The decision to launch a new Computer Science class aimed to teach students how to produce Facebook applications raised some eyebrows when the class opened in September. But the course proved once again that Stanford is at the very heart of technological innovation.

EnlargeEnlarge

Alexander Naruhiko Chee

Computer Science (CS) 377W: “Create Engaging Web Applications Using Metrics and Learning on Facebook” meets once per week for three hours and requires students to build two Facebook applications in three-person teams. The results have surprised even the professors; students have churned out a number of highly successful applications — two of which, “KissMe” and “Send Hotness,” have more than one million total users and are still growing.

“In just about a month since the launch of our application, we have grown to roughly 3.5 million total users, with 400,000 users interacting with the application each day,” said Alex Onsager ‘09, one of the developers of the Send Hotness application. “Based on this metric, we are currently ranked among the top 20 applications on Facebook.”

Dave McClure, a lecturer in the CS Department, teaches the class with B.J. Fogg ‘95, director of the Persuasive Technology Lab. McClure explained the advantages of studying Facebook on his online blog.

“It’s only a short-term experiment in Internet marketing on social networks,” he wrote. “I can’t think of any other platform/environment, except perhaps YouTube, where you can acquire one million users in less than 30 days.”

The Send Hotness application allows users to vote for their 10 hottest Facebook friends, while the KissMe application allows users to send others a virtual kiss. Unlike many other Facebook applications, both Send Hotness and KissMe employ methods to encourage other users to add the application, such as allowing friends to affect rankings.

Onsager and Send Hotness team member Joachim De Lombaert ‘09 explained how the course aimed to understand the users’ needs and psychology and did not solely focus on the programming and technical aspects of the production of applications.

“We spent a good deal of time talking about metrics in class: what determines ‘success’?” De Lombaert explained. “In the case of Send Hotness, we decided to measure its success primarily on a calculation of the ‘viral factor,’ which relates directly to the rate at which the application grows.”

This focus on the viral aspects and growth rates helped explain the success of course-produced applications.

“Despite the overwhelming volume of applications on Facebook that aim to do similar things, we were able to apply the principles we learned in class to rise as one of the best implementations of this simple idea,” Onsager said.

Chris Mocko ‘08, one of the developers for KissMe, added that even though his application started as a way to kiss people at Full Moon on the Quad, the majority of users are not from California, or even the United States. The U.S. is only the fourth largest country in terms of page visits to the application, behind the U.K., Canada and Turkey, and is likely to soon be replaced by Hong Kong.

Mocko also explained the significance of the psychology behind the application design.

“The name KissMe is simple but memorable, descriptive and provocative and the application itself is basic but intuitive to use,” he said “Too many applications out there have lengthy instructions that bore and confuse the user and too many actions that force the user to think and choose.”

Fogg, a consulting faculty member in the CS department, mentioned on his blog that he would like to measure the success of the class by the least-popular application produced — if it was created by students who were engaged in the class and actively trying to apply the things they were learning during lecture. According to McClure, as it stands, approximately 10 applications built by the class have achieved over 10,000 installs and between one and 10,000 active users in under a month.

Even though both Send Hotness and KissMe are currently making a profit from advertisement banners, the bulk of the money earned is used to pay for server costs.

“In order to turn KissMe and future applications into a business, we are going to have to better optimize our payout for these advertisements by seeking out sponsorships from companies related to KissMe’s theme, such as toothpaste companies and match-making sites,” Mocko said.

While some may have originally criticized the course as a waste of students’ time, those enrolled in the class argue that critics were not looking at the bigger picture.

“This course has taught me nearly every skill required to found a start-up company,” Mocko said, “from working with and managing a team of engineers, to developing a monetization plan and negotiating with advertisers to maximize profits and even interacting with venture capitalists to pitch ideas for funding and obtain valuable advice.”