By Harry McCracken | Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 11:22 am
“L’État,” Louis XIV famously said, “c’est moi.” I sometimes think that Facebook has a similar attitude about its relationship to the World Wide Web.
At its F8 conference in San Francisco on Tuesday, the dominant social network announced an array of new features designed to spread little bits of Facebook around the entire Internet. They include Google Friend Connect-like widgets for injecting social stuff like comments and activity feeds into any site; a new Like button that any site can add to any piece of content; and what Facebook says are much easier options for integrating other sites with Facebook than those offered by the existing Facebook Connect (a name which is going away). It’s also allowing third-party sites to hold onto data they receive from Facebook (previously, they were only allowed to cache it for a day).
The new features are already live in examples such as Microsoft’s Docs.com and an upgraded version of Pandora that plays music from artists you’ve liked on Facebook and lets you see what your friends are listening to. Facebook also says that its new pan-Internet Like button showed up a billion times in the first 24 hours after its launch.
The news prompted some stories with headlines that were melodramatic, even by Web standards:
Facebook itself says that the changes “put people at the center of the Web.” Which doesn’t seem exactly right: They’re more about putting Facebook at the center of the Web, since the people in question are your Facebook friends. (I’m probably atypical, but I interact with ten times more folks on Twitter–at least 90 percent of who I won’t be seeing in Facebook’s new stuff for other sites, since I’m not connected to them on Facebook. Maybe that’s my fault for not having friended everybody on Facebook, or for being too promiscuous on Twitter.)
The vision of Facebook as the Internet’s hub is very different from the one expressed by XAuth, a new technology that Web-based chat/IM/sharing provider Meebo announced earlier this week, before F8 got underway. XAuth, which has support from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, MySpace, and others, is an open standard that lets sharing services identify which social networks a user is signed into. That way, a service can can offer to let a person share items with friends no matter where those friends are–and doesn’t have to make users choose from a long list of services they probably don’t care about. It’s a great idea, and I’d love to see the two most prominent companies who Meebo hasn’t signed up–Facebook and Twitter–jump on the bandwagon.
As for Facebook’s plans, they seem to be an attempt to Facebook-ize the entire Web in one fell swoop. As with most attempts to boil Internet oceans, it’s logical to approach this one with skepticism. For all its audacity, it seems simplistic. For one thing, the concept of “Like” is fundamentally crude. In the real world, having a favorable attitude towards a musician might consist of anything from hardcore, lifelong worship to mild, temporary interest. On Facebook, however, both of those feelings translate into the bland “Like.” I don’t see how Facebook can map my interests based on such a binary approach.
And as much as I love my friends, I’m not so sure that their Likes are terribly useful indicators of what I’ll like. With music, in fact, I’m positive that in 99% of cases, their preferences are utterly different from mine. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg used to insist that Facebook was not about meeting new people but about interacting with ones you already knew. But when it comes to recommendations, I want them from experts and strangers with similar taste, not pals.
(When I said as much on Twitter yesterday, my friend Dale Larson reminded me that J.R. Johnson, founder of the review-community site Lunch.com, makes a similar point. Lunch is about finding people whose interests you share, not about finding out about your friends’ interests.)
Here’s the strange part: I may be doubtful about both the overarching ambition and basic theories behind these new Facebook tools, but I like ‘em anyway. If all they do is help a few hundred million Facebook users get more out the Web–whether they’re at Facebook or elsewhere–they’re a good thing. And the emphasis on making it all as easy as possible for developers is hard to quibble with. In fact, I added the new Like button here on Technologizer. It appears on every post–and yes, it was really simple to implement. (I put it next to our Retweet button, provided by Tweetmeme, so you can express your approval of a story by Liking it or Retweeting it…or both.)
Lemme know what you think of all this: The notion of the people-centric Web in general, Facebook’s master plan, and the idea of Facebook features on Technologizer. (If you like the Like button, I may add more Facebook stuff here; if nobody uses it, I reserve the right to kill it…)