To connect the world, Facebook builds human networks, not just physical ones

Ime Archibong, VP of product partnerships at Facebook, discusses “the multiplier effect.” Watch more day one keynotes here. Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

In 2014, Facebook Vice President of Product Partnerships Ime Archibong met Chisenga Muyoya, co-founder of the women’s rights nonprofit Asikana Network, at BongoHive, a tech hub in Lusaka, Zambia. Muyoya and her team were just launching an application to help Zambians understand women’s rights — on the Free Basics platform, which targets mobile phone users in emerging markets. The moment stuck with Archibong, who travels the world to meet with developers, and often speaks on Facebook’s behalf about the possibilities that access to the internet can unleash.

“For us to ever actually build anything of consequence, we have to figure out ways to invest in one another and build together to make it meaningful,” Archibong said Tuesday before an audience of thousands at the F8 conference in San Jose, California.

He talked about a macroeconomic concept called the multiplier effect, explaining how when an input changes, like a government building a road, it leads to a larger change in output, like easier transportation, distribution of goods, and increased commerce and trade. He explained how Facebook can achieve similar outcomes by investing in their community of builders and turning them into multipliers.  

“Based on our track record over the last decade with this community right here, I actually think the same concept applies to us in this room,” he said.

On Tuesday, at its annual F8 developer conference, Facebook announced a new initiative called Developer Circles, which connects developers on a local level to collaborate, learn and code with each other. Developer Circles are led by local volunteers and community members, Archibong said, standing before a picture of a man named Innocent, who launched Developer Circles Lagos last May, drawing 1,500 members to his circle for meetups on things such as building bots for Facebook Messenger.

This was just one moment from F8 illustrating how Facebook is thinking beyond products, such as Messenger, Instagram, and Oculus, and programs — such as FbStart, which supports early stage startups — and doing more to invest in the people around the world who will build on the platform to solve real problems.                            

Ten years ago, when Facebook was a three-year old startup, it brought 800 developers together at its first F8 conference. This week, 4,000 developers from all over the world gathered for the annual developer conference, with others tuning in via livestream or in gatherings at a range of meetups all over the world. Facebook now reaches close to 2 billion users, with hundreds of thousands of developers building products using the platform all over the world, and 80 percent of them living outside the United States.

In many ways, this F8 looked a lot like the conferences of years past. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared onstage in his gray shirt and blue jeans. Developers chatted with Facebook representatives at booths representing major initiatives, or talked about the latest releases in cushy white couches under a mockup of the Aquila drone, a solar-powered drone that delivers WiFi with a wingspan longer than a 737 airplane. And everyone in attendance on day two went home with a Giroptic iO 360 degree camera, building on the Samsung Gear VR giveaways last year. But what seemed most noteworthy for the global development community is that, in its work to connect the world, Facebook seems to be acknowledging the importance of the human network in addition to the physical network.

“We now have unbelievable brands and a thriving developer ecosystem on the platform, but one thing we didn’t expect was how some of the experiences that you’ve all built have impacted the world in a very positive way,” said David Marcus, vice president of messaging products, before a picture of one of more than 2,000 volunteer translators working with Tarjimly, a Facebook Messenger bot that provides refugees with real time translation services. “These are my favorite examples of the impact of our work, and when I say our work, I mean the work that all of you in this room and on the livecast have put on the Messenger platform in the last 12 months.”

Last year, Facebook hosted a private daylong event ahead of F8 called good@f8. This year, there was not a separate event focused on social good, but Facebook offered complimentary registrations to the developers who attended good@f8 and convened a special event for developers working on the Free Basics platform. Meetups like these allow the team at Facebook to provide support to people building on their platform, and as Atif Javed, co-founder of Tarjimly, experienced, these conversations can sometimes turn into high profile moments at F8.

Atif Javed, cofounder of Tarjimly, speaks with Devex about his work building a bot to support refugees.

Elizabeth Portilla, who teaches young women how to code as part of the team at the social enterprise Laboratoria in Peru, said that while Developer Circles is a powerful initiative, Facebook cannot do it alone, adding that the company will need to work in partnership with local organizations to strengthen internet ecosystems.

“The way I see it, Facebook gives us powerful tools, but organizations like us, and the developers community in general, have to make the move, to multiply the effect they want to have in the world,” she told Devex.

One barrier she mentioned was language, explaining that while English is the lingua franca, or common language, in technology, it can alienate some people with potential.

“We need to find better ways to communicate and engage more diverse people into the tech world,” she said, noting that Laboratoria has been funded by Google and the Inter-American Development Bank, and adding that the global development community plays a critical role in supporting responses to the problem of diversity in tech.

Facebook Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer discusses what Facebook is doing over the next decade when it comes to connectivity, artificial intelligence, VR, and AR. Watch more day two keynotes here. Screengrab from: Facebook for Developers

On day two of F8, Facebook provided an update on Facebook’s connectivity efforts. Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer mentioned projects, including Terragraph, which is designed to bring high speed internet to dense urban areas and is being piloted a few blocks from the F8 venue in San Jose, and the Open Cellular Project, an open source wireless access platform designed so that anyone can build and operate wireless networks in remote areas.

Yael Maguire, who runs Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, announced a new initiative that could bring internet access to people in emergencies. The tether-tenna is a small helicopter-drone that can bring instant infrastructure during times of crisis. It’s too early to tell how valuable this will be to humanitarian responders and the people they serve who deal with connectivity challenges day in and day out. But what was telling in terms of the evolution of strategy at Facebook was what Maguire said in closing: "If we want to build communities that work for everyone, we need to build connectivity that works for everyone."

Facebook, along with technology companies ranging from Microsoft in Seattle, Washington, to Huawei in Shenzhen, China, has an interest not only in extending internet connectivity globally, but also building the capacity of coders, programmers and engineers in emerging markets. “Supply side is the infrastructure and affordability, and demand side is having the skills and awareness to use it, as well as having the content,” Alex Wong, head of Global Challenge Partnerships and member of the Executive Committee at the World Economic Forum, told Devex. He explained that people need to know what the internet is, see a reason to use it, and have access to local content in their language for internet access to turn into internet usage.

Megan Witmer, research manager at Facebook, shares her tips for international research at F8. Watch the full session here. Screengrab from: Facebook for Developers

Megan Witmer, research manager at Facebook, has conducted eight international research trips spanning 10 countries in the past four years. She spoke with audience members about building valuable products at scale for a global market in a session called “International Research: Gaining Cultural Context for Scalable Solutions.” She asked the audience to think beyond technical challenges, including variability in device type or connectivity, and to consider cultural context.

“What is the culture, the environment, and the social norms that might be affecting the success of your product?” she asked. “What works and what doesn’t through the eyes of people in those regions?”

Facebook Research has done more than 170 international projects spanning 39 countries in 2016 alone, with the goal being to see Facebook products through the eyes of people using them, in their own environment, Witman said. Since Free Basics was banned in India, where regulators said providing access to only certain internet services violated net neutrality rules, the company seems to be taking a number of steps to take local context into consideration. For example, Facebook has ramped up its hiring of individuals focused on adoption and inclusion, and this year its F8 conference featured sessions geared toward its international audience, including “A Startup Journey from an Emerging Market” and “What can be Learned from China's Mobile Economy Boom in Past 5 Years?”

"The key to any country's internet growth, and vibrant internet ecosystem, and capability of standing on its own feet, is strong local technical expertise," said Steven Huter, director of the Network Startup Resource Center, which works with local engineers and operators to develop and maintain internet infrastructure in countries around the world. "When the model is ‘can we do this with drones and laser beams and external connectivity of some sort and drop in what they need,’ I always feel that’s an incomplete solution. It doesn’t address how at the end of day the countries that have fared the best are those that have developed their own critical mass of locals in their countries who are a part of building their internet ecosystem."

While the F8 conference is intended for web development professionals, not global development professionals, the team at Facebook, which is expanding its work with nonprofits and NGOs, is broadening the definition of its community of builders.

“These days, more and more nontechnical types — be it a musician, an NGO, an artist, a marketer, a business owner — are finding value in our products and using them to fuel their ambition,” Archibong said. “These folks too are multipliers and these folks too are part of this community.”

For more Devex coverage of innovation, visit Focus On: Innovation

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.