Manifest destiny at Facebook's F8 confab

Third F8 conference promises a rare look at the company's inner workings for developers and advertisers who use the social network as the basis for their businesses.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read

I once got into a debate with someone over the proper pronunciation of "F8," the name of Facebook's sort-of-annual developer conference.

I pronounced F8 as the letter F followed by the number 8, saying I believed the name referred to the fact that the event involved an eight-hour "hackathon" right after the original debut of Facebook's groundbreaking developer platform. My partner in conversation, himself a developer, said he'd assumed it was pronounced "fate." Correct or not, he had the right idea. The logo for F8 2010, appropriately enough, depicts a tiny F next to a massive 8 in a black circle that evokes the fortune-telling billiard ball of yore sitting atop a complex map of what appear to be random points and connections.

This year, more than ever, F8 is going to be Facebook's pitch to developers, advertisers, and the world: You are destined to be part of our Web, and our universe.

Though the company's formal libretto of announcements has yet to be released, all signs point to F8 2010 as a place where Facebook will chart its next great land grab, asserting its impending dominance over online niches the company does not yet control. There may be an announcement about geolocation, the GPS-fueled craze that's currently owned by start-up Foursquare. There will likely be more news about "Credits," Facebook's gaming-focused virtual currency system.

There is expected to be further detail about the "universal 'like' button" or toolbar that Facebook plans to release to third-party publishers, and probably more about "Community Pages," a curious new feature that Facebook announced earlier this week.

Facebook wants to be everywhere. The "like" button announcement signifies that Facebook Connect, the big product release from F8 2008 (there wasn't one in '09--no reason given), just wasn't enough when it comes to Facebook's presence across the Web. It's also got fresh competition from Twitter, which may prove to be Facebook's strongest competitor since it tasked itself with unseating MySpace in market share. At one point, everyone expected Facebook's eventual big rival to be Google, which instead has tallied a history of social-media missteps.

Last week, Twitter held its first-ever developer conference, called Chirp, and all signs point to the microblogging company evolving far beyond a parade of 140-character messages from tech pundits, celebrities, and news outlets. Twitter plans to launch metadata annotations, a geolocation directory, its own URL shortener, and potentially more internal applications like the mobile clients it announced for iPhone and BlackBerry.

Facebook's response to Twitter's growth: Grow bigger. That's what we'll be seeing at F8.

But as with any bold, brash, go-forth rhetoric, there has been extensive scrutiny of some of Facebook's practices that highlights the company's status as hanging somewhere between innovative, can-do start-up and Google-like thousand-eyed conglomerate. It's a level of critique that Twitter, which Facebook once tried to acquire, hasn't achieved yet.

Much of this has to do with privacy. Anil Dash, the former Six Apart evangelist who is now in charge of "government 2.0" nonprofit Expert Labs, posted to Twitter on Tuesday: "Will someone ask (CEO Mark Zuckerberg) why he doesn't use Facebook's default privacy at F8 tomorrow? If it's not good enough for him then why's it OK for us?"

The Electronic Frontier Foundation also expressed deep concern over modifications to Facebook's privacy policy released in conjunction with the "Community Pages" announcement, as well as worries about how the new product ties into members' listed interests on Facebook.

"The new connections features benefit Facebook and its business partners, with little benefit to you," a blog post from EFF senior staff attorney Kurt Opsahl reads. "But what are you going to do about it? Facebook has consistently ignored demands from its users to create an easy 'exit plan' for migrating their personal data to another social networking Web site, even as it has continued--one small privacy policy update after another--to reduce its users' control over their information."

There has been industry concern, too. Earlier this week, a coalition led by instant-message software company Meebo launched XAuth, which Meebo describes as "an open framework to enable the social Web," but which really means "a non-proprietary alternative to sharing on Facebook."

Industrywide attempts to create reactionary products to Facebook's have not had the greatest success. After Facebook launched its developer platform three years ago--has it really been that long?--Google soon was spearheading a project called OpenSocial, designed to create a universal alternative to Facebook widgets. In the wake of Facebook Connect's development, Google launched Google Friend Connect. Facebook has eclipsed both Google initiatives, and though Google's Buzz service is a partner in XAuth, it's Meebo that's doing the PR work this time.

But so far, Facebook has been unstoppable. And the sheer breadth of expected announcements at F8 2010 will likely be some kind of indicator as to whether this streak will continue--or whether Facebook's ongoing land grab has encroached upon hostile territory.