How Semantic is Facebook?


Now that Facebook is bigger than the United States and Canada, let’s see how well prepared it is for the future of pull and the semantic web. This post is a series of small observations about how Facebook does things for us, putting it in the context of the principles of my book, Pull.

Contacts. Facebook contacts are interesting. I’m connected to about 500 people, but I think of them as friends, not contacts. I don’t know their “facebook contact name” in the same way I know their Skype name. Because we’re connected, I just use their regular real-life names, and that’s enough information to distinguish them from all the other people with the same name – unless, of course, I know two people named Bill Scott, and I do. Then I have to use their thumbnail photos to decide which is which. It’s nice that Facebook doesn’t introduce a new kind of unique name, but on the other hand it can be difficult to find old friends by name, or even name and city.

Birthdays. Facebook is great for birthday reminders. The big problem here is that I rely on it so much that I often miss birthdays of friends and relatives who aren’t on Facebook yet. Facebook uses the push model to push birthdays at me. I can’t ask, for example, who has a birthday on my birthday? or who has a birthday in May? The good news is that I can see upcoming birthdays, and that if I disconnect from someone I will no longer see his/her birthday. The bad news is that I can’t say which people are most important to me (my inner circle) and then have Facebook tell me well in advance to prepare for their birthdays. So Facebook birthday reminders are definitely push, but better than what we had before.

Disambiguating places and names. Facebook is excitingly good at disambiguating names of cities, schools, and companies. They try hard to make sure you use their tools to show that you live in Salt Lake City, UT, rather than Salt Lake or SLC. This really helps find people. It would be great if Facebook would contribute their database of city, school, and company names to the open web, so any service can use it. Then we would all be comparing apples to apples across the entire web. The Library of Congress and others have developed extensive name databases, but this one would work well for general search and disambiguation purposes.

Status updates. This is where Facebook shows how limiting the push model really is. The status updates are similar to tweets – they go out when they go out, and either a) you’re paying attention and you don’t care because they don’t mean much to you, or b) you could really use the information someone put out but, unfortunately, weren’t around to see that they said it. The rest of the time they are occasionally interesting and infrequently useful. As an example, a friend of mine once said not to use a certain PR agency, because they had treated him badly. I might want this information some time, but not when he blasted it out. I want it when I want it, and then I want to be able to send out a question and pull the answers back to me. Once you have a few hundred friends, you start to see an endless stream of stuff that isn’t really worth paying much attention to. I don’t happen to care too much about mafia wars and farm accomplishments, so I often tune them out. As Facebook gets bigger, this stream will have more and more noise and less and less signal.

Groups. I’m not sure I really understand the groups. The groups I join never seem to do much. Someone starts a group and then a certain number of people join, and then it’s pretty much over. Except for one group I’m in, which sends out information about parties in Barcelona almost every week. I guess some groups manage to find the right balance between inactivity and too much noise, but probably not many. In any event, it’s not pull. If I want to know what’s happening lately with Ending Aging, I will learn a few things from their Facebook group, but if I want to know something specific, like when Aubrey De Gray is coming to New York to speak next, I will have to search online for his (push) calendar.

Apps. I don’t have that much experience with Facebook apps, but my understanding is that you interact with them inside of Facebook, and the apps try to get you to leave, which you can if you click away. But Facebook is much more interested in bringing your app data and activities into Facebook than going the other way. I don’t have any official data, but I expect 95% of all application activity takes place inside of Facebook rather than on the web site of the application.

News. Sometime later this year, I expect Facebook will mine the datastream of all people’s status updates, providing a searchable news feed. It’s highly likely that news feed will be keyword based, but they may have something semantic up their sleeves. Let’s see.

Open Web. Clearly, Facebook does not embrace the principles of the open web. They don’t want people doing things with their Facebook accounts outside of Facebook. Facebook may want to become your online data locker, but they don’t want to make your information available in standard formats that let us form webs of data. An open web courtesy of Facebook would be a black hole, where all the activity would have to take place inside of Facebook as it gets bigger and bigger, trying to replace the web itself. The only problem with this is that the web is already pretty good at being an all-purpose web connecting billions of people, so this strategy will ultimately fail.

Account portability. As we know from Pull, one of the most important signs that a company “gets” the semantic web is account portability. It’s great that Google supports account portability so enthusiastically, but so far, Google isn’t really doing much about the semantic web. Facebook seems to be going the other way. Facebook wants to hang onto your data and doesn’t want you to transfer it anywhere else. There have been data-ownership wars over this issue, and Facebook has had to look hard at its user agreement. In public, Facebook spokespeople say …

Facebook is committed to its mission of providing people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.

… however, it’s clear that Facebook would prefer to be the world’s largest walled garden (that honor currently goes to China). Why do we have to set up separate accounts at all our different social networks? Why can’t we put our information in the center, and let our social networks come to us instead (see page 104 of Pull). Now that Google’s Buzz will support open standards and become part of the open web, the tide may be turning. Buzz plugs and plays with the rest of the web, while Facebook remains sealed off.

Will Facebook embrace true account portability and allow more of your information to be seen and used outside Facebook? Tell me what you think in the comments. I’d love to hear any predictions.

Overall, Facebook scores pretty low on the Pull/Semantic-Web Acid Test. That leaves plenty of room for others to come in and start something that grows even bigger.