I spent a weekend messing around with a lot of the new Facebook applications, and I'm even more convinced that this is a stroke of genius, and it all has to do with the news feed and the social flow of information.
The News Feed has always been the most important feature of Facebook, but until the applications were introduced last week, the most exciting thing in the feed was new photos or new group affiliations. Moderately interesting, but it wasn't enough to sustain interest. Now, the news feed is constantly updating with much more relevant information (latest music played, new photo players, games, video, extended bio information, twitter and so on).
Without the news feed, the applications would just be widgets, neat things that sit on your profile and may be accidentally discovered by friends. But by placing them in the centre of the action, the news feed, the applications enhance the flow of information that powers social media. We've talked a bit in the past about flow and presence (a la Jaiku for instance), but with the huge Facebook network (particularly for us here in Toronto!), the flow of social information really takes on a whole new meaning (I only have a handful of friends on Jaiku or Twitter, compared to 300 or so on Facebook).
It's just brilliant of Facebook to have built a huge network, get the mechanics of social flow right (unlike MySpace, which got the first, but fumbled the second part) and then pull in applications to sit on top of all of this (even competing ones, like Twitter).
In order to be part of the action, brands and smart marketers need to be thinking hard about developing branded applications that serve the network, and hope they get adopted. The notion of "branded utility" rings a bell; it's exactly what is needed in the new platform that Facebook has created. Any brand can play in this space, Facebook isn't just a music community, or a dating community or a sports community. What will give them a chance to become the operating system of social media is that the network is broad enough to be something different for everyone.
Now, when is the IPO? (I do think that Facebook can be the next Google, and since I have that in writing now it will be easy to remind me of it in a year if I'm wrong).