UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Is Facebook Really Closed?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 9 Aug 2007

It recent posts Andy Powell and Graham Attwell have seemed to argue against use of Facebook as Facebook is a closed platform. These are all people I know, whose blogs I read and whose opinions I respect. But in this case I feel the situation is not as simple as they make out.

Andy argues that “Facebook appears to be pretty much useless if you want to expose any content you upload into it (photo albums, wall writings, notes, etc.) for aggregation by other services” whilst Graham asks “How can learners get their data from Facebook into their Portfolio. As far as I can see they can’t”.

I feel, though, that the situation is rather more complex than such comments might indicate. I have, for example, added the Facebook Docs application which is described as “the world’s largest library of schoolwork and other documents“. As can be seen from the image, it is possible to download documents from Facebook Docs (which is an interface to the Scribd service which I’ve discussed previously).

Scribd Application In Facebook

It is possible to download the document in various formats, including PDF, MS Word, plain text and as an MP3 file.

Other Facebook applications, such as and Twitter, similarly provide an interface to applications which allow the data to be accessed in various formats.

It is possible to regard Facebook as a closed interface to data which is openly available in other places. From this respect Facebook may be regarded as a useful aggregation of services, which has some parallels with adding various tools as FireFox extensions or plugins.

So rather than having a binary view of the openness of services such as Facebook I would suggest that there is a spectrum to openness. And we (as developers, advisers or whatever) need to have an open approach to how we respond to both the nature of the openness of such services and the values which users might attach to such issues (it would be inappropriate, for example, for an institution to ban use of Facebook because some of the applications may not allow data to be easily exported).

What approaches might be appropriate for addressing possible limitations in exporting data from Facebook applications? I would suggest the following:

  • Education: Informing your user community about the dangers oif using applications which don’t allow the data to be reused elsewhere.
  • Tools: Searching for or developing tools which will enable data to be exported.
  • Metadata: As illustrated in the screen shot, it is possible to include details of alternative locations of the data associated with Facebook applications. I have been using this approach for some time with Powerpoint files I have created: the URL of the master copy is included on the title slide and the notes page which enables the digital master to be accessed if only a paper copy of the slides is available. I have built on this approach when I upload my slides to Slideshare, including the address in the description metadata field.
  • Acceptance: Being willing to acknowledge that there may be cases in which users may be prepared to accept data lock-in e.g. cases in which the applications and data may be regarded as ‘disposable’.
  • Recontexualisation: Regard Facebook as the equivalent an Adobe PDF file or a Firefox plugin: providing a useful service to end users without needing to be fully open and reusable in themselves, as they form a small part of a bigger and more open picture.

I should also add that Michael Webb has also recently given his thoughts on Facebook and openness in a post on More about MyNewport and Facebook in which he suggests that, if users find the services provided from within the Facebook environment useful then “It seems to me utterly irrelevant to be ideologically concerned about whether Facebook is open or not“.


16 Responses to “Is Facebook Really Closed?”

  1. Whilst it is an interesting debate I am with Michael Webb on this one – it is irrelevant. Our students find this incredibly useful, our colleagues and peers are increasingly finding this useful and I certainly do. Instead of debating the issues around how open it is I believe we should be trying to learn and understand why it has become such a useful (and addictive) tool and how we can link in with it.

  2. Paul Walk said

    I don’t believe this is irrelevant, and I don’t take an idealogical position. I agree with Brian’s ‘spectrum’ of openness – I just happen to think that FB is at the very closed end of the spectrum.

    Brian’s example of content which is down-loadable is content created and hosted elsewhere – Andy Powell’s point is about the content created within FB – which is, as far as I can tell, ‘closed’. Graham Attwell’s question about the portfolio goes unanswered, unless we restrict ourselves to the non-Facebook aspects of FB, such as the interface to Scribd and relegate FB to being this week’s Netvibes.

    I accept that FB is seen by some as useful – it’s certainly very popular – and is worth exploring and discussing. I think the fact that is popular in spite of the fact that it is closed is actually quite interesting.


  3. That an application designed to work with Facebook can export data does not mean that Facebook is open, nor does it negate the fact that the vast majority of other applications designed to work with Facebook are open.

  4. ick, correction… ‘the vast majority of other applications designed to work with Facebook are *not* open.’

  5. a few points:

    1. the vast, vast majority of users don’t mind that it’s not open, they’re happy for facebook to be the platform for all their content because [a] they trust it [b] it’s the best place to share with their friends [c] it’s the easiest interface to use, [d] it saves on data storage, and [e] it links to social tools that are fun and useful.

    2. Why would anyone want to export their wall posts and messages? You can download entire photo albums in one click with this firefox extension, and there’s dozens of greasemonkey scripts out there that scrape all sorts of content off for you.

    3. But anyway, another couple of things to add to your list Brian, institutions should also be:
    [a] be getting in touch with facebook about how to let them backup vital data?
    [b] learning from services like plaxo pulse or the netvibes facebook widget that take out some facebook data and place it on elsewhere?


  6. Mike said

    Yes, ideologically it’d be lovely for FB to be completely open. It’d also be lovely for MySpace to be open. But neither is, and both are wildly successful. The “first web” wasn’t open, but if we’d all sat back and pondered this fact, no one would have bothered.

    FB set a new paradigm, too – the openness to developers within the Facebook walls is a slant we hadn’t thought of before: it sets your data free to a certain extent, which ultimately improves usability and stickiness. Which is what we’re all here for…right?

    Speaking of such things, has anyone seen or tried the Netvibes Facebook widget which does appear (possibly with some dodgy hacking?) to pull data out. Also there’s a little written-about set of Facebook feeds which at least bear some resemblance to externalising their data.

    Right, I’m off to check my Facebook account. Ooh, and look, there’s Andy. And Paul, and lots of other ideologically sound people. It’s amazing that they can stand it ;-)

  7. Michael Webb said

    There’s a lot of misinformation floating around about the subject of whether it’s possible to export Facebook’s own data or integrate it into other applications etc!

    Applications, whether embedded in Facebook or standalone application can access (and therefore export) Facebook data, although obviously the application can only access data available under the credentials of the user that it’s current running as. The fact that no developer has bothered doing this shows that there probably isn’t a lot of demand, but if I get a spare evening I’ll knock up a demo application to prove this! In the meantime the documentation is here:

  8. Paul Walk said

    And Paul, and lots of other ideologically sound people. It’s amazing that they can stand it ;-)

    The only thing I’m ideologically opposed to is Southampton Football Club ;-)

  9. i’ve recently succumbed and created an account on facebook, but only so that i can at some point have a play around Developing with the Facebook Platform and PHP.

  10. Just for the record… I did not argue against use of Fb. I am a regular Fb user. The group I referred to is a Fb group that suggests an improvement to the way Fb works. Using membership of that group to suggest that people should stop using Fb would be like writing a Word document to suggest that people stop using MS software! :-)

    What I argued is that Fb is a relatively closed platform and that this fact should be borne in mind considering how and when it is used.

  11. Peter Miller said

    Update on feeds available from Facebook:

  12. […] hype surrounding the Facebook platform has created a frenzy of hype – on it being a closed wall, on privacy and the right to users having control of their data, and of course the monetisation […]

  13. Facebook takes legal action against software for updating your status remotely.

  14. Hi Phil
    This is interesting. Last month TechCrunch commented on how Facebook were tackling software developers whose applications were felt to be unethical (e.g. spamming a users list of friends or displaying large ads). And then a few days ago Techncrunch described Facebook’s actions in stopping developers extending Facebook’s functionality.
    It was good to see Facebook responding to misuses of its platform. So is this second example a continuation of the policy – or are they overreacting and are actually issuing legal threats as a means of controlling their services?

  15. I don’t think they give two hoots about controlling their service, but that they do care about making sure people go to the site and hence see, and maybe click on, their ads.

  16. Hi Phil

    Funny you should say that – I can remember several years ago when UKOLN was first starting to promote the use of syndicated content various content providers in the higher education sector expressed similar concerns about losing visits to their Web site (in this case, not because of potential revenue losses, but because the users might not see the range of services they provide).

    And although the benefits of syndicating news feeds and blog posts may now be widely (if not universally) accepted, I still suspect many institutions will have a similar view to Facebook, and not want to lose their visitors.

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