Facebook: Into the Open Graph

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t shy away from grand promises. At the release of Facebook’s ill-fated Beacon content-sharing platform in November 2007, he called it a once-in-a-century shift in media. Last week, he made another grand pronouncement, this time when introducing Open Graph, Facebook’s audacious plan to serve as the de facto social operating system for the Internet. The new system, he said, is “the most transformative thing we’ve ever done for the Web.”

While many pooh-poohed Beacon, this time few in the industry cast aspersions. The new initiative, like the previous one, aims to make Facebook the Web’s social connective tissue. The difference this time around? Facebook just might succeed. One reason why: Facebook’s growth rate. When Beacon launched, Facebook had 50 million users; at the Open Graph introduction, it announced it crossed 450 million users worldwide.

Facebook’s plan betrays an ambitious agenda for the company to take its deep trove of social data and spread it around the Web through a set of social plug-ins, which among other things will make its “Like” buttons ubiquitous and let sites customize user experiences. That information then gets fed back to Facebook and broadcast to the user’s networks. By compiling a list of what interests and motivates people, Facebook could out-Google Google by building the most powerful “database of intentions,” as author John Battelle termed it in 2005.

“This is as massive of a move as we’ve seen on the Internet in a long time,” said Michael Lazerow, CEO of Buddy Media, a tech platform for brands on Facebook. “For the first time, we have the ability to think about how to optimize these viral loops for brands in much the same way as game developers have.”

Facebook’s move is indicative of the Web’s shift from social networks standing apart from the rest of the Internet to full integration of social features. As Zuckerberg said, “We’re building a Web where the default is social.”

Facebook rivals are also moving in this direction. Twitter’s @Anywhere platform, for example, attempts to embed Twitter’s conversation features on any site. For some, however, the sheer scale of Facebook makes its move to become a de facto central bank for social information a little dangerous.

“It results in Facebook becoming … all-knowing,” said Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus, who compares Facebook to Skynet, the computer network in The Terminator. But the benefits of hooking into its viral loop are too many for publishers and brands to ignore, he said.

John Kosner, svp and gm of digital media at ESPN, said it has implemented “Like” buttons around the site. ESPN started with its NFL Draft section, giving the option for visitors to like a player or team. The information was then broadcast out to Facebook. “If we know you’re a Giants fan, we’ll get better at making the experience better for you,” he said. “It’s not much more complicated than that.”

Levi Strauss & Co. is one of the first marketers to use Facebook’s new tools. The company sees adding social features to Levi.com as a chance to overcome a challenge: e-commerce doesn’t allow people to try on clothes and receive friends’ opinions. (Technology can’t yet let people try on virtual clothing.)

But with Open Graph, Levi’s, which has tagged all items in its online store with Facebook “Like” buttons, can connect shoppers with friends. There’s also a Friend’s Store, where users can see what their friends and others like.
“We think it’s going to change how people shop online, and make buying jeans more fun, dynamic and engaging,” said Doug Sweeny, vp of brand marketing at Levi’s.

It will also give Levi’s (and Facebook) a treasure trove of customer-preference information. It’ll know the demos of those who like super skinny jeans, or whether black jeans are favored in the West by customers in their 30s. That data can easily be used to tailor the site experience.

“That’s extremely valuable,” said Megan O’Connor, director of digital marketing at Levi’s. “It’s something we’ll continue to optimize against.”

For now, Open Graph does not come with an ad component. Facebook has long said its focus is more on building a massive user base before focusing on ways it can convert that into a thriving media business. (Facebook does, of course, have a sizable ad business.) Many anticipate it will become an ad network, offering an array of targeting options for advertisers based on what a user and his friends like.

This would trump current targeting techniques, said Shiv Singh, social media lead at Razorfish, since it would be based on declared interests and demos rather than inferred criteria used by many networks. “Inventory has become commoditized and cookie cutter,” Singh said. “Now we can tap into the differentiating elements.”

The fly in the ointment is the same one that took down Beacon: overreach. The privacy implications to broadcasting personal preferences, and allowing Facebook and others to store them, are many. One of the important elements of Open Graph is that it allows developers to keep Facebook user data for longer than the previous limit of 24 hours.

“They’ve really tested the limits of their boundaries and where they can go,” said Nathaniel Perez, director of social marketing at SapientNitro. “This comes at a time when people’s behavior has evolved. It changes people’s notions of privacy.”