Facebook Graph Search is super-powerful – if all your friends obsessively post to Facebook

January 15, 2013 | 3 comments

Facebook’s new Graph Search is an exceptionally powerful idea. Here are some searches I’m looking forward to running:

  • Bars my friends like in San Francisco
  • My friends who like Doctor Who and live near me and like pizza
  • Friends that know [insert investor or entrepreneur name here]

Make no mistake: this is a new kind of search that shows the way for more advanced social software, everywhere. There’s no doubting that it’s an impressive achievement, that has the potential to change the way people use the Internet.

Or it would. You see, Graph Search’s Achilles’ heel is Facebook itself.

Facebook is a walled garden; a closed box. Information on the service stays on the service, and it’s hard to import it in from other places. As a result, the information about your likes, your friendships and your location in Graph Search are needfully based on information you and your friends have explicitly posted to Facebook.

That makes it much less of an achievement than it could have been. To use the above examples, I don’t tend to like bars or restaurants on Facebook (although I might on Yelp or Foursquare, or mention them on Twitter); I’m not going to tell Facebook that I like pizza, because why would I; and I’m much more likely to “friend” an investor or an entrepreneur on LinkedIn than Facebook, because the former focuses on my work achievements, and the latter is exponentially more likely to show them a picture of me at some random party next to some guy I don’t know wearing one of those beer hats. (Reader, I speak from experience.)

So Facebook is working from an incomplete social graph. What’s interesting to me is that if they turn more of their focus to social graph search, it makes more sense for them to start capturing more of the outside world – and become more open in the process. A company that to date has spent most of its energy capturing esoteric information about peoples’ personal lives and locking them in a black box will now have to learn to talk to the rest of the web, in order to allow this product to reach its full potential. There’s even an opportunity here for crawling and encouraging federated social networks.

Will this happen? It’s hard to say. Whether they decide to open up and start consuming and publishing graph information depends on their internal culture. It’s also a more complicated problem than, say, implementing a Google-style page search: Facebook has access permissions, which must be obeyed. The search results I see might be very different to the search results you see, based not just on our different social graphs, but what information about themselves our friends have chosen to allow each of us to view. If Graph Search just crawls public information, this is moot, of course, but having this deep level of privacy integration would be an actual reason to use Facebook to store this information. (Or for Facebook to start exporting its access control to third parties via an open API – this was an obvious route for Google+ to take, but they’ve been surprisingly slow to do so.)

Until Facebook opens up, which given all available information is a bit like saying until hell freezes over and golden rain falls from the sky, there’s still everything to play for in social search. Facebook has shown us the way, but while they only use a tiny subset of the information available to them, it’s only a proof of concept.

Here’s what Google+ could have been

April 6, 2012 | 2 comments

Confession: I want to like Google+. I think competition is a great thing, and Google is in a unique position to do something fascinating with social platforms. It’s also significant that a lot of really brilliant people from the decentralized web community – Chris Messina, Will Norris and Stephen Paul Weber, for example – now work at Google. (Not to mention Elgg’s Evan Winslow.) I have nothing but respect for those guys. And, hey, I’ll admit that I’m a little envious that they get to work on it.

In my opinion, search needs to be at the center of social software. It’s how you find new people, resources and shared conversations. As I argued on a panel at SXSW 2011, it’s far more natural to visit someone’s profile by typing “Ben Werdmuller” (for example) into a box than typing “http://benwerd.com/” or “http://facebook.com/ben.werdmuller”.

Google has over 66% of the US search market, so it’s in a great place to be where that happens, which is presumably what was on their minds when they decided to build a social platform. They also have traditionally had a problem with the “deep web” – the non-public bits of information that its spiders can’t get to. More and more, that’s because these web resources are subject to user-centric access permissions within web applications. Because the Google search spider isn’t a user, it doesn’t have access to these resources, and they never get listed.

Which is why I’m so surprised that Google+ has remained a monolithic social dashboard, akin to Twitter or Facebook. (In fact, it’s more so than Facebook, which has done a great job at turning itself into a very impressive social platform.) You share stuff using +1 buttons or the interface on the Google+ site itself, and are limited to the small number of data types that Google have provided on their own site. You can post links, photos, videos and text updates.

But Google is great at making platforms. Because of its openness, Google Maps is still the go-to standard for displaying cartographic information on the web. (It’s significant that its creator now works at Facebook.) Google Analytics is just about everywhere. And Google APIs are typically easy to use, fast to integrate and powerful.

So why isn’t Google+ a platform? The Circles functionality is brilliant: nuanced access control made simple. If Google integrated those access controls throughout the whole web, allowing anyone to integrate them into their sites and applications with search and universal sharing across all of them, they would effectively become a social application operating system. It would be a new kind of platform altogether, and would cement their search portal – and thus, their advertising – as the default place to look for connected resources. To keep privately-shared resources secure, social objects could be stored in the Google cloud, presenting themselves to a requesting application only if the authenticated user had access. At Elgg, we wanted to do this with a feed format called the Open Data Definition half a decade ago, but didn’t have the resource to execute to our satisfaction; Google has those resources. Universally shareable social objects with privacy controls, searchable via a unified Google interface, would transform the web.

Maybe this is what Google is warming up to. But right now, and probably for the foreseeable future, Facebook is a more interesting social platform.

The Facebook Timeline in the New York Times

December 15, 2011 | Leave a comment

Facebook Timeline: lost a loved one?I’m quoted in the New York Times article about the global release of the Facebook Timeline:

“We’ve all been dropping status updates and photos into a void,” said Ben Werdmuller, the chief technology officer at Latakoo, a video service. “We knew we were sharing this much, of course, but it’s weird to realize they’ve been keeping this information and can serve it up for anyone to see.”

Mr. Werdmuller, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., said that the experience of browsing through his social history on Facebook was emotionally evocative – not unlike unearthing an old yearbook or shoebox filled with photographs and letters.

Regular readers will know that my opinion goes beyond it being “weird”. Here’s how I described it back in September:

Except now, when someone clicks through from anywhere on the web that uses Facebook Connect to see your profile, they’ll really see you: your life in context. It’s a contextual identity; something you won’t get from a real name, a passport, an ID card, or even a DNA profile. Whereas previously profiles were a collection of hand-picked pieces of information coupled with some things you’d shared recently, now you’ll see wedding photos, pictures of drunken nights on the town four years ago, and perhaps a status update you made when you were hurt and upset after something you’ve long forgotten that happened in 2006 – mixed up with more professional status updates and links, of course.

You can read my entire Facebook Timeline post over here, and here’s today’s New York Times article.

Is it time to revive the Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web?

September 25, 2011 | 2 comments

DataSharingSummit group photo

In some ways, the web industry seems to have lost its way. From empowering users and smashing incumbent gatekeepers, the emphasis is now on how to raise the next round of funding and convert active users into their maximum possible value..

My piece about Facebook, contextual identity and radical transparency continues to get a lot of attention, and the conversation continues. Dave Winer urged his readers to log out of Facebook, and Nik Cubrilovic countered that logging out doesn’t help. In short, when you log out, Facebook continues to remember who you are, and your account details are still sent whenever you access a Facebook resource (like a page or facebook.com or a Like button anywhere). He goes on to say that:

Privacy today feels like what security did 10-15 years ago – there is an awareness of the issues steadily building and blog posts from prominent technologists is helping to steamroll public consciousness. The risks around privacy today are just as serious as security leaks were then – except that there is an order of magnitude more users online and a lot more private data being shared on the web.

It’s clear that privacy is becoming a business factor as well as something that some of us care about from an ethical standpoint, and that’s in large part due to Facebook bringing it to the public’s attention. I’m reminded of the Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web, from 2007, which many of us signed as part of Marc Canter’s Data Sharing Summit. It was intended to address many of these issues before they became wider problems.

The meat of the Bill of Rights is:

We publicly assert that all users of the social web are entitled to certain fundamental rights, specifically:

Ownership of their own personal information, including: their own profile data; the list of people they are connected to; the activity stream of content they create;

Control of whether and how such personal information is shared with others; and

Freedom to grant persistent access to their personal information to trusted external sites.

At the meeting, a large and influential (at the time) web corporation suggested that the word “ownership” was a step too far, and that it should be enough for users to simply have control. Since then, I think it’s become acceptable to suggest that users own their data (as in the course of using a web service, a reasonable person would assume that he or she already does); instead, web services are granted an irrevocable license to use it.

Given this, and given the conversations we’ve been having as a community, perhaps the time is right to revive aspects of this document, and bring it up to date for 2011?

Photo: the Data Sharing Summit group, September 8, 2007. A prize for the first person to identify 90% of the people in the picture.

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