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How to Write Your Own Facebook Applications

By Mary Rotman
August 7, 2008 | Comments: 6

jesse_stay.jpgI recently had a chance to ask Jesse Stay, author of FBML Essentials a few questions about his book and just why it's so important right now. His book revolves around the fundamentals of the Facebook Markup Language--Facebook's version of HTML--which makes it easy to develop applications specifically for Facebook. But Jesse can explain much better than I all of what the book entails. So without further ado, here is my interview.

Jesse, in your book, you make FBML sound so easy to pick up and learn. The back cover even says that if you know HTML, you can learn FBML. But if FBML is so intuitive, why is it necessary to have a book explaining it?

There [is] a big need for a print version of what was mostly only available online at the time.  Joseph Scott, developer at Automattic was kind enough to send O'Reilly my way (I was close to finishing my first book, I'm on Facebook--Now What???, at the time), and I jumped on the opportunity.  Having a reference [you] can quickly turn to, with tested examples and pictures should be helpful for any developer trying to learn the essentials of FBML and the Facebook platform.

So, why now? Facebook applications have been around for a few years--why is your book crucial now?

With a new design (Facebook Connect) recently announced, and near 1/2 million developers writing for the Facebook platform currently, Facebook development is quickly becoming the new "Microsoft" of software development.  I predict a future where Facebook will have a part in most of the websites developers write, whether on Facebook or outside of Facebook.  Developers, especially those new to the Facebook platform, need a book like FBML Essentials to guide them as this new wave of software and web development emerges.

Learn more from Jesse Stay. Get a copy of his book FBML Essentials!

Is your book geared mainly toward experienced Facebook developers? Or could someone just learning Facebook benefit from it as well?

Developers new to the Facebook Platform will benefit most from this book.  A simple knowledge of HTML and Javascript are all you will need to understand this book as a whole, although to get beyond this book and into the Facebook Platform you will need to be a seasoned developer. Developers new to the Facebook platform will finally be able to get how an application works on Facebook, and have the building blocks of a simple application off the ground in a matter of minutes.  From this, a world of new development tools will become available to them.  This book is just the beginning of a new era for many developers.

[But] seasoned Facebook developers should benefit as well.  In this book is a reference to every single tag in FBML (minus 2 that just came out in the last week or so), along with several tested examples and descriptions that are not available via the Facebook Developers Wiki or elsewhere.  My hope is that developers can take what they learn in this book and even contribute back to the developers wiki!

All right, so we've covered who your book can benefit and why it's important now, but what do you see in the Facebook's future concerning FBML? Will it be short-lived? Or will this information continue to be essential for years?

FBML is only the beginning of your adventure in Facebook Development.  Reviewing and knowing what tags are available will help save you time as you develop on Facebook, as well as headaches as new design changes emerge.  This book will be extremely helpful in achieving that knowledge you need to get started.

The future of Facebook itself is incredible.  Yet to be announced is a new Facebook payments platform, along with a slew of new websites integrating with the authentication, Friends lists, profile information, and more that Facebook provides.  The view of the web itself for many people will become Facebook, some without them even knowing it.  Add to that business and Enterprise integration you have a pretty valuable tool at your hands!  Once you get started with this book you will want to learn what else is available - check out the Facebook REST API, and especially the just announced Facebook Connect Platform.  All of these will only expand what you can do with the information stored on Facebook.

Lastly, if people want to contact you with questions, how do they go about doing that?

I call myself the "Social" Geek - I'm a Developer you can talk to.  I consult for a living, and have a team of developers and consultants that can help your business grow on Facebook.  Contact me if you'd like a quote or some ideas!  I have consulted for some of the top 100 applications on Facebook, and know what makes a good application on Facebook tick.

I blog regularly at StayNAlive.com (my most active blog at the time), OpenSocialNow.com, and FacebookAdvice.com.  I am also a regular guest-blogger at LouisGray.com.  Expect to see me guest-blogging soon for sites like InsideFacebook.com as well.

 I'm also especially accessible for my readers, if they have any questions while they read.  Contact me on identi.ca at identi.ca/jessestay or FriendFeed, friendfeed.com/jessestay and I'm happy to try and help as I have the time to do so.  Also, come join the discussion on our Facebook Page - page.fbmlessentials.com.

And for those of you who have always dreamed of creating a Facebook app but haven't had quite the expertise to pull it off well, here's an opportunity for you to learn FBML. Leave a comment describing the application you would build and how it's different from the rest of the hundreds of Facebook applications out there, and in one week I will arbitrarily choose a winner (or two) to receive a free copy of Jesse's book.

For more information about the book, visit http://oreilly.com/catalog/9780596519186 or read the press release.

You might also be interested in:


The timing of this book is perfect for me, as I direct web design and online collaboration for several of our university's social engagement initiatives. These projects include student leadership and engagement, public engagement, and K-12 college readiness. And all are ripe for social networking on the web.

So my 'dream application' is perhaps a suite of Facebook apps and not just one (though I'm not sure yet). Regardless, it or they would engage our students who are already doing most of their social networking on Facebook, and integrate more of their academic experience with their regular social web experience. This would not only benefit them, but help the university better react to and relate to their developmental needs, and place important information where these audiences are spending their time.

So it's clear to me that Facebook and similar platforms need to be part of our university's goals; it's just a matter of how, and what, we should be developing. Thanks for helping, and I look forward to reading your book.

Kris Layon
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus


Application would be a way of tagging a friends profile with a way of saying how good a friend they have been. If I say anything else, I'd have to . . . Well, you know how the saying goes.

What i would really like to write is an application that really simplifies the interaction for new users. People always say "There's such a lot of things for Facebook" and i think the new users would really appreciate this kind of aplication until they could get "the hang" of FB.

Think about an easier way to install and uninstall apps. Think about an easier way to get in touch with your friends. Think about a way of keeping your privacy.

Hi Jesse, love your work!

I would love to develop a collaborative authoring/incentivized blogging application for facebook. Imagine: you begin playing and discover a 'location', for which you provide a description; you explore the location and discover 'characters', and describe their activities as you employ them to explore your world, discovering and detailing more locations, more characters. Further explorations discover 'neighbours' (friends playing the game); when you interact with their locations and characters, the outcome is determined by the amount of descriptive content you have already supplied for your own characters (hence incentivized). As a storyline becomes more involved, it can be extracted as RSS or PDF, say, which can then be published into your news feed.

This would be an experiment in 'facebook social media', like an alternative to Harlequin, Gossip Girl, reality television etc. One approach would be to extend an existing open-source CMS like WordPress, laconica or atomicWiki by adding custom features. Unlike mySpace, fb isn't a blogging platform, but this would not be a conventional weblog, something more akin to fanfiction.

And I really like Kris Layon's idea above - facebook needs a structure to support suites of applications.

I'd like to develop a suite of collaboration tools for facebook. Imagine the following for students who have to work in a group. First one Reference Repository:

Bob, Joe, and Sue were assigned to write a paper on Croation Wrestling circa 1978. Sue decides everyone should be reading some of the same stuff so she adds reference repository. She quickly visits google and finds suitable references. She pastes them into reference repository and voila, their first list. She then uses the invite feature to get her group members on board. Reference repository is particularly nice because they can read each paper without leaving facebook (thanks ScribD). Each student leaves their comments and tags on the paper when they get time. Once they have their references then it comes time to write the paper (another tool?).

What would really be neat, once I have a database of papers students are citing, I could also within the software offer suggestions for other references based on what the students are already looking at. This is something I'd add after the initial concept took off.

Facebook’s Connects http://www.frogmix.com/search/facebook+connect strategy, and development is certainly interesting to follow. Google is going to have a much tougher fight ahead if they don’t move a lot faster. Also, will all this convergence, comes a need for greater privacy settings, and the understanding of how to use them.


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