Open Graph issues inhibit past-tense sharing, force apps to make trade-offs

With Facebook users now able to make posts to previous dates — as far back even as their birth — there is an opportunity for developers to build apps that facilitate this “past-tense sharing.” There are, however, a few issues the social network will have to address in its API to allow these apps to integrate more seamlessly with Timeline.

Shoebox, UrbanSpoon and Wipolo, for example, have all sought to help users fill in their new profiles, but none has been able to do so in an ideal way because of deficiencies in Open Graph.

1000memories‘ mobile app Shoebox is releasing an update today that lets people scan paper photos, upload them directly to Facebook and tag their friends and family. The app prompts users to indicate when the photo is from, but this data cannot be synced with Facebook so that the photo appears in the appropriate spot on a user’s Timeline. 1000memories co-founder Brett Huneycutt says Open Graph does not allow photos to be displayed as big as they are when posted through the Photos API. As a trade-off, Shoebox uses the Photos API instead of Open Graph, but this requires users to manually edit images’ positions on Timeline. Huneycutt says his team is working with Facebook to find alternative solutions.

Another problem with Open Graph is that individual actions are not given much, if any, weight unless users manually adjust settings in the activity log. This makes sense most of the time — people don’t want every song they listen to or article they read to show up as separate stories on Timeline. But when apps want to share more significant actions, there is not an optimal way to do this. For example, if people use Wipolo to indicate trips they have taken, the app will display monthly or yearly summaries of their travel; but it will not feature each trip at its actual date on Timeline. To do that, users need to visit their activity log and select “Shown on Timeline,” but even then the story appears much smaller than if people used Facebook’s native “life events” feature. (See below for images.) The trip also won’t appear on Timeline’s built-in Map.

Developers cannot currently access life events through the API, though the social network has indicated that it is working to provide it. If Facebook offered write permissions for life events, developers could build apps that help users easily fill in their Timelines without formatting trade-offs.

Even when format is not an issue, some developers have been unable to take advantage of past-tense sharing on Facebook. Mobile app Urbanspoon allows users to check into restaurants and select a past date if desired. Although this updates a user’s “Dineline” within the app, the action does not yet sync with Facebook properly if users choose a time more than 24 hours ago. Backdating is apparently only available to select partners, though this is unclear from Open Graph documentation. Urbanspoon senior software developer Brian Dewey says Facebook told his team that it would support the feature in the next few weeks.

[Update 2/3/12 8:23 a.m. – Facebook Platform Product Manager Eddie O’Neil confirms on Quora, “Facebook has temporarily disabled backdating actions and will re-enable this in the future. For context, this worked during the Open Graph developer preview, but there’s some outstanding work that we are finishing before making this feature available to developers.”]

[Update 2/6/12 10:01 a.m. – Facebook has taken the feature out of beta and provided developers with additional resources about publishing to past points on users’ Timelines.]

The tools and access the social network offers developers will determine if Timeline can truly become “the story of your life on one page,” as it was pitched at f8. Open Graph clearly helps users document their lives moving forward, but developers will need more support from Facebook to build apps to share users’ histories.

How photos display on Timeline using Open Graph vs. Photos API

With Open Graph, images display as a thumbnail and link out to another site.