Where the F was F8?

By Richard Nieva , written on November 12, 2012

From The News Desk

Last September, Mark Zuckerberg and former Saturday Night Live cast member Andy Samberg stood on a stage at Facebook’s F8 Web developer’s conference in San Francisco while an audience of hundreds hung on every word. The comedian perfectly impersonated Zuck, then strode offstage to the lyrics, “All I do is win, win, win, win, win…” sung by T-Pain over the sound system in glorious auto-tune.

It may well have been the best (or at least the most fun) public moment the company has ever had, amidst a history of PR faux pas: Zuckerberg’s sweaty interview with Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg at All Things D in 2010; Sheryl Sandberg’s awkwardly timed speech to the Harvard Business School, days after Facebook’s botched initial public offering last May; or any of the privacy outcries that have followed any tweak of the site.

Over the past five years, Facebook has built F8 into quite a respectable event for developers and entrepreneurs, in a tech conference circuit that is already saturated. So in a year riddled with bad press from a lackluster IPO, the so-called "semi-regular" conference might have made sense -- if only from a PR perspective. And yet this year, perhaps when the conference would do the most good, Facebook balked at holding the event.

Since 2007, F8 has been a steady source of publicity warm fuzzies for Facebook.

It is where the company has made its most significant hacks, including last year’s introduction of Timeline, and integration with music and media companies like Spotify and the Washington Post. Facebook, for its part, says it simply doesn’t have any news this year. “F8 is a semi-regular conference. We're always working with developers to be successful on Platform, but have nothing to announce at this time,” said a Facebook spokesperson. The company didn't hold a conference in 2009, but that doesn't necessarily mean it shouldn't have been on this year's calendar.

Of course, there are obvious reasons for not holding a conference this year. After all of the circus atmosphere that surrounded the IPO, perpetuated even more by the media, it seems reasonable that the company would want to steer clear of too much hype. Facebook also may not have wanted to seem too bullish about its new products because, well, what if Facebook Gifts -- the company's new commerce arm -- doesn’t work? And SEC quiet periods may have just tempered the company with a more low key demeanor in general this year.

And lest we forget, opening up the floor to Web developers and entrepreneurs also means opening up the floor to people like me: reporters who ask all those damn questions.

There are also the logistical restraints of planning both the highest tech IPO ever and a major conference in the same year. The biggest strain would have been on time, says Heather Mason, president of A Caspian Production, a conference planning company that had thrown events for Vanity Fair and the Skoll Foundation. It would likely take nine months to a year to plan, she said. (It might take a staff of about fifteen people, and over six figures, though those seem like pindrops for Facebook.) So, she would not recommend a half-assed effort. “I would never tell anyone to do an event just for an events sake, if it can’t live up to the brand or expectations,” said Mason.

Still, the company has made some big announcements post-IPO, including Gifts, and a completely rebuilt mobile app for iOS. It might have behooved the Facebook to bundle up those announcements, give them splashy demos with the full Powerpoint treatment, and try to rally the stubborn stock. Not holding an event also telegraphs to Wall Street: There's nothing new here. Move along.

Even though those announcements don’t necessarily play to the Web developer set, Eli Tucker, founder of the Portland-based company Vizify -- which pulls content from numerous platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn -- says anything the company does is worth a trip to the event. “Facebook is such a huge player that if they do have a conference and you learn about a few new things, if you implement them quickly, you can take advantage of being the first mover for at least a little while,” he said. Tucker said he’d be interested to hear about more iOS integrations.

Zuckerberg’s first public appearance after the IPO was in the form of an onstage interview with Michael Arrington at TechCrunch Disrupt. Zuck’s performance was well received by the press, but why not give the remarks at Facebook’s own party, on home turf?

Facebook is a public company now -- a mark of corporate maturity. Other large public companies, like Oracle, regularly hold events regardless of whether they have big news. And with a conference that was on its way to becoming a solid, marquee event, perhaps the most mature thing for Facebook to do is to show consistency.