At its F8 conference two weeks ago, Facebook launched an ambitious — some might even say scary — venture aimed at extending itself into the broader web, a vision that involves connecting the social network and its users to virtually every website and service through a series of APIs, programming protocols and social “plugins.” Mark Zuckerberg said that within 24 hours of his keynote there would be “one billion like buttons” on web pages around the Internet, and by the end of this week there were estimated to be 50,000 sites that had implemented Facebook’s expanded connection features.
This is a great feature if you are Facebook, since it explicitly exposes readers of web sites like CNN and other major media outlets to the sharing features of Facebook. And it’s good for the sites that implement the various connection features, since they get to effectively piggyback on Facebook’s incredible reach — it has 400 million users and is still growing rapidly — and build engagement with their readers.
But is it good for the web as a whole? Not everyone believes so. On the very day that Mark Zuckerberg was making his keynote speech about the company’s use of the “social graph” to connect with the rest of the web, a group of open advocates were creating what they hope could be an alternative to Facebook’s connection protocols.
The project is called Open Like, and the intention is to have an open-source version of the “Like” button that allows any site to make use of that information. One of the instigators behind the project is Chris Dixon, co-founder of Hunch.com, along with several of his co-founders and Hunch engineers. Within a day or so, developers were trying to cobble together what an Open Like protocol might look like.
Dixon makes a point of noting that he isn’t proposing an open standard because he hates Facebook — he just thinks that having a social system effectively controlled by a single company is bad for innovation. “I just think it’s a bad thing for the web,” he said. “What if HTTP or SMTP were owned by one company?” He isn’t alone. Chris Messina, a prominent open advocate who now works for Google, wrote a blog post in which he argued that Facebook’s new features are not really open, despite the fact that the company calls its protocol the “open graph protocol.”
When all likes lead to Facebook, and liking requires a Facebook account, and Facebook gets to hoard all of the metadata and likes around the interactions between people and content, it depletes the ecosystem of potential and chaos — those attributes which make the technology industry so interesting and competitive.
So what might level the playing field? One thing could make a huge difference: Google could make a play for the open social graph protocol, either by supporting Open Like or by taking it over. Messina, who is in charge of open development at Google, has already expressed interest in the Open Like project. And as programmer Jesse Stay has mentioned, Google has many similar features to those Facebook announced, including the Open Social platform that it launched to much fanfare a couple of years ago but hasn’t really implemented.
Google already has a history of supporting open-source standards and initiatives: it uses open-source software, it contributes programming labor to the open-source community, and its Android mobile operating system is open source. Apart from some concerns raised when it launched its Buzz social network, and some difficulties with European legislators, the company has had very few privacy-related issues dogging it over the past year or two, whereas Facebook has had repeated problems with users complaining about changes to its guidelines.
If anyone has a hope of becoming a strong alternative to Facebook when it comes to a social graph protocol that is open rather than proprietary, Google appears to be the best candidate. Whether it wants to pursue that kind of head-to-head battle with the giant social network is another question. Apart from Messina’s post, there haven’t been any indications that Google wants to take on the 800-pound gorilla in a battle for control of the social web — but it may have to. It’s either that, or watch Facebook reap all the benefits.