The day of 21st April 2010 was Facebook's F8 developer conference. As a result, we've all since been wading through swamps of new articles on announcements that Zuckerberg and his buddies made on subjects such as the Open Graph, APIs and plug-ins. Now that's all very well if you happen to write software but, to the rest of us, it's more or less gobbledygook. So what does all this talk mean for plain, simple Facebook users of the world? The answers, of course, lie below.
What has Facebook announced?
Essentially, there's three or four main areas, depending upon how you look at it, as well as a bit of a bonus which wasn't so much unveiled as just laid down as a little tester. They are as follows:
1) Social Plug-ins
This is probably the easiest part to get a handle on. What Facebook is doing is offering a bunch of social plug-ins as a way of other websites to embed widgets on their own pages with direct and often live access to what's going on in Facebook in relation to the site that you happen to be looking at.
If you go to CNN's homepage, you can see an example of this right now. Look to the right of the screen and you'll see the Friends' Activity plug-in which can direct you to other CNN pages which one of your friends on Facebook may have shared on their Facebook profiles. It's a clever way of making the content of another website more appropriate to each individual viewer.
Another of the plug-ins can be seen on IMDb where all the pages have a Like widget, just the same as the ones you would see on Facebook itself next to friends' comments and updates and such. If you Like another page, it'll work in much the same manner with that page then appearing as a link on your profile. Essentially, the Like feature of Facebook suddenly becomes a powerful Digg-like tool - a recommendation engine for other websites.
That said, there is a separate Recommendations plug-in to be added as well. This will appear in rather the same way as the Activity Stream but will be regardless of what your friends have shared. Instead, it will suggest relevant content based on the site you're looking at. Whether those links will take you to other sites or not has not been stated.
The Log in plug-in (yeah, a mouthful, that one) is essentially a re-branding of the Facebook Connect scheme which merges your membership of sites with your Facebook profile as well. You'll be able to hit the Log in widget on another site which will then give you information from your Facebook network as well such as all your other friends that are also registered for this site.
The final plug-in is the Social Bar which will show your friends who are also on the same external site as well as allow you to chat and show the Likes within your network for the pages that you're on.
2) The Open Graph
Slightly mind-bending, this one. So, the best thing to do is not think about it too hard. The Open Graph is a social platform that Facebook is intending to turn into a more intelligent way of searching the internet. At the heart of it is the idea of the semantic web which is all about offering an individually relevant set of search results based on the user doing the looking - all this rather than the traditional approach of chucking in a search term and getting the same results as anyone else would who happens to be using Google.
The latter method relies on how the search engine happens to have ranked and indexed all the pages, whereas the Open Graph intends to present pages based on you're more likely looking for or might want to see.
Facebook, of course, has a massive user base of 400 million people and how they relate to each other. The Open Graph platform is going to add to that all the relationships you have with objects as well, be they web pages, restaurants, music, films or whatever and all based on what you've shared and Liked and all the apps you use. Through that, Facebook can work out an almost complete social map of your personality and how strong your feelings are towards each of these connections to offer a more relevant search for you. Very ambitious indeed.
3) Graph API
If there's one you don't need to know about - certainly on the surface - then this is it. The Graph API is an improvement to the core Facebook API which will allow developers to create better applications and more easily as well. Along with this comes the removal of the 24 hour rule on accessing user data. Until now, developers haven't been allowed to touch our information after 1 day has passed. Now, they can cache it for as long as they like.
Zuckerberg's version of the Jobs "one more thing" was the was the announcement of the Docs.com Facebook integration. Docs.com is the Microsoft Office suite version of Google Docs that's currently in beta. The idea is that, from within Facebook, users will be able to create documents, share them with friends and edit them together as well.
There was no specific mention of Facebook getting into the world of location tracking, which is something the world has been long expecting, but everyone at the F8 conference was issued with an RFID card to touch in and out of at various places. The theory is that Facebook might be testing this so that users could check-in to real locations in the world and that that information would somehow appear on their profiles of the future.
What does this mean for Facebook users like me?
Good question. Well, the first thing that you'll see is all the new widgets and plug-ins on other sites all over the web. Whether you get involved or not, lots of your Facebook network will and you'll see many more links popping up on your News Feed and people's walls. It'll also provide some decent alternative ways of finding content that you're actually interested in as soon as you arrive on external sites.
The part that will concern people a bit is the idea of logging into other websites with your Facebook profile in the way that Facebook Connect has already tried to get us all to do. Do we really want all these other websites having access to our Facebook profiles and data as well? Take a good look at what's on your Facebook pages and that's quite a lot of personal information. In all likelihood, there'll be enough people using the Log in widgets for it to be worthwhile but how big the uptake will be is another thing. Doubtless, encouraging people to just "Log in" will probably help.
The Open Graph project is the big one in all of this, though. It'll take a long time to come into play but, when it does, it could offer the first serious challenge to Google in a long time making real-time search look like a bit of mole hill. Naturally, Google is probably working on some semantic web ideas of its own but what Facebook has that Google doesn't is bags and bags of metadata on each of us and it's going to be interesting to see how anyone competes with that.
Finally, on the RFID idea, it's hard to tell exactly what Facebook has planned but one could imagine walking around with a future mobile phone containing an RFID chip which would then connect back to your profile and tell everyone what you're up to in a way somewhere between Google Latitude and Foursquare, or perhaps to an even higher level. Imagine, making a payment at the White Hart for two pints and a Snowball via contactless payment on your phone and then that information being shared on Facebook; interesting and yet entirely obtrusive, which leads us on to...
That sounds a bit scary. Is my data safe?
Well, the short answer is no. It's no because a lot of these announcements mean further reaching consequences of stating your opinion on Facebook combined with a greater devolution of that responsibility away from Facebook and to the individual.
It's not worth worrying about the data caching by the developers because, as it goes, most of them were hacking to circumvent the 24 rule anyway. Plus, we all pretty much knew that signing up to Facebook apps meant a certain degree of selling your soul to the devil anyway. The trouble is that now, anything you share or Like around the web is going to turn up on your profile and be obvious to all your friends as well as appear in widgets on external sites as well. There's nothing really wrong with that, so long as you're aware of what you're doing when you do it. It almost becomes an extension of the Public portion of your profile.
With any luck, there might be a grouping system introduced whereby you only let certain people in your network see certain other pages that you Like but there's a good chance that that will be traded off in favour of keeping the system simple. In that case, once again, it's very much up to the individual to remember how public they're being.
Part of the announcement in the new Graph API is also around apps asking for permission. Rather than having to do so at every turn, as happens at the moment, instead there'll be a one off warning before your data can be shared by an application at the click of a button. Again, it's not doing anything that doesn't happen already but the reminder is being removed, so the user has to bear in mind exactly what they've signed up for each time.
And what should I do about it?
It rather boils down to the new age old question of how much do you really care? If you keep certain parts of your private life very isolated from your friends and colleagues, then you need to be careful how you use Facebook and now other websites as well. You'll also need to read those disclaimers and what each app would like to access and share about you a little more carefully.
On the other hand, a lot of this is really going to be geared towards Facebook being able to make money by advertising with more relevance to its users. Now if you're going to have to have adverts on your page, then you may as well have ads about products you might actually quite like to buy, rather than just junk. So, perhaps it's not such a bad thing. There are issues of data breaches that Facebook is still bound by, however, and, just because an app might share your likes and dislikes, it won't necessarily divulge your name, rank and serial number.
The fact is, that this is probably the way the web's going anyway and there's going to have to be more in the public consciousness about thinking before we click if we want better information and better services at our fingertips as we go into the future. But that's really a discussion for another time.
So, is Facebook taking over the world then?
It seems to be having a good go at it. There are already 30 partners that have signed up with the Open Graph scheme and they're all big players like Yelp, Pandora, Flikster, CNN and IMDb. Speak to people in the business world about tech giants of the future and most will name Facebook in their top five along with Google, Apple and others. What we now have an idea of is how Zuckerberg is planning on getting there.
So what do you make of all this? Will you be using the off-site widgets? Do you like the idea of web search based on what's relevant to you and are you happy enough for Facebook to gather and record your metadata and habits for the privilege? Let us know.