In 2010, Facebook is setting out to structure a social layer of the web, indexing web pages and objects by harnessing what its users say about them, including whether those users like them or not, and what they tag within them.
Already, Facebook Connect offers authentication services for more than 80,000 web sites, soon to include the mega-portal Yahoo, in order to inject them with its users’ social relationships and sharing. As a broad trend, it’s clear at this point that nearly everything — even credit card transactions — can be made social.
Om and I had the chance to spend some time at Facebook this week and hear a bit more about where the company is headed this year. Here’s my analysis of what they told us.
People Are the Web
Facebook’s core asset is its social graph — a diagram of people and their connections. Now that it’s successfully mapped people to one another, it wants to map their connections to the rest of the web and by extension, the rest of the world.
The goal in doing so, as the folks at the company told us over and over again, is to build an understanding of Facebook users’ identity — what they like, what they associate themselves with, who they are. The corollary of making something social is making it personalized.
Privacy concerns notwithstanding, this wealth of information and customization can be put to a greater good. As Marc Davis, former chief scientist of Yahoo Mobile and founder of Invention Arts, said at a recent GigaOM bunker series event (see related GigaOM Pro write-up, subscription required): “Human beings understand context from their relationships, but computers do not, so if we can use metadata to help computers understand where, when and how the metadata was created, we build better context for data.” That’s what Facebook is after. But in order to do so, the company needs to look beyond the confines of its own web service. And it is.
Facebook.com: Means To an End
Facebook.com is just a web site, or as platform engineering head Mike Vernal described it, “info aggregation with a great photos app.” Now the company wants to blur the barriers between it and the rest of the web. Already, the site’s “Fan Box” widget — which allows users to become fans of a company or person from their web page — gets 15 billion impressions per month. “We want these actions to become possible wherever they’re most natural,” said Vernal. Soon, using the company’s announced open graph API, users will be able to become a fan of any page on the Internet. The API essentially turns a regular web page into a Facebook page, giving it the ability to collect fans, publish stories to their Facebook stream, and appear in the social networking site’s search results.
That little action could initiate a huge shift. On the one hand, becoming a fan of a web page rather than a Facebook page gives power back to sites so they can host their own experiences instead of sending people to someone else’s URL (aka facebook.com/absolut). On the other, it gives Facebook an immense amount of information about what people like, and could allow the company to reorganize the web via a sort of next generation of Google PageRank — call it “FriendRank.” Facebook will have a better understanding of what web pages are relevant and interesting because it knows how many people, and specifically people you know, are fans of it.
Though Facebook fan pages on the surface seem like a response to Twitter — allowing celebrities to collect fans who are not actually their real-world friends — they’re bigger than that. Facebook has trained 350 million users to publicly post personal endorsements. In other words, it has an army of volunteers ready to organize the web on its behalf.
In Google’s Face
Now, Facebook is clearly poking Google. Where Google is about the wisdom of crowds, Facebook is about the wisdom of friends, said Elliot Schrage, VP of global communications, marketing and public policy — who formerly held a similar role at the search giant.
As Om wrote last year, this is actually a significant threat to Google (“Why Google Should Fear the Social Web,” subscription required):
In our modern, highly networked lives it is getting increasingly difficult to find relevant information on the web, quickly. The 10 blue links paradigm, popularized by Google, appears to be reaching its limits. While this seek-search-and-consume methodology has become part of our basic Internet behavior and turned Google into a gazillion-dollar company, it may be time for us to look for alternatives.
And this isn’t just about “fanning.” Besides being a fan of a brand or friends with a person, a third kind of Facebook relationship is that of being connected to a photo, post or video because someone else tagged you in it. That’s another thing Facebook wants to extend beyond its site. For instance, said Vernal, if you were tagged in a photo on Flickr, Facebook would bring that photo into its own list of photos of you.
So can Facebook achieve this vision? Not in a single year. And probably not without becoming more open (on that front, Om and I also visited with Facebook’s Senior Open Programs Manager David Recordon, but that’s a whole ‘nother story). But if the web is going to become people-powered, Facebook is the company that’s going to do it.
Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my bio.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gauldo.