Facebook’s Open Graph: Beating Google to the Punch?

May 1, 2010

A complaint about the Web has been that there is so much information, and though Google makes it considerably easier to find information, it isn’t perfect. Many have thought that the rise of the semantic web, or the ability of computers to better predict the thoughts behind humans searching for information.

While reading Red Eye’s cover story on Facebook’s new “open graph” platform, a thought struck me:

Facebook is beating Google to the punch.

Its new “like” feature on partner sites lets you not only personalize the Web for you, but for others as well. It builds a collection of information that is automatically shared with your friends, who in turn can share it with their friends with the click of a button. At some point, it may be possible to find information faster by using Facebook than using Google. If you know a particular friend always shares information related to cooking recipes, it may be faster, and easier, to get a recipe from Facebook than by searching Google.

That seems in line with Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, and his assertion that the open graph “helps to create a smarter, personalized Web that gets better with every action taken.” He talks about having more personalized experiences on the Web, implying that it is not simply a collection of information, but a connection of information.

On the one hand, this is good news. As search has evolved, and as we have become more accustomed to it, the challenge has been how to deliver a better experience. There are a number of players at work, from algorithms to data storage to search engine marketers, all trying to figure out what the algorithm wants. And the algorithm, or rather the people behind the algorithm, are in a constant struggle to deliver relevant content while keeping out spam, or people more inclined to game the system for profit rather than providing content people want.

Facebook’s new “like” button and its “open graph” platform has the ability to deliver the better experience without involving all the middle men. Instead of leaving it up to computer scientists to figure out how to improve search, Facebook has decided to crowd source the effort.

Crowd sourcing, however, presumes everyone wants to share everything with everyone. According to a post over on the Security Blog in January of this year, 35% of people checked their Facebook privacy settings, but the industry standard is about five to ten percent. The Electronic Frontier Foundation posted an outline of Facebook’s privacy policy changes, illuminating the erosion of privacy settings with which we have all become too familiar. It is difficult to see the continuing erosion as anything more than benefiting Facebook’s bottom line. Remember, though, that people thought the same thing of Google AdWords. It seemed like Google was now reading your email, and businesses could track your movements on websites once you clicked their ad. What we initially perceived as an invasion of privacy has become the standard. We’re accustomed to those ads in Gmail and in Google. And we like them. Why? Because they’re tailored to use by our search terms.

Facebook is now building on that idea, and taking it to the next level. Since Facebook collects so much data about us already, data we often freely volunteer, making it public seems the next logical step. Allowing us to more easily compile and share stuff we find online is the next logical step.

I posted earlier about an idea I’ve had, a dashboard for the Web. Perhaps Facebook is the on its way to becoming just that.

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Privacy is about Context

April 25, 2010

I admit to being one to say that privacy is dead. At a presentation I gave to lawyers on social networking a few weeks ago, the first thing I said is that there is no such thing as privacy…in the context of the Internet. With Facebook’s recent changes to its policies, people are claiming (again) that privacy is dead. Robert Scoble says we’re an inch closer now, thanks to Facebook, and many seem to agree.

At this point, privacy has become one of those polarizing topics. You are either on the side of it existing and thus demand more controls from companies or through federal regulation, or you are on the side that it’s dead so people should shut up and move on already.

I think there is a middle ground, called Context.

To say privacy is completely dead, that it is an illusion, leads me to think that identity fraud must also be an illusion. If privacy is dead, then every snippet of information about me, from my third grade teacher to my calculus grade in undergrad to my complete medical history is available to the public. My credit card information, anything I have purchased in the last three days, three months or three years. Where I’ve lived. Who my car insurance provider is, who my health care insurance provider is, whether or not I have been to the dentist, last time I got gas and where and anything else that can be tracked is publicly available, if privacy is dead.

If privacy exists, then none of that information is available.

Clearly, neither side is completely correct. Companies like Facebook, it can be argued, are forcing us closer to non-existent privacy, but that, too, leaves out context. We forget, in this world of over sharing, there is still some information that is private, by law or because we choose not to share it.

Medical histories, prescription drugs, genetic predispositions…they are still private because the context of that information keeps it that way. Now, that context may change. There’s an article in the Chicago Tribune today about therapsits Facebooking or Googling patients, and vise versa. But for now, the context remains the same.

So as the arguments over privacy continue to rage, take a minute to think about context. Under what context is information considered private? And should it remain that way, or is the context changing for whatever reason? I imagine there are people who wouldn’t mind having their complete medical history public, but then you have to think about the social implications of such an action. Whether or not we admit it, we make judgments about people. Knowing your medical history may provide the wrong impression because assumptions are made.

Just take a minute and consider the context. Privacy doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing issue. We are clearly better served in a context where our information is useful and beneficial when publicly available, but in another context, we may be irreparably harmed. Companies like Facebook and Google are forcing us to look at privacy in context, and we would be wise to oblige.