Twitter Forces Facebook To Open Up Beyond "Friends"

At Facebook’s developer conference (f8) next month, the company is expected to announce a number of services that continue the opening of the platform as well as expanding access to disconnected user data. Soon enough you will be able to more easily access the public information being posted by users if information from our sources is true. While you can already search Facebook users, publicly posted information will be easier to discover through new features and developer APIs.

Cannot Tell People How They Should Manage Their Identity

Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly proclaimed that the difference between Facebook and other social products is that Facebook is the place where you connect with your “real friends”, or the people that you are connected to in the “real world”. Unfortunately that statement has increasingly become an inaccurate portrayal of how some people are using the site.

For example, many Farmville users have built a friends list built entirely on the connections they have created through the game. When you visit their profile you’ll find numerous disconnected individuals who will most likely never bump into one another in the streets at any point in their life. Twitter on the other hand has enabled users to follow anybody and those users can optionally follow back new followers.

The result is that relationships on Twitter are based on similar interests instead of real-life connections. That’s not to say that nobody is using Twitter just to connect with their friends, it’s just to emphasize the public nature of Twitter. Users of Facebook have been connecting with strangers as well and rather than fighting against this trend, Facebook will open up access to the public information shared by users, granting them more control over their data and their relationships.

Enabling Users To Build Their Own Communities

The result of Twitter’s public nature is a slew of communities based around various topics. Some companies have built entire sites based on this premise. Take Stocktwits as an example. The company has built a community entirely on the back of Twitter targeted at stock traders. Unfortunately Facebook’s closed nature has prevented companies like Stocktwits from building similar communities. That’s not to say it won’t happen though.

Facebook has been opening over the past year and that trend is only expected to continue though. The most significant milestone in this process was the roll out of Facebook’s new privacy settings, but steps including the opening of the stream have accelerated the growth in opportunities for building small communities of disconnected Facebook users.

Enabling users to make status updates visible to “Everyone” was one step in the direction of Twitter. The aim is to provide services like “trending topics” and other aggregate features that help bring disconnected users together. The benefit is that users can find those individuals involved in similar conversations rather than searching for an application targeted at them. In other words, users get to connect through an open conversation stream.

Another side effect of the opening of Facebook’s public stream firehose (which we previously reported on and expect to launch), we could soon see an entire mini-economy of aggregators built on top of Facebook’s public stream services. This includes niche-communities as well as business analytics services.

Giving Users More Control

Rather than closing off access to data, Facebook’s opening gives users access to more information and enable them to create connections based on this information. It’s not to say that services like Facebook Pages, the impending Open Graph API, niche community applications, and other products will be rendered useless, it’s just to emphasize that users benefit from public data, not just programmers.

Center Of Your Identity

With numerous product upgrades and new services launching at Facebook’s developer event, f8, next month, it’s increasingly clear that Facebook is focused on one key goal: becoming the center of a user’s identity. Last week’s @anywhere announcement by Twitter, which is intended to be a competitor to Facebook Connect, fortunately got miscommunicated through a poor keynote interview.

It’s clear though that the social media race is not just about aggregating information about users, but becoming the center of their identity. Facebook is doing an excellent job at this but in order to continue, they’ll need to be as open as Twitter in order to enable strangers to connect. One example of a feature not currently duplicated but critical for increasing engagement on Facebook is Twitter’s “trending topics”. How Facebook accomplishes this task will be extremely challenging as they need to balance user privacy demands while simultaneously making more information public, whether users like it or not.

While Facebook needs to recruit developers the greater challenge for Facebook will be maintaining users’ trust in what is becoming a more transparent world. While Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook claim that it’s “the way the world is going”, overstepping the boundaries of users could have significant repercussions.

For now Facebook will continue to make a significant push forward down the tightrope which divides developer desires and user needs. Whether or not they succeed is unknown but it’s clear that the opening up of user information is happening rapidly.