Last week at the Facebook developers conference, f8, the biggest social network in the world launched a whole host of new features that have got the social web folk in a bit of a state. Including that nice Ben Werdmuller chap and that very smart David Cushman fella. I agree with these posts to varying degrees but I also have an issue with the wholesale dismissal of Facebook as evil.
I won’t list the new features here, if you want to know more check out this nice roundup. The two big changes that have caused the most consternation are the timeline and the new capabilities of apps and the OpenGraph.
The timeline effectively makes it easier than ever for people to scroll through your Facebook history. Every thing you have ever posted, commented on or shared is right there in a nicely scrollable and searchable interface. I wonder if the people complaining about this are the same ones mourning the loss of Google Realtime Search?
The more controversial change is the way that apps can now update your profile. The Guardian app is a great example of how this works. You install the app and read the news stories you are interested in and this is then added to your profile. Now it goes without saying that this data is also shared with Facebook’s marketing partners as they seek ever more granular data on consumers. This change from active i.e. I choose what to share on my profile, to a more passive model i.e. What ever I interact with on Facebook could show up on my profile.
This is a major change to the way the social web works. I think it is fantastically brave and truly innovative. yes it may impact how we use the web (better not view this story it will show up on my profile) but change on this scale is truly fascinating. If you do want to play why not set up a completely private account with only one friend link i.e. Your own account, and then link this account to all the services that want it. See what this begins to look like with interaction from other services. Apparently this might break some terms and conditions though (sometimes Facebook do make it hard to defend them).
Facebook have changed the way we view our privacy in so many ways over the years. The original newsfeed was met with howls of derision and it is now the default model for pretty much every social app. It’s ill fated Beacon system was a bit too in your face with its marketing / sales intentions (but I think we are seeing elements of that reintroduced and I think there will be more). This new change shows how innovative Facebook are and how they are set on changing how vast swathes of the world interact and view (or maybe more aptly ignore) privacy.
We hear lots of people churn out innovation mantras such as ‘It is better to seek forgiveness than permission’ and ‘If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats’. Facebook is doing just that and people really don’t like it. Well you are not a paying customer of Facebook. Your data is the product. This has been repeated over and over.
Facebook are being more obvious with this than the sneaky tracking companies that have done this for years. At least they are trying to be upfront about it and show you what is occurring. We are just not comfortable with seeing how we use the web. Is it better to be kept in the dark? Or will you learn more by seeing how you use the web and how the web sees you? I believe the main issue is that this is fully owned by Facebook.
With this in mind are Facebook moving the personal data ecosystem further forward in one step than the more open (source/web) minded folks of the Personal Data Store movement can hope to do in a decade? Is the real anger in the fact that they are keeping this for themselves and not fully giving back? As they seek to link with more and more web services can they begin to build a richer picture of you online than anyone else? Can they create a fully fleshed out digital identity? I think they can but a lot of people are not willing to let them or more accurately, make sure they do it so everyone can play.
This is the key element of this whole thing for me. Let us see where Facebook get too. If you don’t want to play then don’t play. If you want to fight Facebook then fight them to free the data or make them come up with open standards for this personal data ecosystem. They have the volume of customers to make this a reality. They seemingly have the partners and they definitely have the platform. We should be wary and ensure they stay on the right path but whinging over every change is just noise and I don’t want to see that in my stream. I want to see how this evolves. I want to see innovation flourish. I know Facebook might use this all for their own gain. Good luck to them if they do.
Update: Just as I put the finishing touches on this post a much funnier and better written piece about this topic was brought to my attention by Twitter. Read it.