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The Dawn of Facebook's People-organized Web

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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. Means To an End 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 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.

29 Responses to “The Dawn of Facebook's People-organized Web”

  1. Very insightful post. I was not aware that they were rolling out ‘friending’ of sites outside of their pages- I guess I never had a good enough explanation of how Connect works though I’ve been using it. These guys are going to own the world. For some interesting stats that support this check out my blog (above).


    Thank you for opening my eyes to another view of how social networking is changing the nature of the internet and of search. The wisdom of friends (a friend is a “FAN”!) may be better than the wisdom of crowds, though I have to think about that for a while. I agree with Om that the GOOG’s “ten blue links” paradigm is reaching its limit. I’ve been using kosmix and it appears to have a different approach to search. I am now contemplating how to communicate Liz’s eye-opening thoughts to my customers!

  3. People seem to be in the habit of dumping social networking services as they become outmoded, or downright embarrassing to continue using. The novelty of talking to strangers in chat rooms gave way to connecting and then reconnecting with friends, but there may come a time when sharing our personal lives so publicly loses its shine. If Facebook strips down the layers that people tend to secure themselves behind out in the wild Internet, it may transform from a means of connection into a burden involving hypervigilant monitoring of data users may not wish to share across multiple services.

    The web saw a gradual adoption of etiquette that keeps most of us from assaulting each other with too much of what we happen to be looking at online at any given second. I imagine Facebook believes fanning will increase under the new concept, but I don’t think anyone wants the Facebook experience to become tantamount to a massive cc: fest. It currently excels at facilitating connection with others on a personal, yet arm’s length level, whereas Twitter has taken over the sharing of information at seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum: both the ultra-personal and the actually useful. I don’t see a particularly elegant way for Facebook to commingle a relatively guarded form of communication with a free-for-all of sharing without becoming a chore machine.

    By encouraging people to share and do more, the new Facebook could easily amplify its own failure. As with Myspace, people eventually grow up, at which time their old social networking page becomes a testament to a bunch of lame things they used to like, and a liability. And the dumping commences.

    • I am with you on the risk of “testament to a bunch of lame things they used to like,” and I think there’s got to be a better way to treat the time frame of these endorsements. However the connections I see on Facebook at this point — for instance with my older relatives — are beyond the level of a MySpace fad.

  4. I think there’s no escaping the people-powered web. I’m not so sure though about Facebook being the one bringing it about. Facebook may be the one to do it, but surprises aren’t rare in the history of the web (including Facebook and Google themselves). Then, in a people-powered web, I think content mapping will be a more natural and reliable way of creating a machine readable context than metadata. I recently posted a short article about this on my blog (The Noisy Web):

  5. Brendan

    The ability to target users, as a result of the open graph API, has an overwhelming amount of potential for advertisers. However, Facebook is becoming so feature intensive its already become clunky. I wonder, how much more can they can cram into the site without creating so much clutter and confusion that it becomes a turn off for users and they lose momentum?