If Facebook is an Open Platform, Then the Web is a Walled Garden

Facebook’s announcements at f8 today represent a vision of the social web that I strongly believe in: one where our experiences online, as offline, are intrinsically and persistently social; one where communication is embedded in the fabric of the web; one where ‘social’, broadly defined, is a primary layer instead of a surface application.

TechCrunch explains just how powerful this vision can be:

Add some “like” buttons and anytime someone likes a restaurant, song, or movie anywhere on the Web with a Facebook like button, that information will flow back into the Open Graph. So that Yelp will know what restaurants you and your friends have liked elsewhere and take that into consideration when giving you recommendations, or Pandora with music, and so on. 

Unfortunately, Facebook’s announcements at f8 also represent the single greatest threat to the achievement of that vision. 

I’ve written in the past about the challenges Facebook poses to innovation on the social web. The launch of Open Graph takes us from orange to red. Here’s why:

At first glance, the scenario described above appears to be a win for all parties. Yelp and Pandora get to make more relevant recommendations and add more value to their users’ experiences. Providing more value to your users means you can extract more value in exchange. Users receive more value from these external sites because their friends are better at making recommendations than some algorithm developed in some engineer’s garage. And Facebook, sitting at the nexus of this information exchange, begins to learn more about internet users than anyone else. Knowing more about users than anyone else means you can charge a premium for access to that knowledge.

So where’s the rub?  

With a user base of 400 million, the promise of dead-simple integration, and an experience that can offer so much immediate value to current and prospective users, Facebook’s Open Graph will be the single social solution of choice for most publishers. 

But what if I want to share my activity with co-workers on LinkedIn? What if I want to share my activity with followers on Twitter? What if I want to share my activity with a product that has yet to be built, whose founders are yet to be born?

Beyond sharing, what if the face I want to present to Yelp is different than the face I want to present to Pandora? What if I have music friends and restaurant friends and they have a totally different set of likes and dislikes? 

The 500 people I am connected to on facebook are comprised of co-workers, family, friends, best friends, camp friends, and friends from my semester abroad in Scotland. My profile data on Facebook is different from my profile data on Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr, and Tumblr. Each profile has a relevant context.

I fundamentally believe that no single social web service can accurately represent the identity of a human being. In the offline world we present different personalities in different social contexts. There is a nuance to identity in the offline world that is not easily replicable in a single, catch-all, generic, online social experience. I can’t quite crystallize why this is important, but my hunch is that this human nuance is critical to meaningful social interaction.

The future we should fight for is one where users decide which profile to present when, and to which sub-group of ‘friends’. If Facebook were serious about building the social web together they would recognize that they cannot do it alone. 

Metaphysics aside, in the long run competition benefits the user more than seamless vertical integration. Of course, in mature industries there are always barriers to entry – I doubt that any new search startup will have an easy time eroding Google’s 60% market share – but what is at stake here is more important than search intention and advertising dollars.

What is at stake is the promise of the social web – the potential for relevant, dynamic, and nuanced social interaction through a medium we are just beginning to understand.

Let’s raise hell when proprietary solutions threaten the future we know we want. Let’s build towards this vision with tools that foster innovation and promote the true dynamism of human identity.

  • http://www.kiad.org Olivier

    I can’t agree more. The real life offers infinite possibilities in terms of identity you want to show. Having a single one identity on the Web would be a serious regressions in terms of liberty. Not to mention the right to be anonymous, as you are in most of your real life day-to-day actions. The technology should be used to expand our liberties, not the contrary.

    • http://www.jakelevine.me jakelevine

      Well said, thanks for the comment.

  • http://trovar.com/ Paul Geffen

    Jake, you can create as many online identities as you want. One for every facet of your personality or mood or whim, if you have the time. But why do really want more than one?
    Consider the advantages of a single, unified, integrated on line identity.
    The main one is credibility. You’ve spent a lot of time and effort to build your brand. Why dilute it?
    I use an OpenID to link many of the accounts and profiles I’ve created on the web and I use my web site as a central hub to make it clear that it’s the same person who has created all this content. This seems to me a valuable thing.

    • http://www.jakelevine.me jakelevine

      I’m with you 100%. But in the worst case scenario you won’t be able to travel the web as Paul Geffen via OpenID – you’re only option will be Paul Geffen via Facebook. OpenID is the solution I hope for, and the one I believe is threatened by Facebook. Does that make sense?

    • Guest

      but most people don’t have a single identity… Paul… they have various groups of friends who don’t have commonality… my immediate family has no interest in the things i speak of to my close circle of friends…

      the various groups i belong to have no need to know about my family and vice versa… but facebook’s forcing me to open up everything as completely public has already destroyed many relationships i had on facebook…

      i ended up deleting the vast majority of of my contacts as they were sniping among one another… as they disagreed over posts i thought i had segregrated them all from…

      now to completely make everything public has me very close to deleting my account..

      • http://www.jakelevine.me jakelevine

        Very interesting example Arizona, thanks for the comment. It seems like this post has even greater relevance in the last few weeks since F8.

        • Guest

          reviewing some of my historical online presence via disqus’ cache… is sorta cool ;>)

          in the year since i commented, i’ve taken a five month hiatus from facebook, via their option to deactivate accounts… at the time i was utterly and completely frustrated. FB’s “share everything with everybody” mentality was anything but pleasant for me and my disparate groups of friends… so i walked away… fully intending never to return…

          but a funny thing happened on my way to personal nirvana… i’m in my late 40′s… i discovered none of my younger family members use or respond to e’mail… i’ve always been an avid IM user and have all of my various im clients consolidated onto a single browser page via meebo… but still, contact with friends and family was rare… even after inputting myspace and facebook chats into meebo…

          so i reactivated facebook… but when i did so i:

          set “See your friend list” to only me…

          set “See your likes, activities and other connections” to only me…

          made groups; with very few overlappiing members (which now mirror’s google+ circles) …

          removed the ability for others to post directly to my wall… now folks have to either respond to the posts i make to their groups, or message me directly…

          turned off platform apps

          This has returned many happy side effects… almost nobody has noticed that they can’t post directly to my wall, the few who’ve asked have understood completely when i explained…

          none of my liberal friends have picked fights with my conservative or libertarian friends…

          none of the social games are able to post to my wall…

          i am free to like groups, pages, and myriad sorts of weird websites that i never would have done while all the prying fb friends eyes could see…

          • http://www.jakelevine.me jakelevine

            This is fascinating. I’m 100% with you. Facebook allows you to manage your privacy and group settings with such nuance that it may in fact be the one social network to rule them all. However, I just don’t believe that users will take the time and energy to figure that out.

  • http://www.mynext.co.uk My Next

    Think facebook needs to know where it’s boundaries are. Through they won’t know where the bounds are until they test them. I feel this is part of that testing

    • http://www.jakelevine.me jakelevine

      I’m not sure they think this is a question of ‘what they can get away with’ – I think they have a vision of the social web and it’s very much a Facebook web.