Facebook Boldly Annexes the Web

The most confusing thing about the so-called “social Web” has been that it’s too often thought of as an entirely separate Web unto itself. It’s as though Facebook and Twitter are different planets in the solar system — digital orbs that we can shuttle to and from with the flick of a click. And, sometimes, it’s almost as if they aren’t even in the same cyber-galaxy.

Until today.

That’s because Facebook today advanced its “Open Graph” integration with the rest of the Web, releasing a new set of media-oriented features, and finally tying its own planet inextricably to — if not outright annexing — the rest of the digital universe.

Over the last several months, as a Beta partner in this initiative, it’s become clear to me that this is far more than just an end-user feature. If you look closely at these enhancements, and use them — as I have — you realize that Facebook is making a giant leap forward in the media cosmos; and you sense, meanwhile, that Google could easily be left on its Earth-bound launchpad, held back by commercial gravity.

What makes all this so Earth-shattering?

Simply said, with a few extra lines of code on any Web page, Facebook now becomes the hub for every user’s action — watching a video, reviewing a recipe, clicking a page, reading an article, and much more.

But beyond that, those same lines of code are driving a powerful and fundamental transition underneath the pages themselves: transforming them from the bits and bytes of HTML code, text, and images into much-needed, and much sought-after, meaning. In essence, Facebook is taking these enhancements and initiating the first major advance in deciphering the Internet since the hyperlink itself.

And, in the process, Facebook is confirming the fact that it’s the new and undisputed “social operating system” on today’s people-centric Web.

To be sure, Facebook now controls the ebb and flow of human connectivity, interpersonal sharing and relationships on the Internet.

The end result is that Facebook will now do what Google can’t. Or, put another way, Facebook will now be able to fulfill Google’s very own mission better than Google itself can, succeeding at a whole new level of organizing and making accessible all the world’s information — not to mention its activities and human participants.

A Networked Rosetta Stone for the Semantic Web

With the new enhancements for its “custom” Open Graph, Facebook will now be wiring its Web to capture every page, every user action, and, eventually, every significant detail — all recorded and categorized.

Unlike previous notable attempts to predict, or even define, a “semantic” Web — a Web where actions and objects are identified, categorized, and have meaning — I believe that Facebook’s will succeed. At first, however, it will do this one action and object at a time, gradually adding each one into its ever-expanding repertoire.

For its semantic approach, Facebook has two incredible advantages: it knows the people of the Web intimately; and, unlike any other system in the world, it records a true timeline of activity.

Let’s look at the people. Facebook knows more about most people than even top law enforcement agencies.

For activities, though, its vocabulary may start out relatively basic; but already it forms the structure to identify what actions can be applied to what entities.

As for the objects themselves, Facebook has initiated a data collection system that will populate the world’s largest representation of things.

Ultimately, however, Facebook will succeed where others have failed for one even more powerful reason than structure, and that’s because it offers a compelling incentive to the millions of parties who will provide this data: By participating, publishers will increase their traffic in the form of clicks from other users earned via meaningful semantic data instead of SEO acrobatics — and Facebook is one of the top traffic suppliers on the Web. Never before has anyone offered such a valuable payback for codifying all the world’s information systematically. And, in the process, Facebook is leveraging subject matter experts on every topic in the universe.

This approach means we are creating relationships; not between words, the way previous semantic Web conceptions have conceived of them, but between real people and objects. Everyone, even a basic rules engine, can figure out that I have a mother (who doesn’t?). But Facebook will know something far more important: whether I send her a birthday card annually (I do), or whether I make her dinner weekly (she wishes!).

Just as importantly, Facebook has the cooperation of 750 million people around the world, each of whom is recording some portion — the portion they want to share — of their lives in Facebook.

So, while the traffic and social capital accrue to the participating publishers and users, the greatest asset — the massively linked database of all the world’s information and most of online humanity’s activities — becomes proprietary to Facebook itself.

In sum, this is an incredibly bold play that the world has never conceived of before.

The Most Valuable Data in the Universe

And the resulting Facebook database will have similarly unprecedented value. Beyond the value of Facebook’s existing social capabilities, it has the potential to power the greatest discovery engine since the power of sight itself.

By knowing us intimately — who we are, what we do, and what our interests are — Facebook is in a position to answer our every desire. Yes, we populate its dataset, but Facebook’s dataset can also populate our lives, by suggesting movies, music, reading, restaurants, and, increasingly, ideas and answers. This massive dataset not only knows us and our friends, but it can use our similarities to people we won’t ever know to help intuit what’s of value to us.

More than just a social engine for the document Web, Facebook is creating a new engine that powers a whole new Web, one where search and social are fully integrated into a complete service.

This service leaves open one critical question: Will Google’s flat document-oriented search approach maintain its value going forward?

Of course, it will take a while before Facebook’s dataset is fully populated — and even longer for it to be completely codified. But Facebook, already the de facto identity server for 750 million people online, will now start amassing point data for each of the billions of objects in the real world. And these first steps will start transforming a social operating system that links people to one that links our whole world together, people and objects.

To Know Me Is To Speak My Language

In this moment-to-moment process of data accumulation, Facebook will start defining and dimensionalizing a digital world filled with links and pages, as well as an ever-expanding catalogue of billions and billions of choices and decisions made on the Web.

This will help Facebook truly know us, and know us in our real context. We exhibit behavior, and have relationships with the world, and Facebook will now be able to thread these fairly seamlessly, using longitudinal knowledge.

If you read articles in the New York Times, for instance, Facebook will begin to know your interests, your views, your reading habits, your diversity of views, your passions and pursuits, as well as the friends you share the material with. It will know what you encounter — and also what you want to encounter.

This is a massive change from the status quo.

The world’s most popular search engine — Google — uses a flat, transactional search. It can’t tell if “lobster” means you want to read about lobster, cook a lobster, or find a lobster restaurant. And it certainly doesn’t have any way to correlate last week’s lobster recipe with this week’s. But Facebook can link all the activities together. It will know that you cooked a lobster and, further down the road, how well the meal went. It will then be able to include you in circles with other gourmands and seafood enthusiasts, and to offer you the opportunity for a host of customized shared experiences that only start with the kitchen.

The net is that, until now, we’ve lived in the Web’s world; but a fully integrated Open Graph will allow the Web to finally live in our world. This is the power of digital intimacy. And it’s coming closer and closer. The issue is no longer whether we’ll be known by our digital companion; it’s how well we’ll be known.

The importance of this cannot be underestimated — because being known is a huge human drive and need, and technology has thus far never been able to cross this digital divide. Google’s sorting and searching just hasn’t gotten us there; but Facebook’s relationship building between people and objects now can.

Ben Elowitz (@elowitz) is co-founder and CEO of next-generation web publisher Wetpaint, and author of the Digital Quarters blog about the future of digital media. Prior to Wetpaint, Elowitz co-founded Blue Nile (NILE).

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