Turning the Social Network Inside Out: What the Changes at Facebook Mean For Apple and Google-and You

One of the most persistent criticisms of Facebook is that it’s trying to build a “walled garden” analogous to AOL’s dialup service in the 1980s and early 1990s. Blogger Jason Kottke said it in 2007. Tim Berners-Lee said it in Scientific American in 2010. Google’s Vint Cerf revived the meme earlier this week at an event organized by the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper: “You can’t stay locked into a closed environment for very long before people will start demanding that it open up so that it becomes more interoperable with everything else,” Cerf said.

The tech blog VentureBeat repeated the hoary accusation in a September 20 article about the Wall Street Journal’s new Facebook app, which highlights the articles your friends are reading. “New Walled Garden,” VentureBeat labeled the WSJ app, presumably because it lets users read articles from the newspaper from within Facebook, without ever going to the WSJ website. The delicious irony here is that VentureBeat’s article begins with a prominent Facebook “Like” button (it’s got more real estate than the Google +1, LinkedIn, and Twitter buttons combined) and ends with a Facebook social plugin showing thumbnail images of Facebook users who’ve Liked VentureBeat. If Facebook is a walled garden, there sure are a lot of players on the Web who want to get in.

But the truth is that the walled-garden trope was never very accurate: Facebook is a child of the open Web, and the company focuses on HTML-based delivery technologies almost to the exclusion of alternatives such as native mobile apps. And with this week’s announcements at f8, Facebook’s annual developer conference in San Francisco, the charge that Facebook is a closed environment rings even less true.

Forget about “Timeline,” the redesigned Facebook profile format that everyone is buzzing about; it’s pretty, I like it, and I’ll have more to say about it later, but the real news at f8 was about the coming expansion of what Facebook calls the Open Graph. This overhaul isn’t simply going to change how people spend time inside Facebook; it’s going to make it easier to find and share information across the digital universe. The changes will cement Facebook’s role as the default social fabric weaving together everything else on the Internet. And I think they herald an important redistribution of power within the triumvirate of Silicon Valley companies—Google, Apple, and Facebook—that currently dominate many people’s digital lives.

The crowd at f8 awaits Mark Zuckerberg's keynote talk.

Open Graph is the protocol that makes outside Web pages recognizable to Facebook’s infrastructure. When you click on a Like button at VentureBeat, Xconomy, or thousands of other sites, you’re using Open Graph to tell Facebook that it’s okay to publish updates about that site on your profile. Facebook said yesterday that it’s handing developers the ability to define new Open Graph actions and objects, which means the range of updates that sites and apps can send to Facebook is about to get a lot broader.

To quote from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s f8 keynote talk:

“Facebook’s mission is to make the world more open and connected. We do this by mapping out all of the things you are connected to…As a first step toward this we made it so you could connect to things by Liking them…This year we are taking the next step, so that you can connect to anything you want in any way you want. Now you don’t have to Like a book, you can just Read a book. You don’t have to Like a movie, you can just Watch a movie. You can Eat a meal, Hike a trail, Listen to a song, and connect to anything in any way you want. This will let you make an order of magnitude more connections than before. We are helping to define a new language for people to connect.”

Facebook is taking this “new language” idea quite literally. As Zuckerberg explained, the first iteration of Open Graph allowed lots of subjects and objects, but only one verb: Like. Now it’s letting outside developers add lots of new actions: “Mark reviewed a restaurant.” “Mark completed a 6.5 mile run.” “Mark listened to ’21 Guns’ by Green Day.” By dropping the right code into their website, Facebook apps, or mobile apps, developers can now cause almost any action to be published to their users’ Facebook profiles. And thanks to some additional changes, these sites and apps won’t have to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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