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Facebook: Into the Open Graph

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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."

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