Facebook's Leaky Product Team Are PR Geniuses

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MG Siegler must have some good friends at Facebook HQ. In the span of a few hours on Wednesday evening, the TechCrunch blogger posted "Behold: Facebook's secret photo sharing app" and a "Project Spartan: Facebook's hush-hush plan to take on Apple." Those kinds of headlines lure in readers like candy carrots on short sticks. The stories predictably topped TechCrunch's Most Popular box not long after posting, and any blogger could tell you why: people love reading about leaks, and they love reading about Facebook. If there's anything they might love more, it's reading about Facebook leaks. Naturally.

"Project Spartan" illustrates well how Facebook's chatty product team is actually a rather underhanded and potentially fantastic PR strategy. Basically, Spartan is a strategy to develop a Facebook version of Apple's App Store that will skirt around the restrictive rules imposed on developers by Steve Jobs. The new platform will work entirely within the mobile browser and applications supposedly already in production by companies like Zynga and The Huffington Post. What's in it for Facebook? A share of the estimated $16 billion, users are spending in the iPhone app store. It's next level stuff that makes Facebook's virtual currency suddenly super viable:

Imagine loading up the mobile web version of Facebook and finding a drop-down for a new type of app. Clicking on one of the apps loads it (from whatever server it’s on depending on the app-maker), and immediately a Facebook wrapper is brought in to surround the app. This wrapper will give the app some basic Facebook functionality, as well as the ability to use key Facebook elements — like Credits.

Whether from friends of Siegler or terrific tipsters for TechCrunch, the leaks position Facebook's product development process squarely in opposition to the social network's newest target: Apple. Rumors that Facebook would be breaking into the mobile phone market started last year when TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington reported that a source, likely within Facebook, described a top secret phone project. At first, everyone thought Facebook was building an actual phone, but it soon became clear that it was some sort of operating system. Siegler's scoop on Project Spartan is almost definitely the same thing, now buoyed by months of bloggers teasing out details and speculating over what a gamechanger Facebook could be in the mobile market.

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Apple's approach has always been the opposite. Although Steve Jobs seems to be slacking lately on their hyper-secretive product planning--they offered a rare preview in the lead up to this year's Worldwide Developer's Conference--the "Jobs to announce new iPhone?" types of headlines are still very ubiquitous and very popular. (Let's not forget about the gangbusters post on Gizmodo's leaked images of the iPhone 4, months before the release. With nearly 13.5 million pageviews, it may well be that blog's most read post ever.) But Facebook is a very different company than Apple. They're not trying to sell phones or computers, but rather time spent on their site. More specifically, ads whose prices skyrocket with more time spent on site and more socializing in between users.

What better way to tease people into trying out a new feature than by literally teasing them. We're back to the candy carrot on a stick method. Facebook leaks offer a little tastes of the sweetness in the form of screen shots, nuggets of detail and enthusiastic bloggers like Siegler. "Things are about to get a lot more interesting in the mobile space," he declares at the end of his post on Project Spartan. "More to come." As the leaked iPhone photos proved, readers love to look at the actual product. And as shattered iPhone 4 sales records reveal, they also love to turn around and buy the actual product.

Speaking of which, here's the other thing, a mobile photo sharing app that puts Facebook in the same arena as the very popular Instagram and Path, the stealthy startup founded by early Facebook employee Dave Morin and Sean Fanning of Napster fame. As Morin and Fanning tried to keep the details a secret while in development, Facebook leaking their plan is kind of a slap in the face. Bet you can't wait to check it out after checking out the sneak preview:

Update: We reached out to Siegler before publishing this post about how the leaks made it his way but unfortunately didn't hear back in time to include his comments. (Of course, we weren't asking him to reveal his sources but just wanted to learn more about his process.) Siegler explained in an email: "I'm obviously not going to reveal my sources, but I can tell you they are not within Facebook. Nor is Facebook happy about us running either of those stories. Sometimes leaks are intentional, and sometimes they're just good reporting or snooping."

Now's a good time to clarify that the Facebook product team are, at best, accidental geniuses.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.