F8 and the Open Graph

Wot no geo?

I’ve been saying to people that I’m not too excited about the announcements from F8 last week. I suppose this is because I was expecting the announcement that many were – that Facebook would launch a geolocation service. I still expect they will (even if it’s by way of acquisition). With 400 times the user base of Foursquare, just imagine how much faster they could build their ‘places’ database than the numerous firms all racing to do so; and what a valuable chunk of data that would be too.

Well, we didn’t get that announcement, but it’s taken a few days to dawn on me that geolocation is only one part of a much bigger picture – and that announcement we did get. It’s the Open Graph.

The Open Graph

Graphing the social web was only the beginning. Connecting people to places may be an obvious next step, but a place is only one kind of ‘object’ and Facebook [it seems] want them all – Your dog, your favourite band, your kitchen sink. The location of all these objects will follow soon enough – the embryonic Open Graph protocol already has fields for geolocation and address information, it’s just that Facebook have been fairly quiet on the topic.

What’s most significant about the graphing of these objects is that it extends beyond Facebook’s walled garden to the wider web. Facebook has trained us like chimps to click ‘like’ buttons for [however long] and now these clicks are going to index the entire web for them. These humble little buttons can now be attached to anything, anywhere and the collected data will have real meaning as to what and where these things are.

The Semantic Web

As I tweeted from the F8 live stream, there are fairly obvious overlaps with Facebook’s Open Graph protocol and Twitter’s proposed annotations. Perhaps they have different goals, but they are both essentially an attempt to make sense of the vast amounts of data flowing through their networks. They in fact have similar goals to the elusive Semantic Web. If you tune out the marketing babble and social media pontification there are some huge issues here, privacy being an obvious one, but also we may ask: how ‘open’ is it?, why are they doing it? and who benefits?

Through open standards some very clever people have been trying to steer us toward the Semantic Web for years. Facebook could easily stroll along and “do a Microsoft” on the whole thing. Regardless of the word “open”, they are still a self-serving corporation and with their reach extending beyond the walls of facebook.com this can have a real impact on the future of the Internet.

I’m far from being an expert on the Semantic Web, but here’s what some real experts have to say about the Open Graph.

Who benefits?

Privacy and open standards aside, this was the first question that popped into my head when watching the F8 keynote. Before writing this post I Googled “who benefits from the open graph?” to see if anyone had already blogged it – it threw up a great post by Chris Messina, so I’ll try not to replicate what he has to say.

It was this brief twitter conversation that got me thinking about the parties involved and what they each have to gain from all of this. Take the new ‘like’ button process, which is equivalent now to opting in to a fan page. Of the three parties, the user appears to benefit the least.

  • Facebook get tonnes of data. (cue links to articles on “the price of free”). More fan pages will also drive more ad sales.
  • The advertiser (publisher/brand/whatever) gets to push more content to you and gets tonnes of stats into the bargain. Visit your favourite agency blog to read how brilliant for brands this is.
  • We get the thrill of seeing that we like the same thing as our friends (or not) and if it’s something we really like, we might enjoy the content that is subsequently pushed into our news feed.

Regardless of my usual cynicism and choice of imagery – I’m not saying any of this is bad, as a developer it’s pretty exciting (contradicts self).  I just think these questions need to be asked, and I wish all 400 million Facebook users would do the same.