So, as we began trying to explain exactly what we thought of this to our bosses back in D.C., we had two main points:

* No. 1 — We shouldn’t even bother to try to build something on the new Facebook API if we were just going to try to get our headlines on people’s pages. (Yep, that’s what every college student wants: headlines from The Washington Post on their Facebook profile).

Deryck and I emphasized that we needed to build things that would really work on a social-networking site, but that the very last thing we would want was for The Washington Post to look like Pat Boone rapping.

There’s no point in trying to pretend you’re Jay-Z (or even Yahoo!), when your stars are Bob Woodward and Tony Kornheiser.

Clearly, one of our biggest challenges was going to be coming up with things that felt like they belonged on both washingtonpost.com and on Facebook.

* No. 2 — We wanted everyone to understand that being able to build tools like this on Facebook was going to be really cool, but that we wanted everyone’s expectations to be managed.

Here is my less-than-bold prediction: Some people are going to really like and use what we’ve built.

But it will be nothing like the amount of people who will use and love some application built by some college kid/programming-god-in-waiting who has been using Facebook for a couple of years and finally gets to build the thing that everyone who uses Facebook wished Facebook had always had.

That’s the person who’s going to build the killer Facebook app. Not a couple of dorks at washingtonpost.com. (Though I’m really rooting for the dorks at washingtonpost.com, being that I’m one of them.)

So, what did we build?

Well, we spec’ed out three apps — one that is already done, one that is really close to being done, and one that we haven’t even started.

The one that debuted today is called “The Compass.”

The idea behind The Compass app for Facebook is pretty simple: Take a short survey and we then show you where you fall on a political compass with one end representing conservative and the other representing liberal.

We worked with editors at washingtonpost.com to come up with the survey questions.

Then after you’ve answered the questions, Facebook places The Compass on your profile page. It looks like this:

(Note: For the purposes of the screenshot above, I answered every question on the survey “Strongly Disagree” or maybe I answered them all “No Opinion/Indifferent” — to be honest, I can’t remember; either way, if you answer all of the questions one of those two ways, The Compass comes out right in the middle.)

There are tons of political compass surveys on the Internet — and trust us, we looked at almost all of them — so what makes washingtonpost.com’s The Compass for Facebook different?

It’s the power of being able to integrate something like this on Facebook in a way that leverages the social network. That, to me, was the genius of the Facebook Platform app, and it was what we thought was the most interesting part about trying to build something for Facebook.

So, once you install The Compass on your Facebook profile and take the survey, the friends in your network see that you have installed The Compass through their Facebook news feed. If they choose to install it and take the survey, things get interesting.

You can see where all of the friends in your network fall on the political map. Those on the left of the map are more liberal and those on the right are more conservative. Pretty straight-forward stuff.

Each of the dots on that map represents a friend in your network, and you can then click on any of the dots to see which dot is which friend. When you click on the dot, your friend’s photo and name displays.

We all knew before even one line of code was written for this app that some folks in the newspaper industry would see The Compass and ask, “what does this have to do with news from The Washington Post?”

For us, one of the most important things was to build something that we thought would work on Facebook and do it in a way that showed respect for what The Washington Post and washingtonpost.com stand for — and at the same time, try to get those Facebook members who had an interest in politics to remember that washingtonpost.com is the definitive site on the web for national politics.

And we hope they are reminded of our newspaper’s commitment to political coverage every time they see The Compass with the washingtonpost.com logo on it.

More importantly, as I wrote earlier, we didn’t think we could get a bunch of college students to say, “Dang, you know what I need on my Facebook profile page? I need headlines from The Washington Post.”

That being said, one of the apps that we have spec’ed out does do something kind of like that, but in a way that directly relates to someone’s identity.

So, who did all of this kick-ass work on The Compass app?

Our team’s lead programmer, Deryck Hodge, wrote all of the code behind it. And true to Deryck’s Django roots, when he realized that Facebook’s API library was written in PHP, he rewrote the library in Python.

It’s Deryck’s plan to release that code soon. I’ll keep you updated on when he releases it, if Facebook doesn’t release a Python library first, which we’ve heard is likely.

Jesse Foltz, our team’s insanely talented senior designer, did all of the graphics and Flash. He also wrote the Flash code that grabs Deryck’s XML from the app.

And our new products/skunkworks team editor Tim Richardson helped us decide what topics should be in the survey, along with help from washingtonpost.com editor Liz Spayd.


Here is a link to the photos that I took on my camera phone of the Facebook Platform F8 launch event.


Here is the press release about our Facebook apps from the Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive PR department.

And if you’re wondering what other apps we’re creating, this release talks about another one of them. We’re hoping the second app will go live shortly.

Here is the story that ran in The Washington Post today about Facebook Platform.

Here is the Reuters story about Facebook Platform.

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Dad. Journalist. Nerd. Music lover. Baseball fan. Puckhead.