Facebook just shook the tech world by announcing several major initiatives that collectively constitute an aggressive move to weave the social net on top of the existing Web.The rumors were that the leading social network would launch a "Like" button for the entire Web. Instead, Zuckerberg & Co. unveiled a bold and visionary new platform that cannot be ignored.
The bits of this platform bring together the visions of a social, personalized and semantic Web that have been discussed since del.icio.us pioneered Web 2.0 back in 2004. Facebook's vision is both minimalistic and encompassing - but its ambition is to kill off its competition and use 500 million users to take over entire Web.
Whether we like it (pun intended) or not, we have to understand what this move means. It impacts users, publishers, competitors and, of course, Facebook itself. In this post, we summarize what Facebook announced and ponder the impact this will have on everyone.
Facebook Open Graph: Publisher Plugins
The Open Graph is a set combination of publisher plugins, semantic markup and a developer API.
Login with Faces & Facepile: The simpler publisher plugins enhance Facebook Connect. They makes it easy and compelling to sign in by leveraging Facebook cookies and showing faces of Facebook friends who are already members of the service.
Like Button and Like Box: These plugins add the liking feature to any content, typically the whole page. Both can be enhanced with semantic markup, described below. But the very basic intent for these is to get users to Like on the site and post a link to Facebook, which is then permanently stored on a user's profile and points back to the original site.
Activity Feed and Live Stream: These plugins show static and dynamic activity on the site. Activity Feed lists recent likes and comments from the site, while Live Stream shows a real-time view of activity on the site and is intended for interactive events.
Recommendations: This plugin surfaces personalized recommendations for the user based on what friends and everyone else is liking on the site. It is intended to drive the users to other pages on the site.
Facebook Open Graph: Semantic Markup
Facebook announced simple, RDF-based markup to make the plugins smarter. In a nutshell, the markup enables publishers to say what object is on the page - a movie, a book, a recording artist, an event, a sports team, etc. This automatically enables semantics, that is, an understanding that the user is not just interacting with a webpage, but that he or she is liking a specific kind of thing. Semantics then leads to bucketing of the objects into categories like books, movies, music, etc., and gives rise to all sort of applications, including personalized recommendations.
Perhaps even more importantly, the markup helps Facebook connect the users across common interests across different websites. For example, if both Pandora and Last.fm annotate a page about The Beatles using Facebook's markup, then users will be able to see their friends, who like the Beatles across different sites. This is very significant, because the data around friends is sparse and scattered around the sites. Previously, Facebook would surface this data in the stream without persisting it. Now, the information about a friend's likes of movies, music, books, recording artists, events, sports team, etc. will be permanent on Facebook profiles and readily available in context around the Web.
Facebook Open Graph: New API
The new Facebook API is elegant and streamlined. It makes it easy to access user information (with permission of course) such as profile, friends, etc. All of the calls are REST based and return JSON objects. For example, my profile information can be fetched like this: http://graph.facebook.com/alexiskold. The authentication is based on OAuth 2.0 protocol and makes it simple not only to connect, but to also prompt for permissions to access user information.
This new API turns Facebook into a read/write storage of users' tastes. And not just one user - all Facebook users.
Implications for the Users
With this release, Facebook asks users if they are willing to trade off privacy for personalization. To be clear, no personalization is ever possible without users telling a system about their tastes. What Facebook is asking for is necessary in order to then create personalized Web experience. Whether users want this sort of thing is a different question, but assuming that you want to know more about your friends you will.
Friends' interests around entertainment, sports, travel, etc. will be categorized and available. It will be easy to figure out what your friends are into both on Facebook and around the Web. In addition, Facebook is going to be using its own engine to bring you recommendations for related content. This will further accelerate the discovery and cross linking between friends. This will likely further impact the amount of search people do around the Web. As Fred Wilson pointed out - passed links replace search.
Yet, the crux of user implications is neither of the above, but one single issue: privacy. It is unclear at this point that this issue is a concern for actual Facebook users, but it is clear that tech world is raising its eyebrows: Marshall Kirkpatrick, Dave Winer, Jeff Jarvis and many others expressed their concerns. People are saying that not only Facebook will know too much about us (because Google is already there today), but that it will be able to control too much.
Personally, I am skeptical that the average Facebook user is going to care all that much. People are notoriously naive about being watched on the Web, and this is likely to be no exception. More likely than not, Facebook users will enjoy the personalization aspects of the new platform and won't think much about it - until Facebook starts openly targeting them.
This was not been part of f8 of course, but Facebook is likely to use the information for targeting. After all, advertising is a major part of its monetization already so why won't it make it even better? If this targeting is too spot on, lots of users will probably get annoyed. Facebook is likely to sooth them via Facebook credits and heavy discounts, negotiated because of their massive volume.
How exactly users react remains to be seen, but they will probably like the new Facebook more because of increased relevancy and interaction with friends around the Web.
Implications for Publishers
On the surface, this Facebook offering is a no-brainer for publishers. Who does not want more social activity on their site? However, in reality this is far from a slam dunk. To understand why, consider two types of sites: sites that are either social networks or have social networking integrated, and the sites that have their own commenting and ratings systems. In the first camp you will find Last.fm, Flixster, Goodreads, etc. None of these sites were a launch partner, understandably so. Social connections around music, movies and books are their bread and butter as are the ratings, reviews and recommendations. If they switch to Facebook for all of this, what do they have left?
So any site that already has social networking built in has to decide to abandon that before jumping into the Facebook Open Graph. The even worse problem is the ownership of ratings and comments. Are publishers really ready to give that up? Nobody seriously thinks that users are going to be rating through Facebook and then through the site again. So how is this going to work? It is unclear at this point, but it's likely publishers will ask for ways to replicate or export comments and likes that users sent to Facebook via their site. Perhaps an open API that allows publishers to manipulate the data is the answer, but it is easy to see how some publishers would be very concerned.
However, if you run a website like eCommerce or a blog or a service like Pandora that currently does not have a lot of social built-in, this offering is a no-brainer as it will instantly start recycling your pages through the massive Facebook power of passed links.
Implications for Competitors
This is aggressive and brilliant move by Facebook - and Twitter, Google, Yahoo, MySpace, AOL, eBay, Amazon and others, except for Microsoft, should be really worried. It appears that Microsoft is content with just partnering with Facebook, perhaps rightly so. Possibly a Bing deal is in the works, which would make a lot of sense.
For all other players on the Web, the worry is that Facebook is trying to close the loop in exclusively owning user eyeballs. Apparently Facebook is not content with just connecting people; it wants to connect people and things. And not only that, it wants to do it around the Web. And not just any people - friends. You don't need to look too closely to see that Facebook is creating a feedback loop, which includes it, users and the rest of the Web and excludes its competitors.
There are several things that other big players might try to do, the worst of which is to try to mimic Facebook. The "me too" that we've seen way too many times recently has not worked, and will not work now. The second best choice is to try to block it. As strange as it sounds it might just work. Between publisher and user issues there are a lot of concerns, and a carefully orchestrated and coordinated campaign may seriously hurt this initiative. Remember, Beacon was brought down fairly quickly by a combination of user backlash and derogatory press.
The third option - to embrace and extend this platform, to innovate on top of it - is likely to be the best move. Innovation has always trumped stagnation on the Web. The problem is that it might not be that easy to embrace this initiative. After all, it does not look like Facebook asked everyone to gather around the table and cooperate on this. It might not be open to cooperation, but if it is then this is the way forward.
Technically speaking, what Facebook has done is elegant and correct. From markup, to plugins, to API, all of it is modern and awesome. The missing bit is that Facebook appears to be the only repository of data in this equation - and that makes the whole offering seriously closed. Publishers and users don't have a choice as to where to store the data. It is going to Facebook and Facebook alone. Perhaps there is a way to rework the system in a way that fixes that. We will look forward to see how this unfolds.
Implications for Facebook
Clearly this announcement is yet another turning point for Facebook. Before the conference Facebook was the biggest social network on the planet. If its vision actually happens, Facebook will be the biggest network of people and things on the planet- or to put it differently, it will be the taste graph of the planet.
Obviously there is a different technology that Facebook will need to be building. It already perfected the social networking part, but semantic analysis, recommendation systems, vertical categories like movies and books, as well as having completely open read/write storage of tastes is completely new to the team. The biggest challenge that Facebook will face is to inject, re-deliver and most importantly make use of the data that is flowing into it.
Facebook will be doing some serious number crunching and UI revamps to prepare for this next phase of its life. But perhaps the biggest experiment and test will be delivering relevancy. Google succeed with this in search; Facebook will now have the challenge to bring relevancy to the recommendations and taste-based advertising arena.
Implications For the Semantic Web
One of the most exciting parts of the Facebook announcement to me personally is the possible breakthrough in semanticizing the Web. We've written previously about the Semantic Web here, and it has been a personal passion of mine. What Facebook has done has a chance to make vast parts of the consumer Web including movies, books, music, events, sports, and news semantically tagged. Publishers and websites finally have a strong incentive to mark things up and get return traffic from Facebook.
The actual protocol that Facebook suggested is very simple. To describe the object on the page, the site owner needs to specify the title, type of the object, image, url and the name of the site using simple meta tags. The format is extensible and additional tags can be added. For example, for a book a site can add an isbn number. This format leaves room for ambiguity. The goal of classic semantic markups traditionally has been to refer to entities precisely; for example adding the director to a movie, or a year to remakes. The Facebook protocol does not seem to have this.
There were lots of previous efforts to markup the Web. To name a few, RDF, microformats, Google Rich Snippets, Yahoo's Search Monkey (based on RDF and microformats), and lastly, abmeta, which was developed by me with help from Peter Mika at Yahoo. Of all these formats, Facebook's is most similar to abmeta because the markup is placed into meta tags, and is simple and human readable. This simplicity is the key to broad adoption.
So all around, this is a great chance for the Semantic Web to finally hit consumer verticals and become real.
Implications for Developers
Every new rich platform that has been rolled out in the past couple of years presented a big opportunity for developers and this one will be no exception. While we do not know exactly what sort of applications will be build on top of new Facebook, we know that they will be very powerful. This platform has the potential to give rise to to new kind of personalization and attention economy that people have been talking about for years. It has of course, a chance to majorly backfire, but I am optimistic.
This will be a gold rush for application that is likely to last for at least a year, like the last one did. It's too early to tell whether this will be a platform that survives and does not hurt is participants. However, it is very likely that the best applications built on this platform will be owned by Facebook. Still, there is a huge new opportunity here for developers and the sky is the limit.
Facebook made a major chess move. It might have checkmated its competitors, or perhaps it might have to lose another piece like it lost Beacon. Whichever is the case, right now there are deep implications for Facebook and its competitors, publishers, users and the Web at large. What Facebook has announced cannot be ignored and can not be undone. Everyone needs to figure out the next steps and understand what to do.
Time will tell where we land, but my gut is that positive things will come out of this. If nothing else, let's give Facebook credit for innovation and re-imagination the Web.