Social Network ‘Facebook’, has made an enormous splash this week with the release of the ‘Facebook Platform‘, an opening up of the mature Facebook API to internal widgets with access to Facebook’s ‘core functions’. Whilst this move has been criticised by some influential members of the syndication community, it places Facebook at the forefront of mashup’s and the read-write web. In one fell swoop, Facebook has become a socially enabled aggregation platform.
‘Zuckerberg describes the Facebook core function that the new third-party applications can tap into as a “social graph,” the network of connections and relationships between people on the service’.
– Dan Farber on ZDNet
Let’s look at some ways that Facebook collates user information, and serves this summated information back to a users social network.
Facebook offers users three direct methods of adding to the ‘News Feed’ activity stream of their connections on the Facebook network.
‘Status Updates’ are brief, 160 character messages, updatable by text message or from within Facebook.
‘Posted Items’ are smart links which retrieve a brief descriptive paragraph and photo from a provided link; updatable from within Facebook, and through browser and web based bookmarklets.
‘Notes’ are text, images and links – essentially blog posts; updatable from within facebook itself, and via imported RSS feed. Notes contain an additional feature, a social equivalent to pingbacks, allowing posters to ‘tag’ friends mentioned in, or related to, a post.
Controversially, Facebook also provides an aggregated feed of indirect socially relevant user actions – profile changes, photo uploads and contact addition etc.
Finally, with the addition of ‘Facebook Platform’, Facebook can now socially aggregates the information flow to and from users and their installed applications – for example, tweets updated via and integrated Twitter application.
All of this aggregation is done parsimoniously and noninvasively, with an emphasis on usability and integration with the social map of a users Facebook network – for example, if a user updates a number of notes in quick succession, rather than each note appearing in the news feed of his connections, a lists of titles will appear.
Fine Grained Control
The aggregated ‘Posted Items’, ‘Notes’, and ‘Status Updates’ from a user’s connections, can each be exported as an RSS feed. In addition to the feeds available from applications within the ‘Facebook Platform’, this means that users can now (or will soon be able to, with third party developer support) use Facebook to export feeds of updates to the attention streams, social bookmarkings, and blogs, of their connections.
By allowing users fine grained control over which aspects of their social activity on the site are published to the ‘news feed’ of their connections – for example a user can choose to de-list notification of their new connections completely, or on a case by case basis – and control over the sources and quantity of the information they aggregate from their connections; Facebook have built the beginnings of a social write application to compliment feed reading, on the Read/Write web. Together with the social elements of next generation browsers, this could provide the template for how such services work in the future.
Maturation is inevitable and necessary, and Facebook are only at the beginning of the development of their internal services – for example ‘Posted Items’ can function as social bookmarks, but without tags or folder utility, cannot replace a dedicated social bookmark application.
Balancing the desire of application providers for greater access to the Facebook API, with the privacy of users and the overall usability of the platform will be a difficult challenge. Right now it seems that Facebook are erring on the side of caution – for example, Twitter integration seems for the moment hampered by a lack of write access to user ‘Status Updates’ through the Facebook API.
What to do with all this information?
Beyond hyperbole, what does all this mean? Right now, it means I can import the ‘Status Updates’, ‘Notes’, and ‘Posted Items’ of my Facebook connections; right into Google Reader. I can also export my own aggregated updates, and construct a feed blog, or metafeed – increasing the utility, and decreasing the exclusivity, of my updates to Facebook.
This flow of information will grow richer as more useful applications are added to the ‘Facebook Platform’, as Facebook continues the roll-out of its third generation of internal services (like Market Place and Video); providing a portable, rapidly updated aggregation of social events and conversation – a friends feed, which comprises a deepening, dynamic, and semi-public conversation.
What’s next? Increased portability of Facebook mobile updates (currently the limited SMS notifications available are restricted the the US), and the easier establishment of networks, would greatly increase the utility of such powerful information aggregation; as would RSS feeds of the ‘News Feed’ activity stream itself. Right now, Facebook is a fantastic tool for large, loosely connected, public social networks, but increased privacy options and network building flexibility could make it a more useful tool for work groups, businesses, and families. Although it’s important to note that company networks do already exit, each new network must be suggested directly to Facebook – with little direction as to the amount or type of requests needed before such a network will be created.
Look out soon, for applications leveraging the social aspects of the Facebook platform in innovative ways – enabling collaborative video editing or games for example.
Open source and information portability advocates would no doubt like to see greater portability of the (user generated) networks with give Facebook its value. Such portability may become ever more difficult, as users become more locked into the services provided by a specific social network, and the social groupings which exist there.