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4.26.2010 Facebook Plots its Future: Will it Be Our Overlord?

By Peter Smith

I have to confess, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are confusing the heck out of me. (That confusion might come out in this post, so I apologize in advance.) I watched the keynote from the F8 conference yesterday, and it was like Zuckerberg was talking about a different service from the one I think of when I think of Facebook.

Now maybe I'm missing something, but to me Facebook is a place to go to kill time. I talk to people I haven't seen since high school, delete spam from a lot of games my friends are playing, and get invited to all kinds of events taking place hundreds or thousands of miles from my house. From time to time I check out someone's new pictures or what have you. It's fun enough, but I never really think of it as a service. To me, Facebook is a place.

Zuckerberg clearly sees Facebook as a service. Facebook Connect, (the name), is going away and being replaced by the Facebook Platform. "Share on Facebook" buttons are being replaced with "Like on Facebook" buttons. And Comcast is now called Xfinity... what does it all mean to the end user? There's a new API to fetch data from Facebook more easily, which sounds great, if only I could figure out why I'd want to do that. The overall tone of the keynote was that Facebook was serious business and they were going to build the Social Graph, a vast network of connections between people and the things they like. Zuckerberg was a man with a mission.

And then later in the day they talk about Facebook Credits, a virtual currency to use in your Facebook games (and other Facebook apps). Clearly Facebook takes its position as a game and chat platform fairly seriously. So is it a game platform, or is it the underpinnings of the Social Graph?

This seeming dichotomy reminded me of a post I'd read at VentureBeat. In it, Zynga (of Farmville fame) CEO Mark Pincus talks about his hopes for the future of Facebook. He points out that Facebook can focus on being a portal or a platform. Pincus, for obvious reasons, is just thinking games. I think the questions he asks apply in a much broader sense. Is Facebook going to be a toy or a service? Can it be both?

Another announcement today was the launch of docs.com. This is a Microsoft/Facebook venture; an online version of Microsoft Office that you log into via Facebook Connect Platform. An online version of Office is welcome (my application got approved too late last night to dig into it, but from a cursory glance the service seems capable), but what's the benefit of the Facebook tie-in? What happened to Microsoft Passport, or Live ID, or whatever they're calling it these days? For years Microsoft has been trying to build this single sign-on system for web services. Now suddenly we're supposed to abandon that and get a Facebook account to sign into Microsoft services?

Apparently you can share docs.com documents with other Facebook users. Again, maybe I'm looking at this situation from a much too personal point of view, but none of the people I need to share documents with are my Facebook friends. Nor do I really want to mix Friending business associates with the guys that I used to skip gym class with in order to go skateboarding. I prefer to keep my professional and personal lives more or less separate.

Some of the examples of this new world of Facebook are interesting at first glance. Take music and Pandora as an example. The idea here is that as you surf around the web and encounter bands on different sites and services, you can click a Facebook "Like" button if you like the band. Then when you hit Pandora, it polls Facebook's new Graph API to find out all the bands you've Liked and then starts playing music it thinks you'll enjoy, based on this data. From a geek point of view that's kind of cool, but my inner privacy advocate feels a little uneasy about it. Plus, I think I'd much prefer going to Pandora and telling it what I feel like listening to, rather than vice versa.

I dug into this a bit, tried putting a Like button on my personal blog. I can see where Zuckerberg is going. He wants us to back up the Like buttons with metatags (Webmonkey has a quick and easy tutorial on this) and so collect more data on us than just the fact that we Liked a particular page. Once again my techie side finds this kind of interesting but I'm uncomfortable with the privacy aspects. Will I have to view the source of a web page before I click that "Like" button just to be sure the site is accurately reflecting my opinions? Are there going to be limitations on who can poll this data? How granular will my privacy options be? Consider this feature is deployed right now, so think before you Like.

Once again I apologize if this post is more disjointed than usual. I'm still scratching my head about everything that was revealed at the F8 conference yesterday, and I don't think I'll really understand it all until I build some more sample pages for adding to and extracting info from the Social Graph. If you want to do the same, Facebook's Developer site is a good place to get started.

Or maybe we should just all buy a bunch of Facebook Credits and go back to playing Farmville. I'll fertilize your fields if you fertilize mine!