What Does Facebook’s “Open Stream” API Mean for Marketers?

With Facebook’s announcement today of new “Open Stream” functionality, a lot of commentators have misunderstood exactly what the new features mean for marketers. So, let’s clear it up.

What Facebook Announced: Authorized Stream Access

Today, Facebook released new API calls that enable authorized applications to access data in users’ Facebook stream and publish information to the stream on their behalf. It’s an extension of previous directions Facebook has signaled by opening access to individual users’ status updates several weeks ago. Now, applications will be able to easily access a users’ full stream with a single API call.

What This Means for Marketers: New Data

With the new APIs released today, Facebook has essentially opened the doors for applications to access more data about users of their applications that could be applicable to the creation of new real-time experiences. This means developers might be able to notice what activity, business Pages, or applications are recently active in a user’s stream, and provide more targeted and real-time promotions to users.

For example, if a user has multiple items in their stream around a particular brand or business, the application may want to provide a marketing notification related to that information. Branded applications for consumer products could benefit especially (i.e. a Coke app could notice that your friends are sharing a lot of information about Sprite or competitors like Pepsi).

Creative application developers can quickly come up with ways they might want to integrate data in the stream to make their application experience more compelling.

What Facebook Did Not Announce: Global Stream Search

Unlike many in the marketing community were probably hoping for, Facebook did not announce a new global stream search feature. This means that unlike they can on Twitter Search, marketers can not now search for all updates containing given keywords. Facebook has a service called Lexicon for marketers to see relative sharing volume on a keyword basis, but it is not publishing this information on a per user basis.

Why? Unlike Twitter, Facebook depends a lot on privacy. Users have come to expect Facebook’s default privacy settings, and Facebook is not convinced that exposing users to aggressive marketers by publishing status updates globally would be a good trade-off.

As Facebook’s Blake Ross, speaking “purely on his own behalf,” wrote in the comments of this ReadWriteWeb story which criticized Facebook for not opening a global stream search:

Could we release an API to retrieve the number of people who have mentioned “swine flu” programmatically? Sure.

Would such an API enable better and more globally useful applications than the stream API we just launched? According to users and developers: No. And as a member of both communities, I agree with that consensus.

This article insinuates that Facebook is strategically withholding information, but I’ve never heard that suggestion from anyone at the company, nor do I see the logic of it. The API released today effectively allows someone to recreate the core Facebook experience on another site. It strikes me as far more competitive than the service you are requesting here.

I believe it is disingenuous to summarize Facebook as “fundamentally closed” because we have yet to build an API that would primarily be of interest to researchers and marketing companies. We’ve opened all of the information that users have granted permission to open, and that most developers have asked for.

Facebook’s sharing model is fundamentally different than Twitter’s in the way Facebook treats privacy. This will always create tensions with the marketing community, but in my view creates greater long term value for marketers by preserving the social authenticity of the content being shared.