SAN FRANCISCO — Earlier this year, Daniel Ek, the CEO of the music service Spotify, was in a car with Mark Zuckerberg. Ek was visiting the Facebook founder in California while the two companies were working together on what eventually would be part of the massive announcement made by Zuckerberg today at his company’s F8 developer’s conference. It’s an initiative that will unleash new waves of applications on Facebook that will greatly enhance the power of the service — already a major part of people’s lives — by adding a limitless stream of lifestyle data that people can use to share and, ultimately, define themselves with a profile built on a stunning amount of personal information.
It’s all about the Open Graph, Mark Zuckerberg says on a stroll around the company’s Palo Alto headquarters.
The Swedish-based Ek doesn’t like to drive in the United States, so they were getting dinner provisions in Zuckerberg’s car. Ek’s mobile phone rang. The call was from American Express. Its representative told Ek it had detected bogus charges on his account and had cut off his card. It had already issued him another one. Ek asked how they knew this, and he was told that the charges were made in Florida. By examining Ek’s recent card activity — data which provides a personal, even intimate view of a person’s life — American Express had seen his flight to California, and felt confident to make the move.
Ek told his friend what happened. “Cool,” said Mark Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg’s reaction to Ek’s little story comes as no surprise to anyone who has followed Facebook. Some people worry about negative consequences from all the information stored on them in places like credit card registries; others look for the benefits that come when others can use that information to help them. Zuckerberg is the spiritual leader of the latter camp. The company has always been straightforward in its mission to encourage people to share information.
Facebook believes that when people share within its system, without fretting about the data they generate, his company can deliver tangible benefits. (Just as American Express made productive use of Ek’s information.) People will become closer with each other, be able to express themselves, and generally participate in a community of friends and contacts more deeply and fruitfully than they could hope to do so in the physical world. It is an idealistic vision, but self-interest is involved as well. Facebook stores all the data that people share with their buddies, family, business associates and people they sat next to on an airplane once and impulsively friended. And it can use that to allow advertisers to micro-target their sales pitches.
Over the company’s brief history — it has taken only seven years to weave itself into the fabric of life for 800 million people — Facebook has added features that entice its users to share more. Sometimes it encounters objections and in a couple cases, Facebook has made strategic retreats, but generally its users wind up embracing the changes. Mark Zuckerberg’s instinct that people like to share seems sound.
But Thursday at its huge F8 developer’s conference Facebook is taking what might be its biggest step yet in fulfilling the vision. It annouced the culmination of “The Open Graph,” an initiative that will allow thousands of developers to make social applications tightly woven into the Facebook system, much more so than with the existing platform. Media applications in categories like music, news, and video will not only be able to instantly make their content more valuable as friends share what they’re reading, watching and listening to with each other, but the media itself will seem to be part of Facebook. Though media apps are prominent among the F8 launch partners, however, Facebook expects people to write programs that involve every imaginable aspect of life.
In other words, Facebook will be its own not-so-little internet, one on which people do the same things they have always done, but in a social way and, of course, on Facebook. What’s more, all those activities people perform with these apps — listening to a Bjork tune, reading about same-sex marriage laws, cooking Arroz con Pollo, running four miles, donating to Amnesty International — will be stored permanently and made accessible (if the user allows it) on a greatly enhanced profile page that will essentially become a remote-control autobiography.
Combined with other Facebook recent announcements — “friend lists” that help you classify your contacts into groups, a Ticker that gives updates from your cohorts as they happen, and changes in the newsfeed to make it more reflective of what your close friends are doing — Facebook is not so subtly doubling down on its ambitions to enable people to shed the pre-digital cloak of isolation and treat their life as a 24/7 reality show, broadcast to those in their social spheres.
A few weeks ago, Zuckerberg explained the Open Graph to me in a private walk around Facebook’s Palo Alto headquarters (he seems happiest when explaining himself while perambulating). When I ask for a taut definition of the term, he can’t produce one. Unpacking some of the jargon he used to get the idea across, I figure out it’s basically a term Facebook uses as shorthand for we’re going to integrate far more apps, much more deeply into Facebook, and they will less annoying than they were the first time around.
“The Open Graph came from the idea that there’s no way that Facebook is ever going to build all these services ourself,” Zuckerberg says. “So therefore we should enable an ecosystem of developers to build great experiences.” Apparently the first implementation of the idea was the “Like” button, which allows users not only on Facebook but on other websites to indicate approval of something by a mouse-twitch. In barely one year the button has become not just a valuable part of Facebook but a cultural icon, evoking over 3 billion clicks a day. “Our studies show that people are using the ‘Like’ button primarily as a form of self-expression,” says Carl Sjogreen, head of the product platform management team. “So we staring thinking about how we could make that experience much richer.”