Facebook’s recently announced Open Graph platform adds a social layer of information to the websites you already use. When you go to a site that incorporates it (and assuming you’re logged into Facebook, which is a pretty good bet considering nearly 500 million people are) you can see whom of your friends have signed-up for the service, or read the article, or bought the shoes, or the downloaded the band’s album. This social context is a new and important step for the web.
Google has defined the past decade of the Internet with its subtle but revolutionary insight that the value of a web page is related to the number of other web pages that link to it (which is at the heart of its famed Page Rank algorithm). Facebook could define the next decade of the web with a related but critically different idea: that the value of a web page is related to how many of your friends link to it.
So what does this mean for the future of the web? Arguably, Facebook’s new Open Graph puts it in a position to become the single most dominant platform on the Internet, and on a scale that we’ve never before seen. With 5 times more users than Twitter, access to deeper and more private information, and now, it’s open policy that enables painless deep-integration with third-party sites, Facebook could become the default standard of the Internet. One could imagine a world in which every sign-in process, every comment, every search, even, funnels through Facebook’s back-end.
This future, though, has frightening implications for privacy and competition. What has made the Internet so great in the first place is that it is the most open platform ever. It was set up without an official central governing body, and with no critical closed standards, so that anyone could use its simple tools to broadcast their information to the world. Facebook’s potential role as a backbone in the system threatens this openness. At the end of the day Facebook is a for-profit corporation with its own interests, and nothing prevents it from using its power to squash competitors, or using its data to entice advertisers at the expense of basic privacy.
The idea of adding a social layer to the web is a powerful one, but having it controlled by a single company is scary. Facebook’s Open Graph is less of an Open Graph, and more of a Facebook Graph. We can only hope that a truly open standard emerges so that the future of the Internet isn’t at the whim of a historically closed company.