Why Netflix, Spotify and others are friending Facebook

Facebook's big new features have been designed not only to lure users into sharing more of their activity with the social network, but to get big media brands on board with the promise of discovery.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg details how music your friends have listened to will now show up on the service.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg details how music your friends have listened to will now show up on the service. James Martin/CNET

Facebook is angling to be the entertainment industry's next taste maker.

While CEO Mark Zuckerberg today wowed the crowd of its F8 developer conference with a nifty looking new Timeline feature, the company's latest vision of how much information others should see, and how it's being shared is the change that will affect users -- and Hollywood -- in the months to come.

For proof, look no further than Facebook's new slew of media partnerships, which include big entertainment names like Netflix, Spotify, and Hulu, along with media outlets like USA Today, The Guardian, and The Independent. Facebook's promise to the big guys and up and comers is that plugging your services into the company's new Social Graph technologies can lead to very good things.

Facebook is sitting on two gold mines -- years of customer data and subtle, online peer pressure that could introduce content to people in ways that just a few years ago didn't seem possible.

To drive that point home, Zuckerberg brought up Spotify's CEO Daniel Ek, who said that users who play music through Spotify on Facebook not only listen to more of it, but also listen to a wider selection of music and are more likely to pay for it legally. "We're bringing people back to pay for music again," Ek gushed.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings piled on with similar praise, saying the Facebook's social news feed had gotten him to watch a the TV show "Breaking Bad" based on passive peer pressure. The show had been recommended to him through Netflix's own algorithms, but it took seeing a friend watching it in the social network's activity feed for him to hit play. Whether that anecdote is real or not, Zuckerberg's point is that information is more powerful when it's tied to people and applications.

How Facebook plans to do that was the focus of today's event, with Zuckerberg laying out how the company can evolve its feed driven site to one where information is filed away into three different categories: the real-time ticker, on your news feed, and in the timeline.

Those real-time items come in the form of a ticker that spews the latest friend activity in a non-stop flow. For media apps this means if you're reading something, and it's somehow connected to Facebook, that activity gets posted for others to see while they're cruising around the site. The new hook today is that others can join in on that, whether it's listening to music, reading a story, or watching a video.

On top of that, there's the new Timeline feature, which takes news that spills off the ticker, and a user's news feed and puts it in a nifty looking archive. Users can scroll through this to see what Facebook deems as the highlights, or dig deep to see every scrap of activity.

Powering it all is a new version of the company's "Open Graph" that lets app builders narrow down those types of activities into information that gets spit out for others to see, and letting them control how it looks once it's there.

Related links
• What Facebook announced at F8 today
• Five things to know about the new Facebook
• How to sign up for Facebook Timeline now

As for what media companies are supposed to do with this is where it gets interesting. The new idea is that these companies can tap into branches of the Open Graph, picking what kinds of activities users should be sharing with others. Zuckerberg explained that up until now, this strategy has worked well for naturally social applications like games and communication tools, but that other things like media and personal activities have been harder to integrate.

One of those has been video content, which has come into its own in recent years, with numerous media companies deciding to stream their libraries. Facebook's answer to that is to make a trade: give us a way to capture activity data from users on your site, and we'll post it back on Facebook. In return, companies like Netflix, and Hulu can pull in more potentially paying users, who want to watch what their friends are listening to.

That same idea plays out into written content as well, with news services getting into the mix. What's interesting there, is that unlike the video services, companies like The Washington Post, and New Corp.'s The Daily are running their written content within Facebook, keeping users inside the walls of the social network. This is a massively different strategy from how Facebook was courting media companies before, offering users a way to "like" content on remote news sites, and comment on stories using their Facebook login.

Perhaps most important in all this is the long term approach. Not just with the number of companies that are likely to jump on board Facebook's newest sharing plan, but how far back Facebook is now making that data available. With the new Timeline feature, that's as far back as when a user first joined the service (and even further if a user decides to add more).

For companies willing to join in Facebook's plan, they could be glimpsing a proverbial long tail of information they never even know existed.

 

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