What Facebook's latest means for the Web

The social network is pushing its presence out onto the Web at large--and in turn, pulling more data back in--with a suite of new products that are simultaneously groundbreaking and alarming.

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
5 min read

SAN FRANCISCO--It can't be explained as succinctly as "a widget platform" or "a universal log-in," but Facebook's panoply of announcements on Wednesday at the company's F8 developers conference reveal some of the social network's most audacious moves yet.

Facebook has now built deeper, stronger pipes that will pull in more information from partner sites and push more social-media capabilities out to them in turn--Open Graph, which integrates third-party data into Facebook in a far more complex way than its Facebook Connect predecessor; Social Plugins, which add a smattering of social features to those publishers; and the revamped Graph API, which overhauls Facebook's platform code to make it simpler and more flexible.

One of the promotional materials for an additional F8 debut, the nascent RFID-based project called Facebook Presence, quoted the "Back to the Future" line "where we're going, we don't need roads." That's sort of ironic, because the truth is that Facebook knows the social Web is in need of roads, so as to speak, and it has anointed itself as the builder and operator of that infrastructure.

This will affect everyone from the developers who filled the San Francisco Design Center Concourse's halls for CEO Mark Zuckerberg's keynote address, to digital publishers and other social-media sites, to each of Facebook's 400 million-plus members. It's also likely going to mean some changes in direction at the other companies that have built or are building tools that also want to lay the groundwork for a lasting social Web--and by this, I mean Twitter and Google.

Indeed, many of the concepts that Facebook executives unveiled aren't totally new ideas. They borrow, at least in theory, from everything from Google Friend Connect to Meebo's chat bar to Digg's thumbs-up buttons. But Facebook, once again, is using its melange of marketing, engineering, and design expertise, which draws the occasional comparison to Apple's, to pitch a subtle message to the developers and publishers of the Web: they can do it, but we can do it better. And people are buying it.

Throughout the course of Wednesday afternoon, the Social Plugins and Open Graph announcements started to roll out. Business reviews site Yelp, one of the companies that Zuckerberg highlighted in his keynote, will be bringing Facebook users' friends' Yelp activity to personalize the service when they visit--see which of their friends have given the Facebook "like" thumbs-up to a Yelp-listed business, and view a feed or their Facebook friends' reviews and commentary on Yelp, among other things.

Time magazine's Web site will be generating user recommendations based on what their Facebook friends have read and recommended, as well as more specialized recommendations that dive into that user's Facebook-listed interests. Denim label Levi's will be using the Facebook "Like" button to show members which clothing bears their friends' seal of approval. When Twitter detailed its "@Anywhere" product at its Chirp developer conference last week, many saw it as taking the philosophy behind Facebook Connect and taking it a step further. Well, now Facebook is axing Facebook Connect as we know it and taking another three or four steps forward.

You're going to hear a lot about metadata, the bits of information that piggyback on every individual piece of information that Facebook catalogs. There's also a lot being said about this because Twitter unveiled an interesting metadata-related project last week at its Chirp conference: "annotations," which permit developers to add arbitrary metadata to anything in Twitter's system. Both Facebook and Twitter see the potential for this to make individual pieces of data far more versatile. But it also means they're going to be fighting for developer attention.

But Facebook's aiming at targets much bigger than Twitter. One of the biggest announcements at F8 was Docs.com, unveiled by Microsoft--a big investor in Facebook--to allow Facebook members to share and collaborate on Office documents with their friends. It's safe to say this is directly aimed at Google Docs. And Facebook also hinted that its revamped Graph API will significantly enhance its search engine, once again pitting the company against Google--and now, to a lesser extent, Twitter--as the source for what's really happening online.

More importantly, Facebook wants to be the brand on the Web that can deftly handle the question of identity and how it's used in many shapes and forms online. This is where many critics' concerns begin. Web pioneer Dave Winer voiced his concerns that the concept of digital identity should not be the domain of a single company.

"I'm sure their software will scale. It certainly is well-designed. But Facebook is a company and we just can't go there," Winer wrote in a blog post Wednesday. "That's about all I have to say right now."

High-profile privacy advocates are undoubtedly weighing their rebuttals to Facebook's gospel of "openness"--if they haven't come out with statements already--and will soon be accusing it of betraying the once rock-solid promise it made to keep user data under lock and key.

There are concerns for publishers, too. One Facebook developer I spoke to said that he anticipates concern from companies not about the amount of data that Facebook will have access to as a result of "Open Graph," but the level of access that Open Graph will give to participating publishers about each other. They're going to be voluntarily releasing information that would have at one point been proprietary, and even if they trust Facebook with it, they might be uneasy about how it relates to their competitors who are also participating in Open Graph.

Many heads are spinning. Indeed, the arsenal of new products and platform upgrades unveiled at F8 on Wednesday mean that Facebook is suddenly branching into a spiderweb's worth of new directions, something appropriately illustrated by the mazes of connections in the background of the F8 promotional logo. There's a legitimate concern that it may be spreading itself too thin. But should all go well for Facebook (and recall that its product launches do sometimes go sour) this means that the company has formidably transformed into the force that will power the next era of the Web.

If you want to think about this in terms of bad '80s cartoons, the Internet is Voltron and Facebook just formed the head.