With a dizzying array of announcements this week, it seems almost inevitable that the web will become, at least for the near future, an extension of Facebook. Like it or not.
In some ways it’s a great development, making it simpler to connect what you read, watch and listen to. But there’s a nagging suspicion that when Facebook says it’s simply reacting to changing norms about how public we want our lives to be, that it’s actually forging that condition, not reacting to it.
And when I say forging, I intend both meanings of the word.
The question is whether you are actually using Facebook to keep in touch with your friends and family — or whether Facebook is just using you.
With a few deft maneuvers, Facebook is aiming to make itself the center of the internet, the central repository and publisher of what users like and do online. Facebook’s new tendrils will likely give what is already the world’s largest social network enough data to compete with Google for billions from advertisers who are hungry to spend their ad dollars on ads they can target specifically.
Facebook’s main lever to get all this data funneled to them is a simple “I Like” button, which websites can embed on their pages with very little effort. When a user clicks on that button, they signal to Facebook to add their vote on their user stream that they are a fan of this NFL player, this romantic comedy or that blog. Websites that embed some smart metadata (geared mostly for Facebook) into their pages let Facebook know what kind of thing a user likes, so Facebook can automatically add it to the relevant section of that person’s profile — with a link back to the original site.
Sites can also choose to install a sharing toolbar that sits at the bottom of your browser while you are on your site, or an even larger widget that shows what you and your friends are currently doing on Facebook — and with the “Like” button — around the net.
The setup makes it simple for users logged into Facebook to update their profiles and broadcast their activities to the world (liking something, including a political or religious group, like many parts of all Facebook profiles these days, is public information, no matter how you configure privacy settings).
Logged-in Facebook users will also be transmitting information about their travels around the net to Facebook servers whenever they visit a page deploying the Like button, regardless of whether they actually click that button or not. Facebook also plans to transmit user data to some web services ahead of their visit — so that when you visit the site, it’s “instantly personalized.” In practice, this means that if you are new to the music site Pandora, they’ll have a custom station waiting for you based on the music you’ve liked in your profile.
While such tracking happens with third-party ad networks, they don’t know your name or anything about you other than where you go on the net. Facebook has far more to connect your browsing information to. Perhaps the closest analog is Google’s creepy Web History which tracks you around the web and records every URL you visit, but that system only works for people who install the Google Toolbar and who don’t unclick the “Web History” button when they create a Google account. That system, along with your search history, are also separate from Google’s ad tracking system, which doesn’t know your name or who your friends are.
Certainly, this sets Facebook in some competition with Google, especially with AdSense, which is Google’s ad platform that publishers use to put ads on their sites.
But reports that Facebook has “won” the web are laughable, especially given the numbers Google put up this month, with more than $6 billion in revenue over the first 3 months of the year. Moreover, the bulk of Google’s ad revenue comes from “contextual” ads, which rely on the contents of a web page or search query. It’s far from clear that targeted ads — even ones based on deep profiles — would do better than the ads on Google’s search page, even if Facebook eventually thinks it can build a search engine whose rankings are set via the data it collects from users.
Facebook built much of this easy-to-use system on “open” standards, as WebMonkey’s Michael Calore reports, even as it sucks the data into a closed community. But those standards are used almost exclusively by Facebook, and ignore the work that’s been done by others to create universally understandable meta-data.
Moreover, the Like button feeds exclusively to Facebook. If your primary identity on the net is at LinkedIn or Google or MySpace or god forbid, on your own domain, this button does you no good. Facebook didn’t build this architecture to make the net better, it built it to make Facebook money.
You can opt out of some of this through Facebook’s increasingly arcane privacy settings, though most won’t do anything to stop Facebook’s relentless push to make people’s profiles public.
And at least until someone comes up with a universal “like” button that feeds your votes to the place you want it to go, the web will increasingly become an extension of Facebook. The question for many in the days to come is whether you are actually using Facebook to keep in touch with your friends and family, or whether Facebook is just using you.