Facebook’s frictionless sharing mistake

It has been a year since Facebook opened the gates for developers to create Open Graph applications with custom verbs and a new way for users to share their app activity through Timeline, Ticker and News Feed.

Since then, thousands of apps have integrated Open Graph and many have experienced significant growth in users and engagement. But hundreds of thousands of other apps don’t incorporate Open Graph, either because developers don’t know what is possible with it or because they doubt its value. Open Graph is core to what Facebook is trying to accomplish with News Feed, Timeline, search and ads, but it is not growing as quickly or being perceived as valuable as it could have been if Facebook hadn’t made a critical misstep: using the word “frictionless.”

At f8 in September 2011, CEO Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly referred to “frictionless experiences” as one of the key components of Open Graph apps. He also talked about the potential for “real-time serendipity” and “finding patterns,” but most people honed in on “frictionless,” and even today auto-sharing is what most people associate with Open Graph. The term has led users, developers, marketers and the media to fundamentally misunderstand what Open Graph apps are and why they should be built and used.

What is Open Graph really?

Open Graph is the way that Facebook organizes the information and connections on its platform. When the social network began, users could only connect with other users. With the introduction of the Open Graph protocol in 2010, users became able to connect with objects on Facebook and around the web by clicking Like. By adding a bit of code to their sites, publishers could turn any webpage into a Facebook object.

In 2011, Facebook expanded Open Graph to allow users to connect to objects with new verbs besides Like. These include read, watch, listen and play. Similar to how developers can create objects, they can now create actions. An Open Graph app is any Facebook canvas app, mobile app or website that has integrated “actions” as a means for users to share their activity back on Facebook.

Although Open Graph apps can publish stories automatically instead of having to continually prompt users to post things to their Timeline, frictionless sharing isn’t the most important aspect of Open Graph. Instagram, Foursquare, Nike, TripAdvisor and Ticketmaster, for example, all require users to take explicit actions before sharing activity back to Facebook, but they use Open Graph rather than the traditional share button because it allows stories from their apps to be properly structured and aggregated in the feed and on Timeline.

It’s this structure that’s most meaningful about Open Graph. Instead of users sharing links and liking things, they can connect to objects through more accurate verbs. This makes for more compelling individual stories as well as interesting aggregations. Because of Open Graph, Facebook can show that five of a user’s friends listened to the same artist or watched the same music video. This activity can be turned into Sponsored Story ad units or used as highly specific targeting criteria. And it’s this type of data that will be included in Graph Search and used to improve News Feed relevancy and power recommendations.

Another unique feature is the monthly and yearly summaries that developers can customize to tell stories about users over time. Users can see which artist they listened to the most in a given month, how many miles they ran over the course of a year, how many books they’ve read or what their highest score was in a game. This aspect of Open Graph would probably be the most interesting to users, but it hasn’t been emphasized by Facebook or developers over the past year.

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